Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Remembering Shakti

Critics believed John McLaughlin had committed commercial harakiri by abandoning electric instruments and Western sensibilities of mahavishnu orchestra in favor of an all-acoustic group with Indian musicians. In fact, record sales for this group, Shakti, were quite disappointing. Sometimes though, a musician has to follow his muse. In this case, McLaughlin was led to create a very fertile groundbreaking group in the form of Shakti. Shakti's dependence on Eastern musical models infused with Western jazz-like improvisation made for an exciting and influential stew.

Formed in 1975, Shakti pioneered a groundbreaking 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 player T.H. "Vikku" Vinayakram. Together, they created a harmony that managed to successfully combine seemingly incompatible traditions. However, with the exception of a few music aficionados, not many were open enough to accept the genesis of Shakti. McLaughlin’s fans were still recuperating from the irredeemable loss of his absence. It reflected in the dismal sales of Shakti.

"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."

How ironic that 20 years later, a band different from the original Shakti but born from its spirit should emerge to find commercial success. And how ironic that McLaughlin should now turn to the timbres of an electric guitar and forego the sublime sounds of his acoustic approach.

Remember Shakti is the name of the new group as well as its first live album. The 2 CD set recorded over four nights in England in the fall of 1997 features the two founding fathers of the original Shakti, McLaughlin and the tabla master Zakir Hussain. One of India's most respected musicians, flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia, provides an integral voice as a member of this group for these several concerts. Most enjoyably, Shakti's original ghatam player “Vikku” Vinayakram helps to serve the rhythm.

The tunes here tend to be very long and require attentive listening. Two McLaughlin standards, “Lotus Feet” and “Zakir,” are present. My personal favourite is the one in which Chaurasia appears, sans McLaughlin, on the opening self-penned tune ”Chandrakauns” . Check it out !

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