We all know the sound of the sitar, thanks primarily to the pioneering Western incursions by the late, great Pandit Ravi Shankar, with an assist from The Beatles. But the sarod? It rivals the sitar for supremacy among the leading instruments of Hindustani (northern Indian) classical music. But I suspect for most westerners attuned to the sitar’s delicate, perfumed tone, the robust, mournful twang of the sarod may come as a surprise. Give a listen to these clips, and see if you don’t get why I think of it as the Indian dobro:
Hear what I mean? Of course, there are differences. For one, unlike the sarod, the dobro has frets, though it’s usually played in slide-guitar fashion, allowing the player to explore the microtones between the usual notes of the scale. Also, whereas the dobro has just six strings, the sarod has upwards of two dozen. That’s a lot of tuning! Actually, only five or so are used for the melody. Two chikari (drone) strings are played to reinforce the tonality (“key”) of the piece, like their counterpart on the five-string banjo. And the remainder are not played, but vibrate sympathetically while the other strings are plucked, adding more body and depth to the instrument’s tone. Such sympathetic strings can also be found not just in other Asian instruments, but also in such curious Western beasts as the viola d’amore. Finally, the dobro, of course, plays both melodies and chords. On the other hand, there are no chords, and no chord progressions or (as jazz musicians would call them) “changes” in traditional Indian music. It’s “just” melody, drone and rhythm. But in the hands of masters, that’s plenty.
Well, it y0u’re going to post examples of instruments, you might as well go for the best. For the dobro, that’s Jerry Douglas. And for the sarod, that’s the masterful, 68-year old virtuoso Amjad Ali Khan — who, it just so happens, is appearing with his ensemble at the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center this Saturday evening. Just in case one sarod isn’t enough for you, his two sons will add their own to the festivities, along with two tabla drummers. No brag, just fact: On Saturday night, some of the best music in the world will be right here in the Valley. I hope to see you there.