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John McLaughlin And Zakir Hussain: Shakti's Half-Century Of Spontaneous Joy

John McLaughlin And Zakir Hussain: Shakti's Half-Century Of Spontaneous Joy

Courtesy Pepe Gomes

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There is something unique about Shakti insofar as it is always new to me. It is open but, I think it was Zakir-bhai who said, ‘Shakti is one being.’ We’ve been playing for fifty years and every time I go to the stage with them I’m excited. I’m gonna get my butt kicked, (laughs) but I’m excited because they push me to where I have never been before.
—John McLaughlin
John McLaughlin. Ustad Zakir Hussain. Speak either name and a host of musical notions can come to mind. Pair them together and they conjure just one: Shakti.

Indeed, the iconic jazz guitarist and celebrated Indian percussionist have each built long careers replete with enough musical achievements, stylistic innovations and instrumental mastery to gain entrance into a rarified musical pantheon. But it's their musical brotherhood in Shakti that has outdistanced all of their other individual efforts, active and vibrant a half-century later.

With a new album, This Moment (Abstract Logix, 2023) and world tour on the horizon, the two men whose initial musical meeting sparked this revolutionary musical entity sat down with All About Jazz in the Spring of 2023. The longtime friends and bandmates discuss their musical kinship, the connective tissue between East and West, North and South, and the ongoing legacy their journey together has created.

[Note to readers: Throughout the interview, the Indian honorific suffixes "ji" and "bhai" are used frequently. "Ji" denotes respect, "bhai" means brother or friend. The honorifics "Ustad" and "Pandit" appear as well and are titles of respect that are often used for musicians.]

All About Jazz: Well first off, congratulations to you both on the 50th anniversary of Shakti. For the occasion, it might be appropriate to start with a little bit of the history of the group.

When Shakti formed, John, you were just coming off a groundbreaking stint with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. As you've mentioned in past interviews, many thought you were crazy for taking such a stylistic left turn after the Mahavishnu Orchestra's critical and commercial success. What was the impetus for going in such a radically different direction with Shakti at the time?

John McLaughlin: It was a musical imperative. Yes, I had been going with the Mahavishnu Orchestra but even before that, before I even got to the US, I was deep into Indian culture and philosophy for how it addresses some of the great existential questions of life. And you cannot separate music from philosophy in India. They are part and parcel of a type of conscience. It's very beautiful.

Zakir-bhai and I had known each other since 1969. By 1973, I had also studied with Dr. S Ramanathan at Wesleyan College in Connecticut and met Dr. L. Shankar there. By the end of 1975, against some other pressures, I knew I had to let go of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Call it what you want—for my heart, my soul, my music—I knew I had to. The real impetus though was when Zakir-bhai and I first played together at the house of one of the greatest Indian musicians of all time, Ali Akbar Kahn.

AAJ: Yes, you relayed this story in our 2020 interview but if you don't mind, I'd like to hear Zakir's account of that meeting. Zakir, you first went to see the Mahavishnu Orchestra play in California, correct?

Zakir Hussain: Yes I did. John-ji had invited me to come to the concert and that was the first time I saw the Mahavishnu Orchestra. My jaw dropped about a mile down... (laughs) I mean, you meet the man and you shake his hand. You get a sense of warmth and a level of comfort that allows you to relax in his presence. Then you walk into this concert hall and there is this incredible energy of creativity coming at you—syncopations, offbeats and onbeats, grooves and unison breaks... It was like, "What was I thinking, shaking this man's hand! This is a legend. This is like Pandit Ravi Shankar; this is like Ustad Ali Akbar Khan!"

So that prepared me for when he came with his [acoustic] guitar to Ali Akbar Khan's house and we played together. But when we played together, it felt like we had done this before somehow. It felt right. It did not feel alien; it did not feel hesitant. It was a sprint down the track together, hand in hand. It was an experience that felt like a flight into seventh heaven. It was of the highest order and very magical for me.

AAJ: Zakir, your father was Ustad Allaraka, Ravi Shankar's tabla player, and was himself one of the most revered tabla musicians ever. Also, you were not only his son but his student. So when you heard the Mahavishnu Orchestra and then played with John, were you on a traditional path with tabla, or had you already been thinking beyond the traditional boundaries of Indian music?

ZH: Well, my father was not your run-of-the-mill teacher or guru. I come from a family of farmers and soldiers. He was the first one in the family to be a musician. He wasn't so deeply entrenched in that way of life—meaning he didn't have a whole clan or tribe [of musicians] to answer to. So he had a much more open point of view.

He was very young, 19 or 20, when he became a professional and decided to travel. He ended up in Bombay (Mumbai) and started working in the film industry. He composed music for about 40 feature films. And so he was already branching out, working with orchestras, singers and rhythm sections. He brought me there when I was very young so I grew up listening to that, actually playing tambourine or clave in those kinds of settings. I graduated to playing bongos and finally tabla by the time my father went to go on tour with Ravi Shankar.

