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Shakti | The moment of rhythm

Ustad Zakir Hussain, vocalist Shankar Mahadevan, percussionist V Selvaganesh and violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan of Shakti pose for photos with the award for best global music album for ‘This Moment’ during the 66th annual Grammy Awards, in Los Angeles, on February 4, 2024.
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A few weeks ahead of their 50th-anniversary tour’s U.S. leg in 2023, transcontinental Indo-jazz band Shakti made a pit stop at NPR for their popular ‘tiny desk concert’.

What followed was simply a lesson on ingenious spontaneity that can only be cultivated through years and layers of interaction. British jazz guitarist John McLaughlin’s effortless strums were in conversation with the impeccable rhythm of tabla exponent Zakir Hussain, as vocalist Shankar Mahadevan seamlessly joined, while violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan and kanjira artiste V. Selvaganesh caught up with vigour.

Today, snippets from this infectious musical dialogue flood social media, as the country revels in the 50-year-old ensemble’s win for the Best Global Music Album at the 66th Grammy Awards for their pandemic creation, This Moment.

The now-quintet took shape in 1973 as a two-person aspiration towards melding the musical sensibilities of the East and the West. Zakir Hussain, who was then already touring with his father and tabla maestro Ustad Alla Rakha, roped in the British guitarist with a penchant for Indian music and spirituality, John McLaughlin, to actualise this shared dream. They were introduced to each other by a music shop owner in Greenwich Village, New York. The latter’s fusion group Mahavishnu Orchestra — a jazz band with an Indian name — had already disbanded by then. Violinist L. Shankar and ghatam exponent ‘Vikku’ Vinayakram joined in 1974 to make Shakti a quartet with a unique sound.

Hussain’s incomparable command over rhythm met McLaughlin’s curiosity to learn the alleyways of Indian classical music despite his well-known prowess over jazz. Vikku’s ghatam and Shankar’s violin added an unexpected but fitting Carnatic flavour.

They found common ground in the concept of improvisation, and the quest for a global sound, right in the heels of Pandit Ravi Shankar and The Beatles, whose experiments had already put Indian music on the global map by then.

In an interview with The Hindu in 2023, Vikku Vinayakram fondly recalled, “Rhythm has been our only mode of communication since we first met.” A widely shared video from last year shows the 80-year-old conversing with his former bandmates Hussain and McLaughlin through a delightful ‘konnakol’ (a rhythmic rendition of Carnatic percussion syllables). While the ‘East meets West’ conversation was very much at the core of Shakti’s sound, the band also celebrated the differences and similarities of classical music from the north and south of India. Prior to this, there was very little collaboration between north and south Indian musicians.

A fresh sound

Five years and three albums later, in 1978, Shakti splintered as the musicians left to pursue personal projects, before regrouping in the late 1990s, with new members and a fresh sound.

This time, McLaughlin and Hussain were joined by U. Shrinivas on mandolin and legendary flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasya briefly on a reunion tour titled ‘Remember Shakti’. On the vocals was Shankar as Selvaganesh took over the reins from his father Vikku Vinayakram to wield the ghatam and kanjira.

Following the sudden and tragic loss of Srinivas in 2014, Shakti once again went silent until early 2020 when two sold-out concerts in India and Singapore led to the ensemble’s resurrection on stage. This time around, on the violin was Ganesh Rajagopalan. For the musician who strictly hails from the folds of Carnatic music, Hussain’s invitation to play for the reunion concerts was nothing short of a dream come true.

After the Grammy win, an ecstatic and emotional Ganesh said, “We want to thank John ji and Zakir bhai for the 50 years of hard work. We are just piggybacking.” Selvaganesh added, “Without them, we are not here.” Fresh off the win, Shankar wrote in a social media post, “I never imagined that a band from where I have learnt my music and my musical aesthetics would be the band with whom I would eventually perform and win a Grammy.”

Hussain won two more Grammys, sharpening India’s presence at this year’s event further: one for best global music performance for Pashto and the other for best contemporary instrumental album for As We Speak, alongside American banjo player Bela Fleck and American bassist Edgar Meyer, featuring Indian flute player Rakesh Chaurasia, nephew of flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia.

This Moment, an ode to musical legacies that seamlessly engage in conversation, is the band’s new studio album in more than 45 years. An inherent sense of playfulness characterises the album. It is nothing but a reflection of their love for varied worlds that make space for each musician’s sensibilities and knowledge. Their sound goes beyond what we traditionally refer to as ‘fusion’ — it is rather, a long-drawn experiment that continues to spring surprises.

So naturally, 50 years on, Shakti’s sound still ticks on a global stage. The Grammy stands witness.

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