Cassius Khan: Understanding the divine process of Indian classical musicality

Tabla player and singer Cassius Khan.| Photo courtesy of Cassius Khan.

Sal Ferreras brings Drum Heat to the Vogue Theatre on April 27, featuring vocalist and tabla player Cassius Khan. Khan is the only professionally recognized performing artist to simultaneously play the tabla and sing in the style of ghazal, something for which he has been awarded the coveted title of “Ustad” or maestro – the highest award in Indian classical music.

“It’s a great honour to have that title, given in recognition to my contribution to Indian classical music through singing and playing the tabla. That’s how it all began, and basically I practise every day so I can keep it up,” says Khan.

Musically gifted

From a very early age, it was clear that now-renowned tabla player and singer Cassius Khan had a natural gift for music. He recalls being well-versed in the mathematics tabla rhythms (a South Asian percussive instrument consisting of two drums), as well as various “ragas” (sets of Indian classical music scales and rules). Khan attributes this natural gift for music to reincarnation, due to this understanding coming before any formal training.

“I believe that music was something that, for me, probably came through reincarnation. My parents were both quite stupefied by my knowing all this already, and as I got older, I met the masters I started learning from, and they inspired me further,” says Khan.

Born in Fiji to parents of Indian heritage, and living most of his life in Canada, Khan begun practising music from the age of six, and started touring internationally at just 13-years-old. But beyond already being well-versed in the tenets of Indian classical music, what truly stood Khan apart from others was his unique talent: singing in the style of ghazal, while simultaneously playing the tabla.

Khan is the only recognized professional Indian classical music performer to achieve such a feat (which requires intense concentration both in playing tabla and in singing ghazal), and he remembers the performance where his teachers told him this was by no means a common ability.

“I sang a composition and I would play the tabla at the same time, and when I was done all I remember is everyone being very quiet,” recounts Khan. “I asked, ‘Why are you looking at me like that, did I do something wrong?’” And they said ‘No, but no one has ever done that before.’”

Khan took his gurus’ advice of pursuing this technique, but he says other performers have relayed to him that attempts at this simultaneous singing and tabla playing style have proved relatively fruitless.

Khan, himself a teacher, has found similar results with his students who have been keen to attempt the style, but he remains hopeful the technique will eventually be discovered.

“I’m pretty sure that… somebody else will come up with it, but being the first person recognized in Indian classical music to do this, that this is the “Cassius Khan contribution” to the field of Indian classical music, is quite flattering for me, so I feel quite special about that,” says Khan.

Divine process of composing music

Like many other Indian classical performers, Khan composes and performs all of his own music. But for Khan, the process of composing is something more divine than other forms of art, in fact, Khan questions the idea of being able to name music as an art.

“I’ve always believed that music is not an art… because art is only understood by human beings, whereas music is understood not just by us, but by plants and animals as well,” says Khan. “I’ve seen animals react to music in a very beautiful way: the elephant will dance when it hears the rhythm of the pakhavaj (an Indian two-headed drum), and the snake spreads it hood when the snake charmer plays. I think of all of those things when I’m composing or playing music.”

Whether it’s for himself, in his own performances and composition, or for students or other performers, Khan offers advice in terms of growing musically that offers insight to life in general.

“Like a ‘mountain peak’, every time it seems closer, it again seems farther away, and as a musician I always strive, no matter what age I am. I will always be a good student of music; I keep learning every day from other brilliant musicians or other people in general,” says Khan. “The more you learn, the more knowledge you absorb, the better you become.”


For more information on the event,

And for more on Khan, visit