Sarod Master Steve Oda In His Guru’s Footsteps


Just a few months after immigrating to Canada in 1976, I attended my first live concert, a performance by one of the most revered musicians of raag sangeet, Swar Samrat (the emperor of notes) Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

Listening to the legendary sarod maestro, I felt like someone who hit a hole-in-one on a first visit to a golf course. I had always enjoyed raag sangeet on recordings, but watching it performed live by one of its greatest exponents hooked me forever.

At this concert, I saw Steve Oda, a Sansei (third-generation) Japanese Canadian, accompanying Khan saheb on tanpura. It seemed to me rather incongruous at that time to see a non-Indian providing accompaniment. After all, a musician generally asks a trusted senior student to play the drone that serves as a “canvas” on which an artist “paints” raags.

Having just emigrated from Tanzania, I was not aware of the nascent community of raag sangeet aficionados and performers that included many non-Indians across North America.

I found out later that Steve had been a long-time disciple of Khan saheb. Soon I too joined this community of aficionados. I fondly recall many baithaks organized by the percussionist Bob Becker, who subsequently played tabla at Raag-Mala concerts in our early years.

Steve’s parents were born in British Columbia and grew up in the Depression era. However, they lost everything when their homes and business were confiscated by the Canadian government during the Second World War as a result of anti-Japanese hysteria. Following the war, they weren’t allowed back to their homes in BC, and so relocated to Toronto where Steve was born.

Growing up in Toronto (which was 99 per cent-plus Caucasian at the time), Steve loved music and wanted lessons on piano. His parents, however, could not afford them, so he took up the guitar. He entered his teen years wanting to be a musician but his parents insisted on a profession other than music.

Steve graduated in engineering from the University of Toronto, and became a research engineer at Ontario Hydro. His love of music continued.

“It was by far the best way I could express myself,” he says. “This led me to more guitar-playing and to jazz.”

In 1969, when he was struggling to find a sarod teacher in Toronto, Steve came upon this quotation by Khan saheb from the Music College’s pamphlet:

“Our sages developed music from time immemorial for our mind to take shelter in that pure being which stands apart from the body and mind as one’s true self. Real music is not for wealth, not for honours or even for the joys of the mind – but as a path for realization and salvation. This is what I truly feel.”

“This quote exemplifies my feelings on learning this great art music,” he says.

In the same year he had the great fortune of meeting Pandit Ravi Shankar in Toronto. Raviji graciously helped Steve start learning sarod in Los Angeles from his nephew (and Khan saheb’s son), Ustad Aashish Khan. Steve made his first trip to LA in 1970. Raviji had made arrangements for him to stay with the great tabla maestro, Ustad Alla Rakha, who happened to live next door to Ustad Aashish Khan.

Steve started learning from Ustad Aashish Khan in 1971, and then from Khan saheb himself in 1973, making regular trips over the next 20 years to the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, California, while holding a job in Toronto as an engineer.

In 1996, Steve received a prestigious Canada Council artist’s grant to pursue intensive studies at an advanced level with Khan saheb.

After a career of more than 25 years Steve left his engineering work and began his second career to focus on his passion – music.

He moved to the San Francisco Bay area with his wife Pushpa in 1998 to serve as the Music College’s Executive Director for two years, and currently lives near San Francisco, actively teaching and performing this beautiful music.

I had seen Steve accompany his gurus a few more times in Toronto, however, it wasn’t until January 2020 that I finally got to hear him as a soloist. He performed at the Sarbari Roy Chowdhury Festival at Shantiniketan.

On my Facebook post that day, I mentioned that “he played a beautiful raag Nat Bhairav – the second piece in the jhaptaal was especially lyrical and gorgeous.”

Toronto audiences will have a chance to hear Steve in the spring.

• Mohamed Khaki is a Raag-Mala Toronto team member.