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'It's like losing John Coltrane, or Ray Charles'

June 20, 2009 11:48 IST

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, who passed away on Friday, was an inspiration in more ways than one for Derek Trucks, a rock guitar phenomenon with a growing, global fan following.

Trucks, who began playing guitar at age 9, was sitting in with legends like Buddy Guy and Bob Dylan by age 12, and who at 24 was the youngest on Rolling Stone's '100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time' list in 2003, told on the phone from Florida that when he first saw a video – from a drummer friend – of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan playing with Zakir Hussein – as a 14-year-old, "it was a life-changing event."

"It was just such a powerful sound, the dedication and devotion of the musicians was so obvious, so powerful! It re-emphasized the belief in what you love about music," said Trucks, whose signature sound is a hybrid of blues slide guitar, black vocal styles and Hindustani classical.

"When I heard the news [of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan's death], it was like losing Ray Charles, or John Coltrane, or Charlie Parker, you know. There probably couldn't be two-three musicians like him in the world," Trucks, who turned 30 years old June 8, said.

Trucks, a Grammy nominated artiste who has a new album out called Already Free, has been steeped in music from childhood, touring incessantly.

In 2006, he was part of three bands, playing in 17 countries. He was playing with Eric Clapton's band, with the British guitar god revisiting classics like Layla, which he recorded with the late Duane Allman, another of Trucks's big influences. Trucks also plays with The Allman Brothers Band, and his own Derek Trucks Band, which he formed when he was 15 and which has a huge cult following especially in United States university campuses.

As a teenage guitar prodigy touring across America, Trucks would drop by at the Ali Akbar College of Music in California.

"Whenever we were touring the West Coast, or you know, driving by, we would make it a point to visit the school. Sometimes he was there teaching, sometimes there were others, but we always made it a point to drop by," he said.

He said he sat in on six to eight classes with Khansahaab.

If you hear Trucks play tunes like the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's Maki Madni, you will be stunned, as we were, by how a white, young guitar player can sound so at home with the nuances of Hindustani and Sufi music. The Indianness of his sound is almost eerie, many of his songs have alaap-like sections, and it's almost impossible to believe he just took a few Indian music classes.

"That's because the amount of footage that we've seen of him [Ustad Khan] on the tour bus is way, way more," Trucks chuckled. "It also comes from falling asleep listening to him."

"There are two recordings, which are part of my 'desert-island' disc, you know! One is called Signature Series Volume II. Whenever I need to wipe the slate clean, I listen to it." 

His impressions of Khan sahaab as a person? "A very, very powerful musician and personality."

"I was fortunate to become friends with his family, his son Alam and his wife Mary," he added. "They were the most close-knit, sweet kind of family–like mine. It was so nice to see. Most musical families are not that together."

Trucks, an eclectic, return to roots, mainly slide-guitar player whose kind of rock music combines the blues, bits of jazz, African, and Indian music, is the nephew of Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks. Derek is married to Susan Tedeschi, a mean blues singer in her own right. They have two children, son Charles Khalil Trucks, 9, and daughter Sophia Naima Trucks. Charles gets his middle name from the author. And Naima is one of jazz legend John Coltrane's most haunting ballads.

Trucks and Tedeschi often perform and tour together, and they travel as a family. There too, he said, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was an inspiration.

"The focus on family and music -- it's inspiring to see that [about Ustad Khan's family]. You know, most musical families are not that together," said Trucks, who on June 22 begins a tour that will take him across America, to Canada, the UK, Germany, Italy and Japan. "A family that can put so much time and devotion into music and yet be so together, it is an inspiration for my own."

Sumit Bhattacharya