Tools of the Trade: Sarod by
by Simon Broughton for Songlines-The World Music Magazine
Like chicken tikka, the sarod is a sublime product of the Moghul influence in India. Simon Broughton learns the secrets of the instrument from its leading contemporary virtuoso, Amjad Ali Khan

first encountered it at the BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall in 1994 when a sarod recital at 2am was the finale of a late night concert of Indian music. It was a revelation –Amjad Ali Khan, distinguished and silver-haired, leading a refined journey into musical equivalents of the Taj Mahal, Moghul palaces and hilltop fortresses. Elegance and refinement, supported by a cohesive structure and deep foundations.
The sarod is much smaller than the sitar. It sits comfortably in the player’s lap and is leaner and cleaner in sound, without that predominant jangling of sympathetic strings. The sarod has resonant sympathetic strings, but they are fewer and far less prominent in the soundscape. Still, it’s no less demanding to play. “People like to talk about the king or prince of sarod, but actually I’m the slave of sarod,” laughs Amjad Ali Khan acknowledging how hard it is to master, yet also confident that no one is likely to outshine him. “I am devoted to it and I always want to try and find out what it wants to say.”

Amjad Ali Khan, born in Gwalior (Madhya Pradesh) in 1945, is the sixth-generation sarod player in his family and his ancestors have developed and shaped the instrument over several hundred years. “You could say it’s my family instrument”, he says with justifiable pride. “Whoever is playing the sarod today learned
directly or indirectly from my forefathers.”
The singing sarod
The instrument speaks eloquently of the close connections between India and Afghanistan and the Persian world. Architecture, food and music are amongst the great hybrids born of the Islamic invasion of northern India through Afghanistan. The sound of the sarod as we know it today is distinctly Indian in character, but it links to the sinewy, muscular style

of the Afghan rabab - a wooden Central Asian lute, covered with skin. For Amjad Ali Khan it’s the tone quality that’s the attraction: “The skin makes the sound very human - it’s not wooden. It has flexibility, sensitivity and depth.” The sound of the sarod is dominated by the singing, vocal tone of its melodic strings. Many instrumentalists -
including violinists, clarinettists, sarangi and sitar players - like to compare the sound of their instruments to the human voice. And sarod players are no exception. “I actually spend as much time singing as playing,” admits Amjad Ali Khan and through his father he learned about applying the vocal traditions of dhrupad and khayal to his instrument.

“I am singing through my instrument,” he says. One of the principal modifications of the sarod from the Afghan rabab is its long metal fingerboard, which allows swooping melismatic slides between the melody notes. This is something you can’t do on fretted instruments. This is a big advantage of the sarod over the sitar”, he explains. “On the sitar you have to pull the string sideways to create the slides. And you can’t pull that far - not more than 3 or 4 notes. But on the sarod you can slide over 7 notes or more, skating up the fingerboard.” As well as this lyrical, vocal style, Amjad Ali Khan is renowned for his fast staccato passages up and down the instrument - something he has made very much his own. This is the latest addition to a long tradition of sarod playing and Amjad Ali Kahn’s two sons, Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash, are now taking it forward to the next generation. As with the Griots of West Africa, lineage and family are hugely important in Indian music. You wonder what would have happened had one of Amjad Ali Khan’s sons said they were more interested in the electronic keyboard, or accountancy!
The singing sarod
The instrument speaks eloquently of the close connections between India and Afghanistan and the Persian world. Architecture, food and music are amongst the great hybrids born of the Islamic invasion of northern India through Afghanistan. The sound of the sarod as we know it today is distinctly Indian in character, but it links to the sinewy, muscular style

of the Afghan rabab - a wooden Central Asian lute, covered with skin. For Amjad Ali Khan it’s the tone quality that’s the attraction: “The skin makes the sound very human - it’s not wooden. It has flexibility, sensitivity and depth.” The sound of the sarod is dominated by the singing, vocal tone of its melodic strings. Many instrumentalists -
including violinists, clarinettists, sarangi and sitar players - like to compare the sound of their instruments to the human voice. And sarod players are no exception. “I actually spend as much time singing as playing,” admits Amjad Ali Khan and through his father he learned about applying the vocal traditions of dhrupad and khayal to his instrument.

“I am singing through my instrument,” he says. One of the principal modifications of the sarod from the Afghan rabab is its long metal fingerboard, which allows swooping melismatic slides between the melody notes. This is something you can’t do on fretted instruments. This is a big advantage of the sarod over the sitar”, he explains. “On the sitar you have to pull the string sideways to create the slides. And you can’t pull that far - not more than 3 or 4 notes. But on the sarod you can slide over 7 notes or more, skating up the fingerboard.” As well as this lyrical, vocal style, Amjad Ali Khan is renowned for his fast staccato passages up and down the instrument - something he has made very much his own. This is the latest addition to a long tradition of sarod playing and Amjad Ali Kahn’s two sons, Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash, are now taking it forward to the next generation. As with the Griots of West Africa, lineage and family are hugely important in Indian music. You wonder what would have happened had one of Amjad Ali Khan’s sons said they were more interested in the electronic keyboard, or accountancy!