By Samir Shukla
A meeting of musical maestros can create new horizons and genres, essentially new languages. Imagine a day, say some 50 years ago, a jazz guitarist meets a tabla player and later a ghatam player, and a Carnatic violinist. The musicians have informal jam sessions, write compositions, create new musical possibilities and hybrids. They called themselves Shakti and to say this world music combo broke barriers and boundaries is an understatement.
John McLaughlin the trailblazing guitarist, who has played with numerous legends and is a guitarists’ guitarist in his own right, led the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the early 70’s. He began working with Ustad Zakir Hussain in 1973 and later met violinist L. Shankar and ghatam player T.H. “Vikku” Vinayakram to form Shakti. After releasing pioneering world fusion recordings, mixing jazz, rock, Hindustani & Carnatic music, they disbanded in 1978.
New Album and Tour
The 2nd iteration of the band happened in the late 90’s, as the band reformed with Shankar Mahadevan on vocals, U. Srinivas on mandolin and Selvaganesh Vinayakram replacing his father Vikku. The band created new dimensions of music with their improvisational repertoire.
Sadly, after the tragic passing of U. Srinivas in 2014, the band was put on pause again. In early 2020 the group reemerged with violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan joining the combo for a couple of sold-out concerts. As the pandemic shut the world down, Shakti began recording together, virtually, online.
Now McLaughlin and Hussain – with the fully fused combo of Mahadevan, Selvaganesh, and Rajagopalan – have released a new recording called This Moment (Abstract Logix) and are touring to mark their 50th anniversary.
Kolkata born and Cary, NC-based music lover Souvik Dutta has been working with Shakti since 2003, when he worked with them on a tour selling merchandise. He was a 25-year-old “bored, young software engineer at IBM,” as he recalled and took time off from the company to go on tour with Shakti and sell merch at shows. Since then and over the years he has become their “man at the helm” as described by Zakir Hussain and released their new recording via his company Abstract Logix.
He also organized and manages their current 50th anniversary tour.
After a European jaunt in June and July, Shakti is touring the United States in August and September.
I spoke with Hussain and Mahadevan just before they headed to Europe for their tour. Below are edited versions of our conversations.
Shakti will perform live at Koka Booth Amphitheater, Cary, NC on Sunday, August 27, 2023. For additional tour dates and tickets info, visit Shakti50.com.
Interview with Zakir Hussain:
Samir Shukla: Can you talk about the new album as well as the 50th anniversary tour?
Zakir Hussain: We’ve been talking about if for some years. Last time Shakti went on the road which was I think almost 10 years ago with the great maestro U Srinivas, the genius mandolin player. We were already working on some material to be able to go into the studio and record. And then Srinivas ji decided to leave us and go home and I mean I definitely believe he was a spirit from somewhere else, some divine place, they decided it was time for him to go home and he left us (U Srinivas passed away in 2014) we were all totally broken. It just stopped everything and with Covid we started to communicate with each other more on the internet and stuff and I started doing things with other musicians, and John ji and Shankar bhai all started doing the same thing.
It just us led to interacting on the waves and we thought we can do this on the waves. Why not try to resurrect the album in honor of Srinivas. We (McLaughlin, Mahadevan, Hussain) did an album called Is That So, which was a prayer like album. That came out during that period. So, it encouraged us to move forward in doing this. That’s how it all came about. At that time we didn’t realize it was going to be 50 years by the time we get this package together and then here it is. It is 50 years.
Souvik Dutta is our man at the helm and runs everything for us and makes sure we have everything we need to move forward in our creative process. And this album coming in 2023, it would be 50 years and we said oh boy…my first reaction was that I feel old, but looking at John ji who is 82 and looking at him as a sprightly young older gentleman in the prime of his health. It inspired all of us. And Ganesh ji came along and he was someone I was already working with regularly. John ji and Shankar bhai asked me if we should try out Ganesh in the band. They suggested since I was already working with Ganesh ji should we try him out, and I said absolutely. He is a very important cog in the current sound of Shakti which actually harks back to our original sound with the great L Shankar the violin maestro who was a founding member of the original Shakti. It was great to make that full circle with that sound in a new understanding and sonic layers that kind of make it relevant and valid for the present time.
Shukla: I thought the same listening to the new record that it has the original vibe, but it sounds new.
Hussain: Yes, and what’s going to be interesting is to get on the stage and expand that vibe of the record. As you know the record pieces are of a certain length and we get on the stage and open it up for discussion. It evolves even further. I know by the time we arrive in your neck of the woods, the shape and the form would have risen into something that I’m sure is wondrous and profound and very exciting to listen and watch. That improvisation is such a major part of Shakti’s DNA, it’s going to allow us to be able to experience this music differently each time we get on the stage. Therefore, come up with so many different shapes and forms. This is something amazing about Shakti, the five of us coming together and the whole group is kind of like one mind, one thought, one heartbeat, one rhythm.
How that happens in a situation where music depends on spontaneity, and largely on improvising and creating on the spot. It’s uncanny. Coming from different backgrounds, Bollywood, South Indian traditions and classical and jazz, the epitome of what improvised music is. We are talking the same music language without even attempting to cross any boundaries or fences because suddenly, they don’t exist. To be able to do that, construct and reconstruct every time we get on stage and know exactly where to put the pillars and drive the nails and put the window in, without any direction from any of us to any of us. I wonder why we don’t record every concert and release them like the Grateful Dead.
