Back in 1994, when the British rock band Jethro Tull was touring India, its lead Ian Anderson was asked to describe his music. The man who was a singer, flautist, acoustic guitarist, and songwriter, pondered over the question for a few moments, and then deadpanned: "I would call it an eclectic mess."
Eclectic mess, if you come down to it, is also a description that fits the Shakti fusion band, which landed itself a prestigious Grammy yesterday. It won the best Global Music Album for its first ever studio album in 46 years, The Moment.
The famed band, which blazed an inspiring and unique journey in the 70s, now comprises the original founder John McLaughlin, the tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, vocalist Shankar Mahadevan, percussionist V Selvaganesh, and violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan.
Though McLaughlin couldn't make it to the Grammy ceremony, it was reassuring to see Zakir Hussain as he was an integral part of the original Shakti troupe, which in those angsty times came up with a music that was genre-defying even while carrying a universal appeal.
The original team (apart from Mclaughlin and Hussain) included the ghatam wizard Vikku Vinayakram, the maverick violinist L Shankar, and occasionally the mridangam maestro Ramnad Raghavan.
Shakti’s Street Cred And The Legend Of McLaughlin
For those of us growing up in the 70s and 80s, the legend of Shakti is impossible to forget. Its active years were limited, and it recorded only three albums, but in that short span it managed to catch the imagination of especially youth who were restless and yearning for music with a difference.
Shakti, in a sense, took off from the famed Beatles-Ravishankar intersection, and can be called a spiritual cousin to efforts of the British band and sitar maestro collaboration.
Shakti owed its spirit and sensibilities to the restless energy of McLaughlin who himself was a creature of the earlier hippie generation.
And in the weed-induced emotional phantasmagoria, youngsters were grappling with existential questions. What’s God? What am I doing here? What is my role in this grand universe? What's music?
This seeming mystical quandary drove McLaughlin to Indian spiritual guru Sri Chinmoy, who had gotten popular in the West (the USA). Under his influence, McLaughlin and a bunch of musicians came up with the band Mahavishnu Orchestra, which threw up a blend of Indian classical music, jazz, and psychedelic rock.
The name may have been Indian, but there were no Indians in that troupe. In any case, Mahavishnu folded up due to, like with most bands, disagreement among the members. But McLaughlin was fixated with India.
But it was not a fad with him but a more emotional and creative indulgence. He studied North Indian and South Indian music, and was a student of Pandit Ravi Shankar in the 1970s. But at heart, he was a Western musician.
The music magazine Rolling Stone slots McLaughlin among the 100 Greatest Guitarists ever. It said of him: "A breakneck stylist. He was peerless, mixing psychedelic rock, R&B, gypsy jazz, flamenco and Indian raga techniques."
Once when he was at the residence of sarod legend Ustaad Ali Akbar Khan, he ran into Zakir Hussain. The two hit it off and almost organically they whipped out their respective musical instruments and started playing.
"So, we sat down and played. And in a space of five minutes, it was one of the greatest experiences for me," McLaughlin later recalled in an interview. This is where the first seeds of Shakti were born.
Shakti’s Music Was Decidedly Different
Soon enough, L Shankar with his electric violin (and later double violin) joined forces with them. He too had the same spirit for experimentation that McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain brought to the table. And when Vikku Vinaykram was also pulled in, it was the birth of the niche musical history (1973). Disparate strains of music emerged together in an organic melding of method and madness.
Their background and attitude towards life were decidedly different. But they all met at the point of creating music that was also different in every sense of the term.
For instance, Vinaykram knew only Tamil while Zakir Hussain and McLaughlin had no inkling of it. The ghatam expert communicated with them only through sign language. Only with Shankar he could lapse into his mother tongue.
Their music indeed had no language constraints as it had an instant catchy feel. It had a heady mix of western rock, jazz, Hindustani and Carnatic. And at the heart of their music was improvisation which comes out of hours and hours and creative jamming sessions.
Shakti's peak, though short-lived, was in the mid 70s and their performances at the Montreux Jazz Festival (in 1976 and and 1977) are considered legendary by music aficionados. The troupe had three albums — Shakti With McLaughlin, A Handful of Beauty and Natural Elements.
To be honest, the albums didn't have any great success. But over the years, its fame has grown due to better understanding of its music technique and also due to nostalgia.
The albums are noted for innovation, and also the assurance with which each one purveyed their own unique brand of music within the troupe itself. Music born out of instinct and synergy.
But Shakti, as quickly as it emerged, also disbanded with similar suddenness. The reasons were many. Each one of the members had their own individual careers to take care of. And Shakti's music itself was considered too niche and hence lacked the global reach and acclaim.
Shakti Disbanded And The Tragedy Of L Shankar
After 1977, each went their own way. McLaughlin has cemented his greatness. Zakir Hussain and Vikku Vinayakram have become bigger legends, and are the byword for their respective instruments. It is only Shankar who did not achieve similar success.
To be sure, he was every bit as talented as the rest of the group. But he had aspirations to be a 'popstar' violinist. It was a tough ask. He came out with amazing music with his improvised double violin. But again, it suffered from what Shakti was afflicted with — a niche appeal.
He also started a band called Epidemics along with his wife Caroline. The troupe had two albums. But they never created any splash. He also worked, in a limited capacity, with the likes of Frank Zappa, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Bruce Springsteen, Bono and Van Morrison. But nothing to grab the headline.
For some of us in Tamil Nadu, who had seen Shankar as part of the violin trio that included his brother L Vaidyanathan and L Subramaniam, his slip into the stream of obscurity is a sad side-story of Shakti.
Shakti’s Reemergence And The Grammy
Shakti, of course, emerged from its own ashes in 1997 with Remember Shakti. It was a committed attempt to revive its past glory. This time there was no Shankar. There was also no Vinayakram.
But in his place was his talented son V Selvaganesh who played all the percussion instruments from the Carnatic music setup. Hussain was of course there. But the two new additions were U Srinivas on mandolin and Shankar Mahadevan on the vocals.
It also involved guest musicians from time to time. Hariprasad Chaurasi (flute), Shivkumar Sharma (santoor), percussionist Taufiq Qureshi (Hussain's brother) have all performed with them.
The troupe has been touring on and off and their albums like Remember Shakti (1999) and The Believer (2000) have been far and few between. They have also come up with the recordings of their various tours and concerts.
After a barren period, the famed troupe regrouped in 2020 with renewed vigour. Last year, the 50th year of their birth, the gang had a world tour. They also came up with the eight-song album This Moment which struck paydirt at the Grammys yesterday.
The album won against popular Nigerian musician Burna Boy's I Told Them…, Nigerian American singer Davido, global group Bokanté, and Peruvian singer-songwriter Susana Baca.
Shakti's triumph is most well deserved even though it is a tad late in their storied career. Listening to The Moment you can understand how the band would have been in its heydays. Full of energy and novelty. It is spiritual exuberance expressed in music.
To fall back on another song from another band, it was Yesterday Once More.
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