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Artist Profiles: Humayun Khan

Humayun Khan

Humayun Khan is an excellent singer of North Indian classical music as well as the traditional folk and modern classical music of Afghanistan. 

Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, Khan’s family migrated to Washington, D.C. following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980.

Khan grew up in an environment rich in traditional music and literature. He studied with masters of classical music in both India and the United States. 

As a young child in Virginia, Khan followed the popular Afghan singer Ahmed Zahir, among others, but music was just an interest, not a passion or professional calling. 

In 1987, when he was 15, his father brought him to a concert by the renowned North Indian classical sitarist Ustad Vilayat Khan, accompanied by Zakir Hussain on tabla.  “At that time,” recalled Khan, “I was into football and things like that.  My father is a very laid back guy, but sometimes he gets strict about certain things.  And that day, he got very serious and said, ‘No, you have to go to this concert.’  So I went to this concert at the Kennedy Center, and that night changed my life.” 

Khan had begun playing tabla just a few months earlier and was learning basic rhythms, but when he heard Zakir Hussain, then in his mid-30s, “all of a sudden I see this guy just explode.  I couldn’t believe that was possible on this instrument.  That was the moment.  Something changed.  The next day, I began pulling out my father’s record collection.” 

Khan soon discovered the music of Afghan vocal master Mohammed Hussain Sarahang, one of the few internationally recognized musicians and maestros of Afghanistan.  Khan’s father had studied with Sarahang in his childhood in Kabul, and now he began teaching his newly intrigued son. 

Khan learned the fundamentals, ascending and descending scales, from his father and in 1990 moved on to deeper study of Indian classical music with sitar player Shubham Shankaran.  Once music became his “all-consuming obsession,” Khan then traveled to Calcutta, India, and began formal training with various teachers.  He recalled, “I was blessed to come into contact with one of the world masters of the sitar, Ustad Vilayat Khan.  He had fond memories of coming to Afghanistan in the 60s, so because of that and the blessing of my family, I developed a very special relationship with him.  This was something rare because he was not an easy person to become close to.” 

At the foothills of the Himalayas, Khan would spend periods of four to six months studying classical vocal music under maestro Vilayat Khan.  The arrangement is called guru-shisha-parampara (teacher-student-tradition)  “That’s when you live with your teacher,” said Khan, “ not just taking lessons, but studying his whole way of life.”  Vilayat Khan is credited with the introduction into instrumental music of the gayaki (vocal) style, which brought to the sitar the subtleties and expressiveness of the classical vocal tradition, of which he also has extensive practical and theoretical knowledge.

In 1995, Humayun Khan began studying with a senior Pakistani artist, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan.  Through all these experiences, he developed a performance style that ranges from purely classical khayal renditions to a classically-oriented presentation of the poetry of the great Persian masters Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi and Hafez Shirazi.

Khan began performing publicly in 1993, and became known for his talent as a vocalist and harmonium player.  He contributed to soundtracks for the films The Kama Sutra and The Journey.  He sang for the award-winning BBC radio feature, Monsoon.  He performed internationally at the Asilah International Festival in Morocco, The Kennedy Center, The National Cathedral and many other prestigious venues.  He shared the stage with some of the greatest legends of Indian classical music, including his teachers Vilayat Khan and Fateh Ali Khan, and even the man who first so inspired him, tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain.

In 2002, Khan met Afghan rubab virtuoso Homayun Sakhi at the Smithsonian Folkways Silk Road Festival on the National Mall in Washington, DC.  Khan was amazed and pleased to meet a player of the Afghan national instrument performing at such a deep level, and their collaboration led eventually to the formation of Sounds and Rhythms of Afghanistan (SARA), together with another Afghan musical virtuoso raised in the United States, tabla master Salar Nader.  “This group is special to me,” said Khan. “I perform in so many different styles, but this music is really what comes from my heart.  It has the Afghan tradition as well as the improvisation of the classical tradition.  So it’s a very good mix of all of our elements.”

In addition to performances of traditional and classical music, Khan regularly collaborates with some of the most well-known artists in the world music scene, including Grammy-winning Harmonica great Howard Levy, guitarist/producer Shahin Shahida, guitarist Lawson Rollins, Grammy-winning drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernández, and ud maestro Haj Youness.

Khan teaches master classes at several well-known universities, and his seminar “The Music of Rumi” is in great demand globally.

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