Around the year 1985, Al Gromer Khan began setting up his own sound studio “The Paisley Room” in Munich, which is a simple room with an elevated wooden platform that has a double folded woolen blanket on it. Sitting on this, Al does his daily 3 hour sitar practice and contemplation, as well as composing and recording his work. Here he began exploring and designing the “Paisley Style” which was the outcome of his “intoxicated” years.
Within 10 years, Al recorded eleven CDs that included those very typical “Paisley melodies” like “The Air Ornaments,” “The Perfumed Garden,” “The Paisley Handicap,” “After the Crash,” “The God Perfume,” and “Chad and Roses.” He also put down his 99 Principles. They are a written manifesto towards a new contemplative world music. The first one of them says: Only one in love can write a love song.
Al Gromer Khan is an internationally acclaimed sitar instrumentalist and composer who has pioneered in the fields of ambient and world music for over twenty years. He was born April 8, 1946 at Castle Honenthann situated at the alpine foothills of Bavaria near Lake Constance. He spent his early years in England, Morocco and India, where his father worked in the Foreign Office. As a child, his first musical fascination was the melodious bells which are worn by the Bavarian cows as they graze in alpine meadows.
From the start he rejected any academic or diplomatic careers his parents expected him to take up. Even as a youngster, he was drawn to the mysteries of sound, be it from the refined ornamentation of Indian stringed instruments, the drums of North Africa or even the “singing” telephone wires in the freezing deep of Bavarian winters. Very soon he discovered the fascinating factors of “Music from a distance,” and “Music as perfume” as he calls it. These principles came to him on a stormy spring night when, waking from sleep, he discovered waves of sound stemming from a Bavarian village brass band, that was practicing some miles away. And even though he knew that they were not very good players it nevertheless evoked enormous feelings of bliss inside of him. That night he aspired to, one day, produce a similar “abstract” type of sound-poetry that had an effect on the listener as if it had its source far away in the distance in terms of time and space.
This was way back in the 1950s, certainly a long time before so-called space music came into being. The swinging 1960s in London put 20-year-old Al Gromer – “probably the first long haired hippie” – in touch with an amazing mixture of colorful personalities with whom he entered into a number of multicultural musical experiments, and who were to have a lasting influence on him: The Prince Tiane na Champassak of Laos introduced him to tantric art, and popstar Marc Bolan invited him to all-night musical jam sessions. With Mike Figgins, today a successful Hollywood film director, he explored psycho-acoustic phenomena. Master Jazz saxophonist Ronnie Scott of Ronnie Scott’s Jazzclub fame introduced Al to the giants of jazz like Ben Webster, Max Roach and Miles Davis. Macrobiotics guru Sam Gregs introduced him to the subtleties of “you are what you eat” and Cat Stevens, now Yussuf Islam, to English poetry.
There were many musicians of many backgrounds who helped shape Al’s musical personality during that period of 1965 to around 1969. “The main contributing factor that eventually led me to my own musical ‘ritual’ Paisley Music, was that I never really felt at home in the different types of music that I had studied or been in contact with. All these styles and traditions seemed to be very much set in their ways and I was looking for a type of musical expression that combined all of these, yet was beyond all of them, a type of music that was more universal and at the same time more subtle than most of them.”
Thus it was inevitable that the most fateful musical influence on his career was yet to come. It came in the nobility of grace and style combined in one person, Ustad Milayat Khan, the great master of Indian sitar music in the year 1968. Upon his return from India in the year 1971, already an accomplished sitar player, Al returned to Bavaria where he kept up his daily sitar practice and continued taking part in a number of projects of new international music. Amon Duul and Popol Vuh and Deuter were among those involved.
“I remember, around the year 1971, handing Deuter a small book entitled “I am the Gate” as I thought he might find it interesting; he took the book and must have read it too because the writer, who was Shri ‘Rajnesh,’ later became George’s spiritual master. ”
The meeting with Vilayat Khan had such an impact on Al Gromer’s young life, yet old soul, such powerful and precious memories from other lifetimes and worlds, that it led him to study and “practice” Indian music exclusively. He spent 10 years studying with Imrat Khan, who in the traditional Ghanda-Ceremony accepted him into the dynasty of Khans, and another 10 years of intensive study of live-recordings of Vilayat Khan in a small room in Munich.
“In those years I was so intoxicated by Vilayat Khan’s flowery melodies that I would hardly think about anything else or talk about anything else to any visitor. I even forgot to eat, and unless my beloved wife Ute had sustained me with food and money in those days, I’m certain that I would not be here today at all. I remember sitting on my folded woolen blanket in the middle of the night, a half empty cup of tea in front of me, tears of joy streaming down my face, laughter bubbling from my small cassette recorder… The idea that any man my age could be motivated to do business for money’s sake seemed absurd, when all you needed was access to the privacy of your own soul via music and a good cup of tea.”
