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SHAUJAAT HUSAIN KHAN

Born into one of the most illustrious musical families in India, sitarist and vocalist Shujaat Husain Khan is one of today’s most notable artists in the realm of Indian classical music. Throughout his career, his work has been sparked by a deep love of the music of his homeland and an intellectual curiosity that has led Shujaat to invent new musical horizons, setting the pace for other artists to follow. Now, with his World Village debut, Hawa Hawa, Shujaat introduces international audiences to the sweet, evocative world of Indian folk music—a tradition to which he is devoted. “Those rhythms, that raw style of singing,” he declares passionately, “really does something to me.”

Shujaat adds that playing folk music makes special demands of players that are quite different than those required of musicians playing classical music. “You can be an incredibly virtuosic sitarist or vocalist,” he observes, “but in order to play folk, the music and emotions just have to boil out of you.” In Hawa Hawa, Shujaat weds superb technical mastery with sensitive and ardent interpretations of these folk tunes.

Shujaat first picked up the sitar at age three, playing a specially made custom instrument to suit his size. He represents the seventh generation in an unbroken family line of North Indian (Hindustani) master musicians. Among the illustrious names in this family are his grandfather, Ustad (“Master”) Inayat Khan, his great-grandfather Ustad Imdad Khan—after whom the Imdadkhani gharana, or school, is named, and his great-great-grandfather, Ustad Sahebdad Khan. The Imdadkhani school of North Indian classical music is especially famous for a technique called gayaki ang, in which the instrumentalist mimics the tones, inflections, and subtle phrasing of singers. Shujaat is the son and disciple of one of India’s great masters of the sitar, Ustad Vilayat Khan, who died unexpectedly earlier this year and from whom Shujaat has absorbed the art of playing in this gayaki ang style.

Because the traditions of poetry, singing, and instrumental playing are so strongly linked in the Imdadkhani legacy, Shujaat has an enormous repertoire of poetry to use in his own work—often, when giving a sitar recital, he bursts into song mid-performance. And because of his extraordinary family, he had the chance to learn from many elder masters from his earliest years. As such, he has a profound knowledge of hundreds of rarer ragas from the Indian classical repertoire. But as Hawa Hawa makes clear, while Shujaat has an unparalleled grounding in North Indian classical music, he has ventured into new territory by releasing a CD devoted entirely to folk songs.

Shujaat began his career in Indian classical music with his first public performance at age six. Since then, he has played at all the major music festivals in India and on stages across the world. In 2001, he was awarded the Rashtriya Kumar Gandharva Sammaan, India’s highest honor for a classical musician under the age of 45. As well as touring extensively, Shujaat teaches in India and abroad. He is currently a visiting professor at AHIRI, New York’s Indian classical music school. Ever eager to explore new musical frontiers, Shujaat is, along with Iranian kamancheh (spiked fiddle) virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor, the founder of the innovative ensemble Ghazal, whose work blends together elements of both Indian and Persian music.

While American and European fans have had exposure to North Indian classical music for decades, the rich and diverse folk traditions of the Indian subcontinent are far less well known abroad and even overlooked at home. Shujaat released a disc of folk music for the Indian market, entitled Lajo Lajo in 1997. While the album was a huge popular success, many other Indian artists and industry veterans questioned the decision of a classical player to record folk tunes—an idea that Shujaat says at the time “was unheard of.” The release of Lajo Lajo marked Shujaat as an original and innovative artist and brought him to a much wider audience.

Shujaat’s followup worldwide release, Hawa Hawa, brings together evocative sounds and striking poetry, creating unforgettable portraits of North India’s rural landscape. Working with two percussionists, the brothers Ravi and Rakesh (whom Shujaat praises for their sensitive accompaniment and nearly supernatural ability to anticipate each other’s ideas and gestures) as well as the poet Dahliya, Shujaat has created a pioneering release.

Shujaat says that folk music has been a lifelong love for him, an interest that he shares with his illustrious father. “My father used to spend time in villages in the state of Uttar Pradesh,” Shujaat recalls, “listening to folk music there, and I would go with him as a young boy. We would stay with friends who lived in grand houses and palaces. But while we were there, my father would talk to his friends’ workers. He would ask, ‘Do you know any good singers here?’ And he would arrange for these people to come and sing for him.” As an adult himself, Shujaat says, “When I traveled through villages, I would spread the word that I wanted to hear people’s songs. I did this not because I thought I would record folk music one day, but because I really enjoyed it.”

But the late Ustad Vilayat Khan’s love of folk styles remained a private passion—he never recorded this music. When Shujaat began performing and recording folk songs, he was going not just against the grain of India’s deeply hierarchical class structure, but also moving in a musical direction that was in many ways at odds with his family’s high classical tradition. Thanks to Shujaat’s bold risk-taking, audiences worldwide are now introduced to a rich and beautiful legacy. “Folk music,” Shujaat says, “is at the very root of all our classical music, the nectar which we all drink.”