Gleaming with silver and gold, light reflecting strings, brightly polished woods, and intriguing objects of all kinds, the Ali Akbar College Store hums with sounds: the music of a student or master testing a sarode, a tabla, a sitar, or the latest compact disc of Ali Akbar Khan or Swapan Chaudhuri. Ali Akbar Khan, the great sarodist, founded the Ali Akbar College of Music (AACM) in 1967; Swapan Chaudhuri, the master tabla player, has been its director of percussion for thirteen years.
Started mainly as a service to obtain instruments for the new students of North Indian classical music in what was then more of an idea than a school, The Store was also founded in 1967. From 1967 to 1974 the AACM moved, like an itinerant musician, from place to place. And, wherever the school went, The Store was sure to go. In the beginning The Store was run by students who worked for their tuition by helping other students obtain what they needed: a sitar, a sarode, a tabla, a tabla head, an esraj, a tanpura, some strings. Everything came from India. Slowly. It still does.
As the AACM grew and stabilized onto a single site, so, too, did The Store. Though still mainly for students, it began to serve a larger public. It had a space in Fairfax, later a room in San Anselmo, before moving to its present location in San Rafael.
A visit to the store may put you in the midst of the festive excitement that starts in the parking lot when one of the gigantic wooden-crated, straw-packed, fantastically colorful shipments arrives from India.
"It's here!" someone shouts and the crates are creaked open with hammer claws. Soon there are mounds of packing straw all around the sheltered parking area.
Someone holds up a long stick attached to a golden gourd edged with partly oxidized brass and sporting two strings. Bruce Hamm, the Store Manager says, in answer to a student's question: "It's an ektar." Next, the sitars emerge, in bags, the glitter of their strings and frets concealed. Then maybe a couple of sarodes. Even though they are considered by some to be the most beautiful sounding instrument in all of Indian music, sarodes are not big sellers.
"It's hard to learn, frightening, perhaps, because there are no frets." Again it is Bruce who speaks, barely visible from where he stands peering deep into one of the great crates.
Finally all the instruments stand ranked like exotic fruits, as unnameable to the casual observer as the famous durian of Thailand, and as legendary as the golden peaches of Samarkand. The straps of the tablas create a delicate zigzag design against their partly dark and partly gleaming bodies. The tabla rings, like so many oversized sari-ed doughnuts in blues and reds, mauves and pinks, and the tabla covers trimmed in golds and lace, stand stack on stack. The tabla is the big seller in the West.
One young student has uncrated a harmonium and sits near the driveway singing bhajans. Her high, clear voice and the wail of the instrument sing out over the traffic sounds from Second Avenue and the high spirited chatter of the unpackers of this shipment from Bombay.
Suddenly, Zakir Hussain is dashing up the drive. He's forgotten his ticket on his way to Sweden; he needs to make a phone call. His eyes fairly dance with delight as he sees the serried tablas. Even with but minutes to spare on his way to catch the plane, he has time to ring out "tun tun" and "na na" on a few tablas. "Are they Swami's drums?" He asks.
"No, they're Vishnus," replies Ben Kunin, the Assistant Manager.
Again on the drums: "Na na tun tun," then, pronouncing them a really great shipment, Zakir is gone.
The students and unpackers all but bow in reverence. Everyone laughs with delight. They feel as if the drums have been blessed. And they know they will be doubly blessed: A few are set aside for Swapan Chaudhuri to test when he returns in a day or two from his concert at Lincoln Center.
Unless you are an aficionado of the classical music of North India, this scene may sound like a dream sequence from a foreign film. And in a way it is, for the Ali Akbar College of Music Store is unique.
It is the largest and most respected store dealing in India instruments outside of India. Located in San Rafael at the AACM at 215 West End Avenue, it caters to Indian music devotees from all over the Bay Area, California, the United States, and to much of the rest of the Western world via mail order. Orders are shipped to North, Central and South America, Scandinavia, Latvia and all the European countries.
Though its awesomely beautiful stock is limited mostly to those instruments that are known in the West and that sell well, The Store can, in the way of India instruments, recordings, books, get you anything you want. It will take a bit of time. But for the treasure you receive, especially if you have ordered an instrument, it won't even be, by today's standards, much money.
A good beginning tabla, completely hand made by craftsmen whose work bespeaks generations of experience and training, can be bought for under $300. A sarode that will serve through your student years may cost as little as $600, or one by master craftsman Hemen, carved from a single piece of wood may be about $1,500. The sitar, the most popular of the Indian stringed instruments in the West, may vary from $500 up to $3,000 for one simliar to the kind played by Ravi Shankar.
If you are lucky enough to live in the Bay Area, you can come to The Store and browse. Two musicians with highly specialized training will be there to help you: Bruce Hamm, the Store Manager, an accomplished sarodist, who arrived at AACM in 1974; and Ben Kunin, Assistant Manager, also a fine sarodist and student of the tabla, who arrived -- a late comer by AACM standards -- in 1986.
