'Shakti' changed the course of music evolution in the 20th century - Pratyay Raha
Updated: Dec 22, 2022
The second half of the 20th century witnessed a paradigm shift in the process of music creation and the ways of music perception. On one hand, western classical music was slowly shaping itself in a different direction with the contributions of very innovative composers like John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Steve Reich, Gyorgy Ligeti and Iannis Xenakis (to name only a very few), and on the other hand highly established Jazz and Rock musicians like Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane and John Mclaughlin were exploring oriental thought and philosophy to bring in different dimensions to their music practice. Also, highly skilled and trained musicians from the east like Ravi Shankar, Allah Rakha Khan, Zakir Hussain and L. Shankar had grown tremendous interests about western music ideas and applications which led them to travel abroad and start a cross-cultural musical dialogue with their western musician colleagues.
Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar collaborated with the American born British violinist Yehudi Menuhin and first performed in New York City in 1956. An album ‘Three Ragas’ by Ravi Shankar was released in 1956 (London) exposing the richness and vastness of Indian classical music to the western world. American saxophonist John Coltrane started listening to Ravi Shankar’s music during late 50’s and was paying close attention to the style and nuances of Indian classical music. Alice Coltrane produced many pieces and albums which were based on oriental philosophy. American multi-instrumentalist Yusuf Lateef released his album ‘Eastern Sounds’ (1961) which was a combination of Jazz and middle eastern music. West Meets East Album by Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar was released in 1967. Interesting to note, in this album, the Tabla was played by Alla Rakha Khan who revolutionized the Tabla in the west from the late 50’s. (His son Zakir Hussain will carry the legacy and create ‘Shakti’ 20 years after his father started performing abroad). In 1967 – Indo Jazz album was conceptualised and released by Joe Harriot and John Mayer. John Mclaughlin recorded first album ‘Extrapolation’ in London and then moved to the US to join Tony William’s group Lifetime in 1969. He was also part of Miles Davis ensemble of musicians and recorded the albums ‘In a Silent Way’ and ‘Bitches Brew’ which became the turning points of American Jazz and opened up newer ways of improvisation and application in the field of jazz. South Indian classical violinist L. Shankar moved to Wesleyan University
(US) in 1969 to study Ethnomusicology. Zakir Hussain travelled to the US (1970) to accompany Ravi Shankar in one of his recitals and then went on to accompany Ali Akbar Khan in the US. The Mahavishnu Orchestra happened in 1971, The Real Mahavishnu Orchestra formed in 1973. They played and explored a lot of Indian music influences. Rolling Thunder album happened in 1972. (Mickey Hart collaborated with Allah Rakha Khan and Zakir Hussain). Zakir Hussain featured in George Harrison's album ‘Living in the Material World’ (1973) and John Handy’s album ‘Hard Work’ (1973).
Formation of Shakti
Then in 1974, four virtuosic musicians John Mclaughlin, Zakir Hussain, L. Shankar and Vikku Vinayakram came together and formed the fusion band ‘Shakti’. Music journalist Anil Prasad in one of his interviews with John Mclaughlin mentions, “Without a doubt, Shakti’s East-meets-West explorations that bridged jazz and Indian classical music played a pivotal role in establishing world music as a viable, potent force. Formed in 1974, the ground-breaking group initially consisted of British guitarist John McLaughlin, North Indian Tabla master Zakir Hussain, and violinist L. Shankar and ghatam player T.H. “Vikku” Vinayakram, both of whom hail from South India. The band, whose Hindi name translates as “creative intelligence, beauty and power,” fashioned an organic, fluid sound that combined what were then perceived as disparate traditions into a seamless whole. McLaughlin’s enormous fan base from his years fronting the wildly popular early '70s fusion group Mahavishnu Orchestra ensured Shakti had a large audience from the outset. As a result, it opened the ears of listeners worldwide to the immense possibilities cross-cultural musical collaborations can yield.”
After Shakti becoming a potent world music force, many other musicians and groups have walked this path of Jazz fusion with Indian classical music or synthesis and created music in their own ways. Sometimes their ideas have been inspired by the music of Shakti and sometimes they have walked in different directions. In this essay, I will try to draw an analytical comparison between the music of the other succeeding groups after Shakti and the music of Shakti.
