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Four people as 1… REMEMBER SHAKTI (28/6/99)

Interview “Four people as one“ by Anil Prasad (06/28 – 06/29/1999) – Today’s music aficionados take it for granted that they can saunter down to their favorite CD shop to buy the latest in pan-cultural aural exotica. And whether that shop’s a megastore or microboutique, chances are it’s stocking Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan techno remixes, Ali Farka Toure meets Ry Cooder discs and trio releases from the likes of V.M. Bhatt, Jie-Bing Chen and Béla Fleck. But engaging in such retail therapy is a modern luxury. Warp back a quarter century to the dawn of Shakti and the contrast is startling.

John McLauglin on Stage… Zakir Hussain & John McLaughlin Shakti in the 70ths…


Formed in 1975, Shakti pioneered a groundbreaking and highly influential east-meets-west collaborative approach. The group, whose name means creative intelligence, beauty and power, consisted of legendary British jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, North Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain and violinist L. Shankar and ghatam [percussion] player T.H. “Vikku” Vinayakram, both of whom hail from South India. Together, they created a fluid and organic sound that managed to successfully combine seemingly incompatible traditions. Hussain and McLaughlin, along with rotating co-conspirators, recently launched a successful reunion tour and self-titled album under the name Remember Shakti. But upon the original group’s debut, Westerners weren’t quite ready to dance to the worldbeat of these very different drummers.

“What happens is sometimes you have a vision and an urge to go forward and do something unique at a time when people are still tied to what is, as opposed to what should be or what can be,” explained Hussain of the resistance to Shakti’s early days. “One must also realize that John had just disconnected himself from the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a very, very commercially popular [jazz-rock] group. In many ways, John made the big sacrifice because he lost a lot of fans who were into his electrical experience and they faded away.”

McLaughlin believes the almost complete lack of mainstream knowledge, appreciation and availability of world music at the time of Shakti’s introduction also hampered its initial acceptance.

“When I formed Shakti, it was dimly viewed, I should say!” said McLaughlin, a key member of several Miles Davis line-ups and one of the most renowned guitarists in history. “After coming out of Mahavishnu—a very powerful electric band—here I was sitting on a carpet with Indian musicians. Everyone thought I flipped out. It was not well-received at all by the record company or my agent and manager. Artistically, I thought it was wonderful, but they all thought I was a little loopy.”

“The record companies and promotional companies had no idea what to call Shakti, which category of music it fit into, or which bin in the record shop to put it in,” added Hussain. “So they looked at it with a great amount of hesitancy. But I guess they’ve been proven wrong because Shakti has endured.”

Strong sales for the Remember Shakti album, sold-out tours of Europe and America and reverential press coverage across the globe seem to confirm Hussain’s observation. The current spate of activity began in 1997, after Hussain was invited by the Arts Council of England to reunite the band for a British mini-tour. McLaughlin and Hussain remained friends and collaborators since the original group’s disbanding in 1978 and even engaged in a brief Shakti reunion tour of India in 1984. But the emergence of Remember Shakti marks the first significant activity invoking the band’s name in nearly 25 years. The slightly-modified moniker results from McLaughlin and Hussain’s inability to locate the whereabouts of L. Shankar, despite their ongoing, concerted efforts. The 1997 concerts also featured original member T.H. Vinayakram, and North Indian bansuri [bamboo flute] player Hariprasad Chaurasia. The resulting double CD captured a complete gig from the tour.

“The record was an afterthought,” said McLaughlin. “I spoke about the idea of taping the shows to Zakir during rehearsals—which was actually only three hours for the group. I told Zakir ‘We may never play in this formation again, so wouldn’t it be nice to have a souvenir for ourselves?’ He thought it was a great idea too. It’s a nice idea to have memories because as time goes by, you don’t know if things will come together this way again. So, we rented an ADAT [recorder] and taped the shows. Upon listening to the playback, we thought that this was really amazing music. We also thought ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was a recording?'”

Unlike Columbia’s perplexed reaction to Shakti’s first album in 1975, McLaughlin’s current label Verve was happy to accommodate the group’s wishes. “You know, I actually have to thank Verve very deeply for that because they agreed to put out a whole evening’s performance as a double CD,” said McLaughlin. “This is normally anathema to record companies because it’s a less commercially viable proposition. But they said yes and I’m very happy because it’s a beautiful record.”