To assure a standard of instrument worthy of being sold at the AACM Store, Bruce spends several months, every few years in India. It is one of the pleasures and obligations of his job to visit the instrument makers, the craftsmen, the dealers and the agents. For not only are the instruments made in the old way, but business is done in the personalized way it has always been done. With every visit Bruce learns to judge ever more precisely the quality and beauty of the instruments, the art that goes into their making. While he is in India, there is also the chance to hear the music in its original setting as well as to play to the audiences of India who are highly appreciative of the growing number of fine Western musicians who, by now, have devoted the requisite twenty or thirty years to their chosen discipline.
In Calcutta, one of the main centers of India's music world, Bruce will visit Hemen, the great stringed instrument maker; the fine sitar and tanpura makers, Hiren Roy and Sons, and Mridangam Sargam, Swapan Chaudhuri's personal drum maker. He will also visit Rikki Ram, a notable instrument maker in Delhi, and the fine tabla makers of Bombay.
At each place he will spend days personally testing instruments, or checking on the progress of a special order. Chai (Indian tea) will be served, and news of the music world will be exchanged. A large order will be placed, certain specifications will be emphasized. And three months, six months, a year later, one day when Bruce is sitting again in his cluttered office in San Rafael, someone will shout:"It's here!"
When the unpacking is complete and the sheer delight of handling objects that have been hand carved, hand polished, hand strung has been satisfyingly indulged, phone calls and notes will go out all over the country. The tablas will sell fast, especially when word about the shipments quality spreads. The sitars will go quickly, too, and the bansuris (bamboo flutes), the most inexpensive of the instruments, have a fair market, but the double reeded shehanais, of reddish wood and brass, will sell at the rate of about one a year. There are also dilrubas, esrajs, and sarangis. In addition to the tabla, the drums that are usually available in The Store are the ever popular pakhawajs, some dholaks and a few mridangams.
Not only is there a copious assortment of instruments in The Store itself, but more are kept upstairs in a classroom where students sit in ever tightening or expanding circles as the inventory ebbs and flows. This upstairs room also serves as a practice room. To practice tabla in there is to set several dozen bayas, the left hand chrome-plated drums of the tabla set, resonating in sympathy until a veritable symphony of echoing sound surrounds the diligent student.
All instruments in The Store are new, except a few that might be second hand, or another few waiting to be repaired by Brian Godden, the tall Australian wizard, who can bring life back to almost any instrument, even the crushed gourd of a sitar, or (by replacing it) the dog-chewed head of a tabla. He learned the art of instrument repair from his father, and has the reputation of being one of the finest Indian instrument repairers in the world.
Unlike the stringed instruments treasured by the Western world, the Stradivarius violins, for instance, age is never sought and almost never prized in the classical instruments of India. The alternating dry and monsoon weather in India is not easy on the precious gourds and rare woods such as teak or toon, rosewood or shishum from which the instruments are carved.
Ali Akbar Khan's concert sarode is a rare exception. He still plays the one his uncle, Ustad Ayet Ali Khan, carved for him sixty-three years ago. Made of teak and, by now, quite fragile, its goatskin head is replaced regularly, and it has been repaired several times by Brian after the mishaps which go with the hazards of frequent airline travel. But it is almost unique as an "antique" instrument among those that the masters play.
Nor are the old instruments necessarily more beautiful than their modern counterparts, for this is one of the few fields in which true craftsmanship has survived. The structure of the instruments is still evolving as, generation by generation, musicians explore subtle nuances of this 4,000 year old tradition that, to this day, is transmitted orally via the guru-disciple relationship. Antique instruments are, therefore, mostly for display in museums or in a connoisseur's home.
The Store, too, serves as a museum of sorts -- that rare kind of gallery where you can touch, hold and attempt to play each of the instruments, where you can take the time to find out if you, too, have a passion to master what has been acknowledged as possibly the most intricate musical system in the world.
In addition to the instruments, the Store carries a fine and full collection
of CDs, tapes, and LPs of all the great exponents of North Indian Classical
music. Open daily, except Sunday, you are welcome to come in to browse
or buy. You are also welcome, during school hours, to take off your shoes
and go upstairs to listen to the vocal, instrumental and drum classes of the
Ali Akbar College of Music. But beware! If you come to hear the disciples
of Saraswati play, like others before you, you may find you have become
captive of the music that imitates the beat of the human heart, the sweet
poignancy of the human voice -- the Classical music
of North India.
Selections from THE ALI AKBAR COLLEGE OF MUSIC STORE have appeared in India Currents Magazine, India Post, and on other Websites. playwright, Articles by Jan Haag about North Indian Classical Music available on Internet include THE GOLDEN DRUMMING OF SWAPAN CHAUDHURI, SISIR KONA DHAR CHOWDHURY, and LAXMI GANESH TEWARI.