Joe Zawinul and Trilok Gurtu collaboration
The basis of the collaboration between Austrian keyboardist Joe Zawinul and South Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu is mainly temporal and timbral. Within the areas of temporality and Timbral variations, there are a lot of intricate details that need to be carefully observed to understand this kind of fusion music. That aspect is quite similar to Shakti’s music foundation with regard to the manipulation with tempo as the basis of the compositions but the sound is totally different. The timbral aspect has a departure with the sound of synthesizer played by Joe Zawinul. During this collaboration. Joe Zawinul used three synthesizers, each of them producing different sounds. Trilok Gurtu mixed between drums, Tabla and various other percussion instruments. John Fordham (The Guardian) mentioned in a review of one of Trilok Gurtu’s recent collaborations, ‘Gurtu's impression of Miles Davis in Bollywood was no joke, but a progression of echoing bugged-trumpet effects and slowly falling cadences ended up in synth-slashes and racing tempos like a Joe Zawinul band.’ In my opinion it is an over-generalisation and over-simplification to define Joe Zawinul and Trilok Gurtu collaboration as synth slashes and racing tempos. It is the same as defining Shakti’s music as percussive patterns fused with Jazz improvisations. What is there behind the ‘racing tempos’ is the crux of the creative stimulation which makes the music different. Joe Zawinul collaborated with John Mclaughlin in the same festival Umbria Jazz where he performed with Trilok Gurtu. In this setup, John Mclaughlin played similar melodies that he played in ‘Shakti’, but the output and the perception of the whole music was very different as in Joe Zawinul Syndicate band the rhythm was mainly driven by Drums. The drum rhythm patterns and acoustics had a huge departure from the Shakti’s rhythm-scape which consisted of Tabla-Ghattam (Original Shakti 1970s) and Tabla-Ghattam-Kanjira (Remember Shakti 1990s). Here it is interesting to note that the Acoustic output of Remember Shakti (1997) was quite different from the sound of original Shakti, John Mclaughlin in an interview with Anil Prasad mentioned, ‘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. This group is like the original Shakti in some ways, but quite different also.
On the conceptualisation of the music, John Mclaughlin said, “There are some pyrotechnics on the recording, but because of the soulful sound of Hariprasad’s bansuri flute, everybody adapted themselves automatically without thinking “Should I do this? Should I do that?” It’s a natural process. The moment you start to talk about playing music, you destroy music. It cannot be talked about. It can only be played, enjoyed and listened to. The record was an afterthought. I spoke about the idea of taping the shows with 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 in this way again. So, we rented a 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 available as a recording?”
In his article, ‘THE GLOBLISATION OF INDIAN MUSIC: AN OVERVIEW’ Rohit mentions “Since 1970s, South Indian musicians have seen the connections between jazz improvisation and India’s classical music traditions. From the awareness the genre known as “fusion” was born, and this, intern, starts an interface between East and West that continues to excite a younger generation of music and listeners. In 2000s, the Australian singer Susheela Raman fused carnatic kritis with an electric, hard driving Chicago blues style (As in her album Salt Rain). The talented American jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, whose parents are from South India, has worked with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and others to bring into jazz a subtle integration of Carnatic music rhythm and improvisational procedures, creating a unique style that defies definition. Yet when one examines them closely, we see just how much these musics have in common as modes of human expression, paths for spiritual advancement, and in the realm of pure music itself. We then can see just how much Indian music has influenced jazz, and will continue to do so on many levels.”
L. Subramanium & Larry Coryell collaboration
Joe Grossman writes ‘From the Ashes contains four long duet improvisations that sound somewhat structured or at least slightly prepared, rather than completely spontaneous. This structure makes the music more compelling, and both players use their instrumental resources to good effect as they take turns soloing and accompanying each other. The range of moods almost seems wider than on the group CD, with Coryell's playing going from delicate harmonics to (acoustic) power chording, while the tone colors of Mani's violin cover similar territory. What could in lesser hands have been empty new-age noodling is here expressive and vital playing from these two masters.’ We listen in Shakti’s music, each instrument talks to the other instrument and a musical dialogue is created. A similar acoustic output was generated by the duo South Indian classical violinist L Subramanium and American jazz guitarist Larry Coryell in the 1999 album ‘From the Ashes’. In this album, the guitar and violin converse in an intimate and cross fading way and produce meditative and peaceful sounds where it departs from the excitement and energy of Shakti’s music.
