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Remember Shakti - Four people as one

Interview dates: June 28 and 29, 1999

© Copyright 1999 by Anil Prasad. All rights reserved.
This article and related graphic images may not be reproduced or retransmitted without the author's permission.

Thanks to Michael Manring for his assistance.

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.

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.

"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. "

Hussain's father Alla Rakha is one of those great traditionalists. As one of India's most revered tabla players, he initially did not look kindly upon his son's decision to join Shakti. "Shakti was not Indian Music, it was not American music. They made something else," he told Folk Roots magazine in 1987. "Some numbers I like, some numbers I don’t like. Zakir, I told him not to do that."

"He felt I had to make my name as an Indian musician before anything else was to happen," recalled Hussain. "In the beginning, he did have problems with it. As a teacher, he was worried that I would drift to the other side of the world and sever my connection with India. I convinced him that will not be and then proved that through my actions and it was fine. My deal with him was 'Okay, I am going to play Indian classical music and I will travel to India regularly and play concerts there and have the audience accept me as an Indian classical musician. On my own time, I am going to do what I enjoy doing apart from Indian music.' Even now, 80 percent of the time I am performing Indian classical music. It is rare that I get involved in playing anything else."

Fortunately for Hussain and his father, McLaughlin was interested in embracing, not tarnishing the traditions of Indian classical music within Shakti's milieu.

"When I play with John, it's not like playing with a Western musician," said Hussain. "It's like playing with an Indian musician believe it or not. John has taken the time to study Indian classical music and figure out how we work, how we think and what our improvising techniques are. Myself, I have had the good fortune to study and understand the Western ways of musical thinking be it jazz, pop or rock. In terms of musical interaction with John, it’s a bit more detailed now than before, but the same love and affection for one another is there. The fabulous thing is that connection hasn't changed. I never feel like I'm working with someone strange from a different tradition and he doesn't feel that way either."

The roots of McLaughlin's fascination with India stretch back long before Shakti played its first notes together.

"I had a deep interest and affection for Indian culture before I discovered Indian music," said McLaughlin. "I became very interested in comparative religion around 1962 when I was 20. I was raised without any religious education whatsoever. I became a member of the Theosophical Society because they had a wonderful library. On discovery of the wonder and profundity of Indian thought and philosophy, my appetite was really whetted. I became aware of Ramana Maharshi, a man who had a strong impact and continues to exert quite an influence on me. I went on to become aware of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Premananda and Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj.

"My discovery of Indian music was also quite a revelation. I was first struck by the beauty of it and the mastery of the improvisation that exists in both the North and South. The relevance of this to my music, which is jazz music, was great—the necessity of mastering this kind of discipline for improvisation."

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."

"I think that’s the way it is," confirmed Hussain. "From the very beginning, my relationship with music other than Indian music has always been adventurous. There was enough of a connection to my roots that there was little danger of me being overwhelmed by what I saw in the world. Therefore, I felt I could bend and work myself into any kind of music and play with any kind of people."

Hussain points to his work with Mickey Hart's Planet Drum as a prime example of this musical philosophy in action. The acclaimed group is comprised of all-star percussionists including Babatunde Olatunji, Airto Moreira, Giovanni Hildalgo and Shakti bandmate Vikku Vinayakram. To date, the group has released two albums: 1991's Planet Drum and 1998's Supralingua.

"When I work with Mickey, he will try anything including throwing metal onto the ground and recording that or building a fire on a farm and putting a microphone there to hear how it crackles," said Hussain. "He'll also record a drum playing at one end of a tube with a mic at the other end 500 metres away to see what kind of a sound projection it has. It's only by being open to all kinds of things and sometimes taking risks that you can really discover what is out there."

There’s been a two-way stream of education and understanding during Hussain's work with Hart over the years. "In India, a drummer, besides being rhythmically accurate, has to fuse with the other musicians to express the dominant emotion being conveyed by the raga they're playing, whether it's happiness, anger, sadness, disgust, love or hate," wrote Hart in his book Drumming At The Edge of Magic. "One of the first things Zakir taught me was this Indian drum palette of emotional expression."

Hussain, who’s also worked with George Harrison, Van Morrison and Earth, Wind & Fire, is attempting to teach the world at large about Indian sounds too. In 1994, he launched Moment Records, an indie label devoted to the creation, distribution and promotion of traditional Indian music. To date, it’s released more than two dozen albums by luminaries including Pandit Jasraj, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Alla Rakha and Ravi Shankar. The label is also responsible for a best-of Shakti disc.

"When you do a record for any record company, you go to a studio, do the recording, deliver the tape and then you see it in the store," he said. "Between the delivery of the tape and getting it in the store, musicians really have no say in what happens with the album cover, what’s in the liner notes or how the master mixdown sounds. I felt there needed to be a company that can provide a platform to Indian musicians so they can have control over what their product is like and have it appear simultaneously in all major record stores all over the world."

Although Moment Records has achieved great acclaim within world music circles, it faces the same challenges all indie labels struggle with. "It’s difficult to convince distributors and sales representatives to go out and sell our products in the shops and make them understand that they are worth putting in the bins," said Hussain. "To a certain extent, my name helps sell them and makes it possible, but it is hard work and hard going. Today’s focus on world music and therefore on Indian music, means it is becoming a little easier."

Record business shenanigans haven't robbed Hussain or McLaughlin of their view that music serves purposes that extend far beyond the Earthly pleasures it’s marketed to fulfil. In fact, McLaughlin once called music "the face of God."

"I am convinced as many people are that we all have divine origins and that essentially everything is divine," he said. "We all come from the one, we all are in the one and we can never be apart from each other and the one. This is the personal conviction. It all comes down to an intellectual game in the end if you start to consider truth, goodness and beauty which are probably the essential attributes of what we consider to be God. If something is really true, it has to be beautiful. And music is beautiful, so it has to be true. God is the most beautiful of all the beautiful and the source of all beauty, so music has to be intimately acquainted with God in some way."

McLaughlin also believes music has been intimately connected to some of the millennium’s most important historical events—particularly in the 20th century.

"The end of the millennium is important, but it's something that only exists in the minds of people," he said. "The millennium’s relationship to reality is the extent that it matters to the individual because we've been around for hundreds of thousands of years and we will hopefully be around for hundreds of thousands of years to come. I'm delighted to see the evolutionary role that music has played whether it's punk or rock music. For instance, rock music helped knocked down the Berlin Wall. Rock became the lingua franca of the young people and this is a very wonderful, unifying and healing thing. So, I believe absolutely and implicitly in music. I'm thrilled and very hopeful about its future."

Read the complete John McLaughlin interview transcript.
Read the complete Zakir Hussain interview transcript.


Remember Shakti
Remember Shakti
Verve (1999)

The Best of Shakti
Moment Records (1994)

Natural Elements*
Sony (1977)

Handful of Beauty*
Sony (1976)

Shakti with John McLaughlin*
Sony (1975)

*These titles are out of print in North America. Sony is planning reissues for 2000.