This intoxicated period lasted until the late 1980’s when his estranged 13-year old daughter appeared, needing money for support. At this point Al decided that it was time to share his visions, precious deja-vu and his access to the more refined areas of the human soul with his audience.
“What certainty started to arise in my mind, that there was roughly half a million people out there in the world, who, deep inside of themselves long for an emotional expression of exactly the type that I was so overpowered with. I decided, the only way to reach these kindred spirits in style and mood, was not only through performing sitar music in live situations but also through recorded music. Thus I began creating a new soundscape type of recorded music that was meant to seduce the listeners, rather than overpower them with volume, too many notes, too high an intensity of expression or a suffocating fixed structure. The CD seemed to be an ideal format for this kind of endeavor. I began feeling very strongly about this emotionally. It began dawning on me that not everybody was born with such a disposition to be able to explore human emotions as deeply and widely with music, being so much pushed to the limit as I was, I felt that – in a day and age where technology and the rational mind have become the main motivating factor in human behavior – I had to reach these people and show them: ‘Look, these are indeed strange and extraordinary times that we’re living in, times in which some of the most destructive emotions and perverted ideas are expressed in music. There is a higher plan for all this. No need to despair, even if weird emotions flood your mind, if nothing in the outer world is making any sense and you feel severely isolated, don’t worry, people of the soul are still around and they are working with music and music provides them with hope and strength. Vilayat Khan, one of the highest and mystical known musicians of this century gave me this certainty while in a trance state after performance. I had come to him with a troubled mind. He embraced me and told me this: you are my own, your music is protected and blessed and will reach many lovers of music. The other reason why, at 40, I began thinking of making recordings of my music was more mundane: I needed to make money to support my daughter…”
Thus, around the year 1985, Al began setting up his own sound studio “The Paisley Room” in Munich, which is a simple room with an elevated wooden platform that has a double folded woolen blanket on it. Sitting on this, Al does his daily 3 hour sitar practice and contemplation, as well as composing and recording his work. Here he began exploring and designing the “Paisley Style” which was the outcome of his “intoxicated” years.
Within 10 years Al recorded eleven CDs that included those very typical “Paisley melodies” like “The Air Ornaments,” “The Perfumed Garden,” “The Paisley Handicap,” “After the Crash,” “The God Perfume,” and “Chad and Roses.” He also put down his 99 Principles. They are a written manifesto towards a new contemplative world music. The first one of them says: Only one in love can write a love song. And out of this first principle the other 98 principles evolve. In other words: the first principle – if contemplated – contains and will reveal all the other 98 principles. The essence of Al’s “manifesto” is this: If you want to make beautiful music, then first of all the person should be beautiful. An interesting person will automatically make beautiful and interesting music. All else, including practice, study, and technical and technological means are secondary.
“…keep things simple” says Al, “if you develop your own simple and true ritual, the beauty and complexity of music will manifest of its own accord.”
Al also criticizes the arrogance of western academic composers of, what they call, ‘Classical music'; “On account of the severe climatic conditions of the northern hemisphere we find an over concern with material means of survival which in turn has lead to an over concern with rigid structure in what they call ‘classical music.’ Unless you keep the structure simple, the entire dimension of improvisation is missing, and without improvisation any attempt to translate to a higher and emotionally more refined musical plane is futile.”
“I would also like to remind my American listeners of the beautiful heritage of the American Indian tribes. These people could, in fact, have shown us how to live a life that makes sense in terms of spirit and environment, simply by reducing the scale of operations. In other words: Once you gain access to more refined areas of the subconscious mind through subtle types of music, there will be no need for sophisticated technical leisure equipment: you’ll be content with just going outside and sitting under a tree…”
Today, at 51, Al Khan lives and works in Munich. He has chosen an understated lifestyle that goes with his style of music: Quiet yet persistent. Suggesting things rather than spelling them out. Giving his audience a chance to discover hidden secrets like treasures in a ruin. Leaving pauses that serve as resting spaces between the notes and which in turn serve as triggers for the listener’s imagination.
“I have always loved my status as an underground artist, as long as I’ll be able to reach those people whom I wanted to address in the first place. My greatest achievement is the pauses that I have left between the notes… and if you try really hard in life you may keep on finding “important” things to neglect… ha ha ha.” – Al Gromer Khan
“Mecca is in your Heart” by Al Gromer Khan
It was the will of Allah that, as institutions, the great religions of the world are now past their ‘best use before’ dates, and it has always been the privilege of those with their intuition intact to cut through institutions and traditions in order to get to the truth.