But it’s a very different record from Shakti, Handful of Beauty and Natural Elements, the three albums that comprise the group’s ’70s output. Those albums focused largely on short tracks, along with an occasional 10-to-15 minute mini-epic. In general, they featured a fiery blend of catchy acoustic pyrotechnics that showcased a youthful quartet determined to prove its mettle, as well as champion what was ostensibly a new genre of music. But for Remember Shakti, McLaughlin, 57, and Hussain, 48, preferred to let their music ebb and flow in a more restrained, meditative and traditional Indian manner, hence the 33-minute “Chandrakauns” and 65-minute “Mukti.” These pieces include few Western influences. At their core—as with all Indian classical music—is the raga, a highly-formalized and systematic melodic form. A raga features combinations and sets of notes specifically designed to evoke distinct atmospheres, moods and emotions. When creating or performing a raga, the pitch, note sequence and intricate relationship and interaction between each note are all paramount factors. The raga form encourages a very intellectual type of improvisation that performers are required to balance with their intuitive leanings—the sort that appears all over Remember Shakti.

Remember Shakti (CD Cover)  John McLauglin (Portrait Photo)  Zakir Hussain - Tabla (Portrait Photo)

“Things went the natural Indian way,” said McLaughlin. “This, of course, included the introduction of the raga, the various ways of collective playing and the principal improvisations from the soloists. As musicians, we are playing notes, music and rhythms and we hope to play the right melody in the correct way, but this is only part of the process. The other side that is important is the communication of the musicians and the playing and playfulness that comes from that interaction. You can put a piece of music in front of somebody and he may play it perfectly. So what? Interplay and interaction are the integral parts of music—they’re as important as the notes. Without them, I don’t think I’d be here. You can’t just play over someone. There are many examples in jazz fusion in which you have a soloist playing over a steady drumbeat and I find this terribly boring, because I want to hear the interaction between two people. I want to know what kind of imagination and spontaneity they have. Only in spontaneity can we be who we truly are.”

Two traditions exist within Indian classical music. There is the Karnatic music of South India and the Hindustani music of North India. Although they share a common origin, their musical philosophies and methods diverge. The Karnatic system is considered the more formal of the two because it places greater emphasis on a distinct, theory-oriented set of rules and guidelines. In contrast, Hindustani music is considered a more contemporary form in that it’s less planned out and allows for more diversions from strict, traditional edicts. Shakti sought to bridge the differences between Hindustani and Karnatic traditions without compromising either.

“I’m extremely proud of Shakti because prior to it, there was very little collaboration between North and South Indian musics,” said McLaughlin. “Shakti played a role in the reunification of the North and South in the musical sense. Since Shakti, the collaborations between North and South have grown a thousand times. We now have very regular North-South meetings.”

“Indian musicians became much more open after Shakti towards the idea of trying things not only within the realms of Indian music but by stepping out of Indian music and into any traditions they felt comfortable with,” agreed Hussain. “Shakti was one of the first combinations of musicians trying to do something that crossed all musical boundaries. We didn’t approach each other thinking ‘Okay, you play South Indian, I play North Indian and he’ll play jazz, then see what happens.’ We just jumped into the wagon and took a ride together. It was four people as one. We were very young at that time and had no qualms about trying different things. We just sat down and played and did whatever was necessary to make it work musically and be fun. It was something unique at that time. Previously, when people from different cultures made music, one or the other music was crossing over and never meeting somewhere in between. For instance, if Yehudi Menuhin played with Ravi Shankar, Menuhin had to cross over into the Indian territory to play Indian classical music written for him by Shankar. It was never a combination of classical music and Indian classical music together. There were reasons for that. They were great traditionalists who believed they had to maintain their traditions.”

For McLaughlin, the idea of balancing the mathematical equations of Indian rhythmic development and the less-studied, more chaos-laden leanings of jazz was natural.

“There is really a great deal of common ground,” he said. “The mathematics of rhythm are universal. They don’t belong to any particular culture. It’s true that the sensuality of rhythm is coupled with the mathematical mind in India. It’s not for nothing that India has produced some of the greatest atomic engineers, mathematicians and astronomers—particularly in the 20th century. They even have an observatory that goes back many hundreds of years in which the orbits of planets were calculated. So, you can say it’s been developed to a more sophisticated level there than in jazz music. But whether it’s from Africa, China, Brazil or Bombay, rhythm is rhythm. If you try to improvise in jazz without some degree of rhythmical mathematical proficiency, you’ll be lost by the drummer and flounder.”

In Indian classical music, that rhythmical, mathematical proficiency is often taught via solkattu, which refers to the study and expression of spoken rhythms. In performance, the use of these mnemonic syllables is referred to as konakkol. A rough analogy can be made between these techniques and the Western idea of solfege—the application of syllables such as “do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do” to a musical scale. Solkattu and konakkol are both accompanied by hand patterns that signify the tala which delineates the metric flow of the syllables. McLaughlin has devoted considerable time and energy to comprehending, applying and teaching these techniques.