Shukla: What can we expect at the concert?
Hussain: I’m expecting it to be joyous and happy, see the ecstasy that is going to be circulating from our union together from the audience. Forget any cares that are existing outside of the concert hall at that time. People can take this moment with them at home ready to face the world again. We played in India earlier this year because the record had not come out yet, so we were asked to play the stuff from way back when. So now with starting in Europe the record is coming out we are going to incorporate that stuff and waiting to see how it will come together. Put it all into one story, one telling. Take people through the journey we have had through the decades. We will regale in that. Bela Fleck will open solo n Cary. He was such a Shakti fan that he sought me out. If we are in concert and there is a moment where he can peep into our room, (and maybe join us). Spontaneity will carry us.
Shankar Mahadevan Interview:
Samir Shukla: Talk about recording the new record.
Shankar Mahadevan: I’ve been touring and associated with Shakti for 22 years. We have always been talking about doing a studio recording, especially in the pandemic the plans especially crystallized, to meet and go into studio, but the plan fell through because of Covid, and during that time we decided let us do a studio album to commemorate Shakti’s 50th anniversary. We were all in remote places with digital technology and video conferencing, which I’ve been doing with my academy for the last 11-12 years, it is pretty easy and convenient too because everyone is in their home studio or studio close by to their homes. So, we started talking via lots of messages, texts, WhatsApp, emails…going back and forth and we had this cloud drive where we would upload our stuff, everyone comments and puts it back on.
It’s a humongous process but everyone was so kicked about it and so keen to do it so the process was very interesting. Instead of traditionally where we would have gone into the studio and boom boom play and record and got out, so it was very interesting. It was almost like a painting that was unfolding, one day a person’s files are uploaded and the next day another person’s then you hear it and you can see the song blossoming. With John ji and Zakir bhai’s enthusiasm everybody follows them and it is infectious, with the kind of blessing they give and the encouragement they bring to the whole project.
Shukla: Yeah, and it gels and sounds like everyone is in the same room.
Mahadevan: One person sends the file and the other person records it, and after he records, the person who sent the file rerecords it and becomes like a two way thing that makes you feel like you are in a room playing. For example in my improvisation if I have taken a particular rhythmic little phrase, and it feels like it can be accompanied by percussionist who enhances that rhythmic improvisation and he rerecords it and now it feels like you are playing face to face with eye contact.
Shukla: It’s been at least 10 years since the last tour and there’s this whole new energy to this with the anniversary and post pandemic, what is the new element you wish to bring to this when the tour gets started.
Mahadevan: Everything is new, with Shakti every concert is new, because what happens is its only about 20 percent fixed and preplanned, that is the melody and rhythmic things we play together, but other than that everything just happens on stage because it is an improvising band, whether it is an alaap, or any of the solos, John ji, Zakir bhai, Ganesh or mine, everything is a new experience for us every concert, so when you hear Shakti today or day after tomorrow, the energy will be completely different. Even if it is a slow song, and where you are playing, or what stage and the audience whether its intimate or its huge everything changes, and every show psychologically is a very different experience. It’s about the interpretation of everything we do. This band is so fresh and ticking all the time the energy and lots of eye contact, lots of happiness and lots of laughter on stage, lots of internal jokes. It’s full of positive energy and love. That playful happiness on stage gets transmitted to the audience.
Shukla: Have you ever worked with Zakir Hussain outside of Shakti?
Mahadevan: My first song ever, my first film song ever was with Zakir Hussain. It was for a film called In Custody and I sang my first film recording with him, it was a ghazal which he had composed. He gave me the opportunity to sing, maybe I was 16 or 17, so since then we have been working with each other. It’s family. Zakir bhai and with Taufiq and Fazal (Zakir Hussain’s brothers), the entire family.
John McLaughlin is a very senior artist. We kind of play around and joke with him and he is a wonderful person. He has played with greatest jazz legends you can think of and he is of that caliber. You know in one lifetime how can you create a Mahavishnu Orchestra and a Shakti and play with Miles Davis, and so many others. How can you achieve this? He has done this. I really feel blessed to sit with him on stage and do music, it’s a big big honor for me.
Shukla: Talk a little bit about your academy. How you connect and teach the younger generation.
Mahadevan: The Shankar Mahadevan Academy we started off with a friend of mine. Both of us were engineers actually, I decided to become a musician and he went to the US, and we connected after 14 years, he came back to India and wanted to do something new and then we started the online academy. No online academy teaches structured Indian music, with courses curriculums, exams and teachers…so we created a proper academy. And everybody just loves it and we are in 90 countries teaching and the academy runs 24/7 with teachers and support and we are opening centers. It is very important to spread the joy of our music to the next generations.
Indian music is so powerful people should learn and know about Indian music, maybe not to perform Indian music, you may want to perform Arabic music or African music, but the elements of Indian music really help you and become a very strong musician. We have a gathering every year called Sangam where students from all over come, there are teachers, interactions, workshops, students perform, teachers perform, I perform. There are questions and answers. It goes on for three days. The main day this year was June 17. We had a 10-day festival for our 10th anniversary a few yeas back with many celebrities…and then went online during the pandemic and again this year we are doing an in-person festival. We can physically meet and talk. We do these in different cities. We may start doing more than one Sangam because there are so many students. We are planning to do one in the USA one day.