As a kid, Ken Zuckerman wanted to be a professional baseball player. American-born, he moved to Basel (Switzerland) with his parents when he was very young. Singing came naturally to him, but it was one of the many activities he was engaged in as a child. He learned the piano for a while and then discontinued. When he was 8 years old, he was introduced to the guitar, which he continued playing till he reached his twenties.
Zuckerman’s family had great appreciation for music, but hardly any inclination to become a musician. In fact, he has fond memories of his father’s riposte whenever asked about his connection to music. “I play the tape-recorder,” he would say jokingly.
Today, Zuckerman enjoys the status of one of the most acclaimed sarod players of the world. He is the finest example of a non-Indian taking to Indian classical music and making a successful career out of it. It took a while for him to understand that making music made him the happiest. However, his journey till the day he picked up the sarod is a rather zig-zag path filled with incredible happenings.
As a musician and a human being, he is known for his sensitivity, openness and an undisguised passion for Indian classical music.
During his teens, when his family saw his keenness in music, they arranged for music lessons. He studied mediaeval and post-mediaeval western music at the Music Academy in Basel. At 21, Zuckerman sent his mother into a tizzy when he expressed that although he was going to college in the US, all he wanted to do was music.
At 20, Zuckerman attended (and heard) his first Indian classical concert at his college in Iowa, where the department of music had invited Ustad Ali Akbar Khan to come and perform along with Pandit Shankar Ghosh. Finding nothing interesting playing in the theatres that evening, he decided to attend the concert to while away the evening. Little did he know that by doing so, he was about to change his life’s destiny.
At the end of the concert, Zuckerman learned about the Ali Akbar Music College; During spring break, he drove all the way to California to see the college. The incredible power and vigour of Indian classical music touched him immediately as he heard Ustad Khan play and teach there. Zuckerman immediately decided that he wanted to try out this repertoire and at the next opportune moment that arrived with the 6-week long summer break, he enrolled himself at the college and became a disciple of Ustad Khan.
Zuckerman first started on a sitar and continued playing on it for a year. As a habit, he never learned music by reading notations. This coincided as a great help when he started learning Hindustani classical music under Ustad Khan. However, the sitting posture on the floor became the only painful hurdle in the beginning. A year later, he got attracted to the sound of the sarod. Zuckerman contemplated a change, but moments of indecision kept him from making a switch. Finally, the dilemma was resolved following a dream where he saw Ustad Khan hand him a sarod. The very next day, Zuckerman began his journey anew with the sarod.
Zuckerman worked hard on his music and slowly started getting noticed for his talent. This was a big deal since Ustad Khan was never given to false praises or appreciation. During his 8th year at the college, Ustad Khan chose him as the ‘gandabandh’ disciple, a ceremony where the guru ties a thread around the student’s wrist, formalising a closer relationship, bond and a more intimate method of advanced learning.
He has learned for 37 years till Ustad Khan passed away. However, he still feels deeply connected to his guru, learning from his recordings, listening to and playing along with them in his music room.
“I am so lucky that my first contact in Indian classical music was with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan; Who could I have asked for a better teacher but him? I still share a deep bond with him and for me, he will be alive” he says.
Zuckerman has never looked back in his career for the choices he made. Soon enough, he started performing concerts in the US and Europe and then upon the advice of Ustad Zakir Hussain, began touring in India every year to reach out to audiences. In the year 1985, his guru founded the Ali Akbar College of Music in Basel and asked him to run it.
The college is a non-profit institution that thrives on donations from generous individuals and organisations based in Europe and America and also with the help of the close friends he had made while at the college in California, like Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, who visits every year to give lessons. It follows a curriculum based on the one devised by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan in California. Zuckerman also holds a senior position as a faculty at the Music Academy in Basel, where he had started his journey in music as a teenager.
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