“Essentially, konakkol is a marvelous system of Indian rhythm that is done without an instrument,” explained McLaughlin. “You use your voice and your hands so you don’t have to learn a percussion instrument in order to fully understand the simplicity and sophistication of Indian rhythmical traditions. It’s a system I highly recommend to all my students, although I don’t claim in any way to be a master of konnakol. But as I said, rhythm is really universal and if you can understand konnakol—the most superior system of learning rhythm in the world—you can understand any rhythm from any country on the planet. For example, if I have to communicate something to one of the percussion players in Remember Shakti, I can sing it to them in a rhythmical sense and vice-versa. It could be ‘Ta-ka ta-ka ta ta-ka tin day ta.’ You then immediately see the mathematics of it. And if you can sing a rhythm, it means you understand what it is and then it’s a question of applying it to your instrument.”

For Remember Shakti, McLaughlin’s instrument of choice was not acoustic guitar as it was during the group’s ’70s incarnation. He loaned his Shakti guitars to a fellow musician who returned them a month prior to the 1997 reunion tour. To say they arrived in questionable condition is an understatement. Rather than replace the guitars, McLaughlin chose to go a different route and use a hollow-body Gibson electric instead. The irony of that decision is that he uses a considerably more delicate and softer approach on the electric than he ever did with its acoustic equivalents in Shakti. But he says there’s nothing deliberate in the choice to trade in most of the pyrotechnics for a more sensitive approach. Rather, it’s a result of the combination of players in the group at any one moment. T.H. “Vikku” Vinayakram and Chaurasia were unavailable to perform during the group’s 1999 tour. Vikku’s son Selvaganesh substituted for his father and Karnatic mandolin player U. Srinivas rounded out the quartet.

“I adapt myself to the environment in which I find myself,” said McLaughlin. “The Remember Shakti group with Hariprasad is very different from the group with Selvaganesh and Srinivas. They are two separate entities. The moment you change one person, the entire form changes. So, there are some pyrotechnics on the recording, but because of the lament and soulful sound of Hariprasad’s bansuri flute, everybody adapts themselves automatically without thinking ‘Should I do this? Should I do that?’ It’s a natural process. And when you hear Selvaganesh and Zakir play, it’s very different from Vikku and Zakir. Selvaganesh’s principal instrument is kanjeera, but he also plays ghatam. Srinivas is a monster too. This group is amazing. We have electric mandolin and guitar which is a nice combination of contrasts and harmony with two different kinds of percussion. It’s about vitality and creating a joyful experience that doesn’t happen at the expense of soul. One always hopes for this.”

Both McLaughlin and Hussain also find joy and soul in emerging musical forms beyond jazz and Indian classical music. In fact, recent years have found each immersing themselves in the edgy worlds of electronica. For instance, McLaughlin’s 1995 disc The Promise, included jungle elements.

“I listen to a lot of things from the English underground be it jungle, weird trance or techno things,” said McLaughlin. “There’s a lot of it that’s garbage, but there’s some very nice things in there such as D*Note, Lemon-D and Grooverider. I really enjoy them. I have a great faith in every generation’s ability to come up with its own music. What’s really amazing to me is that some of these young, English underground people don’t really know too much about music. Their musical knowledge is very limited, but it’s what they do with that knowledge that is very interesting and really attracts me. They’ve got great imagination. It’s not what you do, but the way you’re doing it. I’ve got an album coming up next year which will be considerably more eclectic. I’ll definitely be dabbling and diving more deeply into some of these forms on it.”

Much of Hussain’s electronic explorations have been conducted with Bill Laswell, a trend-setting New York producer and bassist. Together with Laswell, Hussain appears on albums by Material, Sacred System and Pharoah Sanders that skillfully incorporate his tabla prowess into soundscapes that feature contemporary trip-hop and ambient influences. Laswell is currently shepherding a new Hussain solo album the tabla player describes as an “an eclectically electric, jungle-oriented project that uses organic instruments as principal voices.”

“Zakir is a master tabla player and there’s no better musician in the world playing rhythm on any instrument,” said Laswell. “He’s quite willing to sit down and play with a click track or tape loop and laugh about it. It’s very inspiring. He could afford to have an attitude where that means nothing to him because he’s above it—like people who are lesser than him musically that have an attitude. Zakir’s quite open minded and willing to try anything in a recording situation and have fun with the whole idea.”

( 06/28 – 06/29/1999 – Interview: Anil Prasad – Source: )

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