Stephane Grappelli and L. Subramanium collaboration
Another important juncture of Fusion music is the album ‘Conversations’ by L. Subramanium and French-Italian jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli. In this album which was released in 1984 musicians from across the globe came together and created a totally different fusion sound departing totally from its predecessor Shakti. Shakti played a lot with accents and sub- divisions in a beat cycle, smoothly transitioning from one kind of sub-division to another, whereas in this album ‘conversations’, more emphasis is on
the movement of the melody with an almost unchanging pattern of rhythm in the background. While Shakti can be described a musical storm developed from nothingness, ‘Conversations’ can be called a mellifluous journey through the unfolding of spring. In original Shakti, there are 4 main instruments whereas in this collaboration there are lot more having large variety of sonic material (Bass, Drums, Synthesizer, Percussion, Keyboard, Violin, Guitar (acoustic and
electric), Viola (Violectra), Tambura, Swaramandal, Alto Saxophone, Piano(acoustic and electric), Steiner phone).
Collin Walcott and Ralph Towner (Oregon) collaboration
Oregon - Live at Molde Jazz Festival 1975, a time when Shakti had just started off, this band Oregon was also making unique footprints on the sands of musical evolution time. Ralph Towner - 12-string & classical guitar, piano, Paul McCandless – reeds, Glen Moore – bass, Collin Walcott - tabla, percussion, sitar, they played four compositions 1. Nimbus 2. Rainmaker 3. Witchi-Tai-To 4. Yet To Be Each of them were unique in their own way, had a meditative appeal, the instrumentation was slightly different from Shakti’s so the sound output was different. Shakti had a massive work on rhythm pattern variations and subdivisions, Oregon used the Indian percussion instrument (Tabla) to bring in that different sound than the regular jazz that uses drums. The Sitar by Collin Walcott brought in a new dimension to the whole approach. The meditative and repetitive phrases reminded of the minimalistic composers like Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, La Monte Young and Terrey Riley. In the performance clip we see the audience closing their eyes and absorbing the music in a meditative way.
Now, if we consider a relatively younger artist who has worked in the area of Fusion, we’ll find some similarities with the sound of Remember Shakti (The reincarnation of Shakti). The Indian born Australian musician Susheela Raman has used voice (in her album ‘Salt Rain’) in myriad dimensions with the background of Indo-jazz rhythmic patterns on the drums and tabla. The use of voice in a fusion setup is similar to what Indian classical vocalist Shankar Mahadevan did in Remember Shakti but differs in a lot of ways. Shankar Mahadevan used his voice for sargams and aalaps syncopating with the rhythmic movement of the piece and South Indian Percussionist V. Selvaganesh and Zakir Hussain does Konnakol patterns on the
voice, whereas Susheela Raman has used her voice for different things such as songs (in English, Hindi, Tamil), Konnakol patterns, Kritis (a musical composition typical to South Indian music), spoken words, extramusical sounds like laughing, speaking, reacting and also played with sonic materialism in innovative ways. In her other projects, she has experimented a lot with sonic space and materialism. In ‘Salt Rain’, the rhythmic patterns are used with different instruments (different African and Asian percussion instruments are used) which makes the album a broader horizon of percussion acoustics.
Now, let’s discuss about a totally different fusion sound and analyse its alignment with Shakti. Hadouk Trio. The Hadouk Trio consists of the musicians Didier Malherbe ( duduk , flute , ocarina , soprano saxophone , khene ), Loy Ehrlich ( keyboard , Hajouj, Kora , Mbira , Gumbass ) and Steve Shehan ( percussion , hang ). The music of Hadouk Trio was based on rhythmic patterns and free melodic improvisation which is similar to Shakti, but there is no complexity in rhythm structures and there is no change in subdivisions during the journey of the piece. On the other hand, there is a variety of experimentation with the soundscape of rhythm which was not the case for Shakti. The sonic material used for making the rhythms of Hadouk are quite unique and brings a new dimension to fusion music. The way the Armenian instrument Duduk is used enhanced and widened the range of sonic possibilities for every piece.