One feels drawn to certain types of persons with certain preferences: rose oil from exquisite flasks, and sandalwood oil, types of sound, the sky on ‘wide open sky days.’ One tries to make spiritual sense of the bizarre cultural setting that one finds oneself in. One draws inspiration from the East, knowing well that the east is more than ready to sell out. One emotionally connects with the former periods of Islam, feels at home in and inspired by the intricacies of Persian and Arabic art and design and irresistibly drawn to the sufis, the ecstatic freewheelers. On the other hand, one clearly wants nothing to do with the sacrificial slaughterings, the kebab-sticks, the victories on the material plane. One has stopped looking for solutions the world, begun to shed baggage, begun to move things to a smaller scale, to rely on small rituals, formulas, practice.
Can one set a spiritual reality against Californian style capitalism, taking into account the ‘total love of Allah’ that is called for by the Sufis, and not end up feeling like a hypocrite?
The first thing they ask you when visiting an ancient mosque or one of the dargahs of the great Sufi saints is, are you a Muslim? They don’t ask you, are you irresistibly drawn to the God-intoxicated? No, they ask: are you a Muslim? The idea of confirmation through majorities and acceptance via membership rings out the resounds; an idea that has always bemused me when getting in touch with religious societies. I have always reacted sensitively when not treated as an individual but treated as a ‘member,’ even if, subsequently, certain social favors were denied me. Preselection becomes totally absurd when dealing with God-mad masts and majzoobs at the holy places of the Sufis.
But if I were going to call myself a Sufi I would want to make sure that the quest would not consist of traveling far, joining the right brotherhood, attending discourses without being ready to reprogram and recondition the beholder first. Should the beholder, on the other hand, undergo even a slight change, then beauty may reveal itself automatically making “membership” of another faith superfluous. The great religions of the word have had the last 2,000 years to prove that they are always good for a bout of bloodshed, war, cruelty, and have thus managed to outmode themselves for the requirements of the spirit.
The intense poetry of longing of the Sufi will somehow find it’s way, independently from and transcending – or should I say: “trance-scending” tradition, culture, and color of skin. Why is it that when thinking of the great saints of India like Zipra Baba of Nasirabad, Meher Baba, Swami Samarth, Nityananda of Ganeshpuri, Sai Baba of Shirdi, Nizam ud-din Auliya, one never even begins to think of their respective original religion? How many of those giants of spirituality would say “We’re Muslims?” Does it matter? No. Why not try and connect with them directly, without concerning ourselves with their original religious backgrounds?
Every age requires – and provides – a new and adequate path for the soul, with the respective paths of a previous age being mercilessly lead into oblivion by the wheels of time. There’s the Sufi carpet salesman in Istanbul who has his Sufi wisdom ready just a little too quickly; you should have money in your pocket, not in your heart. Absolutely. That was when the “Sufi” inside me spoke: “Those who have money in their pockets usually have it in their hearts as well…” But I didn’t tell him that. Islam’s greatness cannot be doubted, at least on a spiritual, a timeless level. In terms of culture and in society’s terms, and to one who prefers not to eat anything that walks and has a face, traditional slaughterings and consumption of animals, and mindless fundamentalism clearly have no place in the age of tolerance and global brotherhood, the advent of which one would like to see.
Personally, I relish the fastidious and irrational side of all things spiritual. Now, just to annoy Professor Schimmel (Harvard and Bonn) let me pronounce Sufism A State of Being rather than a traditional Islamic phenomenon, for there may well evolve a tribe of “Sufis” independently from Islam yet.
“…doing the work of God, and making things better for him,” Cat Stevens (since 1978 Yusuf Islam) sang out in eye-opening fashion in 1972 (for the benefit of Frau Schimmel?), while it remains doubtful if a woolen dervish coat and an Arabic name will make you a better Sufi.
The one person to translate music to a higher and universal plane and who bewitched my life so utterly with the high and intricate poetry inside music is sitar layer Ustad Vilayat Khan; and when I spoke to him about sufism, he said my religion is music. This turn of phrase wasn’t entirely new, but in the case of Vilayat Khan it gained new meaning: he managed to demonstrate how just a small fragment of music can open a door to another reality, turning it into a base for sadhana. That’s the kind of sufism I like: one that works from direct and authentic experience. And Imrat Khan who taught me sitar, also taught me another, perhaps even more essential, lesson: he said ‘Subhan Allah,’ whenever he experienced something utterly satisfying or uplifting. I never forgot this. It had something so essential, so final, about it that I never felt the need to convert to Islam. There seemed to be nothing beyond Subhan Allah to perceive, nothing more to look for in tradition and orthodoxy, nothing more in discourses, mosques, geographical places.
To question God is for infants. To question one’s own mind, trying to improve it, is for children. To understand that we are here in order to make experience is for adolescents. But to realize that we are here for one purpose and one purpose alone: and that is to worship, that’s for the strong and the mature. And it’s the firs step. Here, perhaps, the work of the Sufi can begin.
Al Gromer Khan, Munich – Jasmin Day 2000