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Shakti’s Grammy Award for Best Global Music Album seems like a thank-you note from world music. Band members John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain have been pioneers in bridging two oceans of knowledge – the harmonic complexity of jazz and the melodic and rhythmic intensity of Indian music. Had there been no Shakti, perhaps there would be no Best Global Music Album category.
Pandit Ravi Shankar introduced Indian music to the world. But it was McLaughlin and Hussain’s band that permanently unlocked the barrier between jazz and Indian classical music, using their common key of improvisation.
Bollywood and The Beatles | Before Shakti took shape in mid 1970s, East was east and West was west. There were sporadic crosscurrents. For example, jazz saxophone giant John Coltrane was so influenced by Pandit Ravi Shankar that he named his son after India’s sitar legend. The Beatles had incorporated the sitar. R D Burman was trying to bring Woodstock sound to Bollywood.
Friendship and spirituality | But it was only when John McLaughlin met Ustad Zakir Hussain that the music of West and East truly met and fusion music was truly born, with both jazz and Indian classical flowing equally. Basically McLaughlin meeting Hussain in 1969, and their friendship, changed the course of global music. It opened the doors of West for Indian music and musicians, and of Indian music for the world.
The British jazz guitarist was already seeking inroads into Eastern spirituality, via Ramana Maharishi’s teachings and London’s Theosophical Society. Hussain was already a prodigy, touring with his father, legendary tabla player Alla Rakha, who let his teenage son hang with Grateful Dead through flower-power-era America.
Guitar and veena | McLaughlin and Hussain met via a shop-owner at Greenwich Village in New York. The tabla maestro gave a vocal lesson to the guitar virtuoso. Around four years later, Hussain saw McLaughlin perform with his Mahavishnu Orchestra. By then, the guitarist was learning the veena under S Ramanathan at Wesleyan College, Connecticut. He had already achieved superstar status, having played in seminal albums such as jazz icon Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew.
McLaughlin and Hussain played together for the first time in the living room of sarod legend Ustad Ali Akbar Khan in California. They hit the ground running and have been running ever since.
Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha | At one of Shakti’s early concerts, Ravi Shankar had asked Alla Rakha: “What are these boys doing?” The sitar maestro took McLaughlin under his wing, teaching him Carnatic music’s intricacies. In that sense, Shakti also bridged the border between Carnatic and Hindustani classical music.
Shakti’s original line-up included L Shankar on violin and T H ‘Vikku’ Vinayakram on ghatam. It released just three albums, including a live performance. But the impact of the soundscape they unveiled is well described by the title of one of their tunes: What need do I have for this, what need do I have for that, I'm dancing at the feet of my lord, all is bliss, all is bliss.
Shakti gave birth to a new genre of music, Indo-jazz fusion, and inspired musicians across the world. The original line-up wound up around 1978, because Vinayakram had to return to India to look after his late father’s school, and Shankar moved away towards more pop music.
Rebirth and rebirth | In 1997, thanks to a nudge from England’s Arts Council, Hussain and McLaughlin embarked on a tour called Remember Shakti. They could not get in touch with Shankar, but included Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia on flute and Vinayakram on ghatam.
Soon after, Shakti was revived with U‘Mandolin’ Shrinivas on mandolin and Vikku’s son, V Selvaganesh, on ghatam and kanjira. This iteration of Shakti, which also came to include Shankar Mahadevan on vocals, wound up in 2014 when Shrinivas died at age 45.
It seemed like curtains for Shakti, but its members shook off the gloom – and McLaughlin overcame arthritis – to make new music when Covid imprisoned the world. This Moment has – besides McLaughlin, Hussain and Mahadevan – Selvaganesh on percussion and US-based Ganesh Rajagopalan on violin.
This Moment to future moments | There is much to celebrate for Indians in This Moment. Album’s cover is designed by a group of friends in Kolkata and Bengaluru. It’s from a label founded by an Indian-American. And maybe its Grammy will help a new generation discover Shakti – a handful of beauties in their natural elements.
2023: reunion concert
MUMBAI: A musical miracle of modern times will unfold at the NSCI Dome in Worli Sunday. The Shakti 50th Anniversary concert will create history as three original stalwarts of the group-guitar legend John McLaughlin, tabla nawaz Ustad Zakir Hussain and ghatam pioneer Vikku Vinayakram-regroup after decades. Singer Shankar Mahadevan, percussionist Selvaganesh Vinayakram, Vikkuji's son, and violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan are other prominent members of the band which has included other Indian classical legends as well over the years. Shakti has lined up four concerts in India, with the first having taken place in Bengaluru on January 20. Sunday (January 22) is Mumbai's day to enjoy the music, while Kolkata and Delhi will earn the privilege January 24 and 28 respectively.
Mumbai is privileged because Vikku Vinayakram will perform only at this venue. In fact, the long awaited reunion of the artistes with the ghatam legend took place at a suburban hotel Saturday, and the hearty grins and fond embraces made a happy picture. The most noticeable transformation was that the maestro's long hair, which he shakes vigorously while playing, had given way to a sober close cut. Zakir Hussain traipsed behind him chanting, "Spikyman!" to the tune of "Spiderman", and Vinayakram responded with bear hugs.
The passage of time has not dimmed the memorable journey of the past 50 years. McLaughlin (Mahavishnu in the pre-Shakti era), recalled the time he first jammed with Zakir Hussain at the home of sarod artiste Ali Akbar Khan in the US.
Former members of Shakti are still deeply missed, whether it is Mandolin Srinivas who died suddenly in 2014, or L Shankar who lives a quiet life in the US. The band has just released its first album in 45 years, 'Mohanam'. "We started work in January 2020 but the pandemic occurred, and because nobody could travel, we sat in different countries and assembled it online. It felt like we were sitting in the same room!" said McLaughlin. Shankar Mahadevan pointed out, "This is how one can take advantage of electronics and technology if one wants to.”
Typical of collective genius, Shakti's playlist will flow between plan and improvisation. "We did rehearse some basic compositions for three-four days before the Bengaluru concert, but the micro beat, of course, is unpredictable," said Mahadevan. Zakir Hussain added, "We know we have to go from point A to B and C. But how we get there is spontaneous. It is like a flock of birds following the leader. They don't know where it will fly next but they all turn in perfect sync when it turns.”