Now coming to a composition by Indian Sitar player Purbayan Chatterjee which would fall into category of Indo-Jazz. The composition is called ‘Pace of Mind’. Along with the sitarist, Percussionist Taufiq Qureshi, Jazz pianist Louiz Banks and bassist Mohini Dey bring a special dimension to the acoustic output of the piece. Also on this performance are drummer Gino Banks and Tabla player Bhushan Parchure. The departure of ‘pace of mind’ from any of Shakti’s compositions would be the presence of numerous electronic sounds. The main Indian classical instrument is an electric Sitar. A synthesizer is used too so all the melodic and harmonic parts are played using electric
instruments. The racing tempo of this piece relates to the Shakti piece ‘Isis’ but here the instruments talking to each other is not quite established. All instruments are playing at the same time with similar amplitude or playing solo one after another.
For the Jazz fusion band ‘Crosscurrents’ by English double bassist Dave Holland, American jazz saxophonist Chris Potter and Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain, the pieces explore the influence of Indian classical music on jazz. In their piece ‘Radhe Rani’, a north Indian traditional song has been transformed into a fusion piece with a lot of elements of world music coming in throughout the piece. Dave Holland plays a drone on the double bass, similar to the tanpura drone that is used with Indian classical music. The sound of it is totally different from the sound of the tanpura. For this performance at Lincoln Center's Rose Hall on May 5th, 2018 in New York City, the trio had collaborated with Shankar Mahadevan (voice), Sanjay Divecha (guitar), Louiz Banks (piano) and Gino Banks (drums). So, in ‘Radhe Rani’, Starting with the double bass drone, Shankar Mahadevan improvises notes and phrases with the voice, Chris Potter plays similar notes on the saxophone but in a jazzy style making the whole dialogue very unique and interesting. In Remember Shakti, Shankar Mahadevan does similar intricacies with the voice but the sonic output is totally different as the background is made of melodic and harmonic improvisations on an electric guitar, mandolin and rhythm combinations are developed on Tabla and Kanjira. The departure of the music of ‘Crosscurrents’ is the presence of only one percussion instrument in most of the pieces (Tabla), whereas in Shakti (Zakir Hussain and Vikku Vinayakram) and Remember Shakti (Zakir Hussain and Selvaganesh) build up patterns in
unison or in syncopated dynamic dialogue. Between two different rhythm instruments and their sounds, the acoustics of the process, the evolution of the sound through the years makes Shakti stand out.
When asked whether Remember Shakti went more the Indian way, Mclaughlin answered “Yes, things went the natural Indian way. 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 that 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.”
These are few of the many fusion bands/individuals that have come up after the path breaking music of Shakti in 1974. In fact, the present members of Shakti believe that Shakti can evolve too, it has more to offer to music, fusion, world music. So, the original Shakti sound is not there anymore, it has changed over time. As I mentioned earlier, Remember Shakti sound is completely different from the Original Shakti sound. Similarly, other bands and people who have done fusion music after Shakti are definitely different from the sound of Shakti or Remember Shakti but if we analyse deeply the philosophies associated with the process of synthesis music somehow resonate with the path that was carved out by Shakti.
Innerviews (John Mclaughlin interview with Anil Prasad) - https://www.innerviews.org/inner/john-mclaughlin.html
Indian Music and the West - Gerry Farrell
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bnMIYEe0GJs&t=1809s – Hadouk Trio performance
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLar3ohtGwU – Hadouk Trio – Shamanimal
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFruVjdfjPc – Karma – Have you ever been used
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xsS780orgiA&list=PLv4V4E6596xf40E05jgZX3IB gswKdmIMo Susheela Raman – Salt Rain album
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9m7VIHR9lYk – Oregon performance
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JjuImChynP0 – Pace of Mind
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UfjxtcNYKz4&t=1604s - Remember Shakti performance Vienna
11. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0XKX6p221U – 4th Dimension performance 12. John Mclaughlin’s Indo-Jazz Fusion by Joe Deloro