Remember Shakti: Ramallah, Palestinian Territories, February 14, 2012
Hussain was stating simple fact when he welcomed singer Shankar Mahadevan to the stage as "one of the finest voices you will ever hear in this world." Mahadevan's caressing vocal on the intro to "Giriraj Sudha" was a soothing balm, while his improvisation towards the songs livelier mid-section and rousing conclusionspurred by Hussain's intensely driving tabla and Selvaganesh on equally potent mridangamlifted the audience. Though not as explosive as the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Mahadevan's emotional delivery and improvisational strength was nevertheless evocative of the legendary Qawwali singer, particularly on the peaceful intro to Hussain's epic composition "Ma No Pa."
From left: Shankar Mahadevan, John McLaughlin
Dovetailing first with U. Srinivas and then with McLaughlin on his effects-driven, flute-toned guitar, the haunting beauty of Mahadevan's gentle delivery on the percussion-free intro also provided strong contrast to the intensity of the ensemble improvisation which followed. The joyful dialogue between McLaughlin and Hussain which redirected the song was a delight to watch, as they teased, probed and dared each other like siblings at play. McLaughlin's other-worldly intro to the Mahavishnu Orchestra's "Lila's Dance" from Visions of the Emerald Beyond (Columbia, 1975) served as a short bridge to some fast-tempo improvisation from all, with an inspired McLaughlin at the heart of the group fire. Mahadevan returned at the tail-end of the composition with rattling percussion propelling the captivating 15-minute piece to its conclusion.
A couple of new numbers were aired, suggesting that there may be a new recording in the works, perhaps to coincide with Remember Shakti's more extended tour scheduled for 2013. An untitled pieceshort, but packing real punchfeatured Mahadevan again, who seemed to be gracefully throwing the high notes into the air, almost as gestures of offering. Hussain explained that the number was still a work in progress, which, given its vibrancy, rather whets the appetite for more polished renditions a year from now.
Two of the oldest compositions of the set, "Bridge of Sighs" from Shakti's seminal album Natural Elements (Columbia, 1977), and the lovely "Lotus Feet" from the band's eponymous debut, Shakti (Columbia, 1976) were also the most stripped down of the evening, with melody and atmosphere trumping virtuosity, though the percussive finale on "Bridge of Sighs" was undoubtedly electrifying.
The other new composition, "Shaki," provided a highlight of the set. Beginning with a beautiful vocal-led melody and the simplest of strummed chords, the song grew magnificently. U. Srinivas and McLaughlin played at dizzying speed with tabla and kanjira in step, and after the fireworks Mahadevan's rejoined, soaring once again.
Not quite new, but certainly dressed in new robes, McLaughlin's composition "Five Peace Band" from his outstanding Floating Point (Abstract Logix, 2008) featured a blistering konnakol exchange between Hussain and V. Selvaganesh. A number of children sat to the right of the stage from various refugee camps,who had participated in Al Mada's music therapy sessions, turned to their guardians and each other in open-mouthed, smiling disbelief at this beautiful cacophony; not unlike the rest of the audience, it has to be said.
The final half hour featured Hussain and V. Selvaganesh in a percussive display of rare power and no little finesse. With the other band members marking the one with obvious delight, Hussain's thunderstorm of a solowhich included the theme from "Mission Impossible"set a very high bar, but V. Selvaganesh responded with an astonishing improvisation on kanjira which was no less absorbing. With Hussain switching to Arabic drum, a quite thrilling dialogue ensued between the two. There was no way to top that, and McLaughlin, U. Srinivas and Mahadevan returned merely to carry the piece home in one final, blistering climax.
The two-hour performance was greeted with a standing ovation, and in a final touching gesture, children from the Palestinian refugee camps presented the musicians on stage with mementos of a unique event. Joy and honest communication were the watchwords of this concert. It is precisely this that Al Mada seeks to bring to the Palestinian children and adults in its music therapy programs. Al Mada understands the transformative power of music to heal and to empower, and so too humanitarians like Daniel Barenboim and John McLaughlin.
For any musicians interested in assisting Al Mada or for anyone wishing simply to support its work, more information can be found at Al Mada.