So when I arrived in America in 1970, my first encounter was playing with Ali Akbar Khan and John Handy, the saxophonist. So my [open musical] mindset was already in the works. I had heard my father playing with Elvin Jones, Yusef Lateef and Buddy Rich, as well as going with him to a Duke Ellington concert in Bombay. So it wasn't like I did Indian classical music at home and then I went out and did something else. Everything came along with me and it was natural to bend into this musical way of life—without any hesitation or issues.

AAJ: So was there actual planning by the two of you at the outset to do a cross-cultural project like Shakti?

JM: No, it all started with that first jam that we played together. This was an extraordinary experience, one that's ingrained into my heart. If I close my eyes, I can see myself and Zakir-bhai sitting next to me. I can see Ali Akbar Khan in his armchair, smoking his cigarette. (McLaughlin imitates)... (laughs) We just spontaneously started to play and I have never felt so happy, comfortable and amazed at this young fellow playing tabla. It was just like Zakir-bhai said. It was as if we had already played together before in another life—and now it was just time to continue. It was the most natural thing in the world. The significance of that experience pushed me to learn even more about Indian culture generally—its philosophical thought, its ways towards enlightenment and especially its music

We [Shakti] were not the only group to bring these different cultures [of jazz and Indian music] together. There was a group in the UK, The Joe Harriott Indo-Jazz Fusion. We're talking early '60s here. And of course, a more famous example would be John Coltrane, who was an ardent admirer of Indian music and was friends with the great Ravi Shankar. There was great mutual admiration between the two of them.

But whichever way we look at it, there is a great deal of fundamental common ground between Indian music and jazz music. The principal element is improvisation. It's the spontaneity that jazz needs and so does Indian music—whether the North or South. By the end of the '60s, I was already aware of how amazing the Indian musicians were in not just improvisation, but rhythmic improvisation. This too is at the heart of jazz.

Yes, we play melodies; we play arrangements. They do that in Indian music too. You can listen to the different forms, whether it's South Indian music or North Indian music, but they are also just two subdivisions of a whole that integrate different things. Look at Qawwali—which is something I adore. This is not instrumental music at all but vocal music. It's devotional, which interests and inspires me from a spiritual point of view. So, you have so many different aspects and I was really in love with Indian music. That's what pulled me to Zakir-bhai and L Shankar.

So there, in the very first incarnation of Shakti, we had my guru's mridangam player [Ramnad Raghavan]—who was South Indian; we had Zakir-bhai—who was North Indian; we had a South Indian violinist in L Shankar and me from the West with my jazz tradition and my love for Indian music. From the very first time we played, what can I say... I was in heaven.

ZH: I must add that when John-ji brought in L Shankar, Raghavan and Vikku-ji (T.H. "Vikku" Vinayakram) [to form Shakti], I was prepared for that union. For that, I have to thank Pandit Ravi Shankar for allowing me to sit with him and the great Palghat Raghu—the mridangam maestro—when I was 15 or 16 years old in the mid-'60s. It opened my eyes to this incredible world of [South Indian] rhythm thinking that was disciplined, refined and well thought-out, So logical. It wasn't fluid, spontaneous and somewhat hazy as in North Indian music. John-ji had made the effort and taken the time to study South Indian music and that little bit of time spent looking through the window that Ravi Shankar provided really helped me interact with Shankar-ji, Vikku-ji and Raghavan-ji.

AAJ: To many in the West, the differences between North Indian classical and South Indian (Carnatic) music may not be readily apparent.

JM: Well both schools are really so intimately connected. They are both mathematical. There are different syllables that are used but the technique and the conception are identical. If we go back 1500, 2000 years, there's actually only one school of music... global.

Here's a little story. I was very fortunate to get to know Pandit Ravi Shankar in 1971. By 1974, he had invited me to visit him at his hotel every time he came to New York. The first couple of times, he would arrive and I would go over and bring him some tea or something. Then one time out of the blue, he said (imitating Ravi Shankar's voice), "Okay, come over and we gonna teach you konnakol." Now konnakol is the South Indian oral tradition of learning rhythm and I said, "Oh, konnakol. This is the South Indian school." and Pandit-ji said (imitating voice), "Oh yes. North Indian percussion players fantastic, fantastic... but South Indian... really excellent!" (laughs)

So he taught me konnakol, which is such a marvelous system. Whether you're from the North or South, Brazil, Africa, or the Antarctic, it's an amazing system that you can practice in the shower, on a plane, in bed, anywhere. It's a wonderful technique that I recommend to jazz musicians and every kind of musician.

Look at it this way. If you are going to improvise—and we have to—you have to be with the drummer. That means you have to know and understand what the drummer is doing rhythmically. The drummer is the heartbeat of every band and if you're not with the drummer, you don't belong in the band.

AAJ: Earlier, you highlighted a misconception some in the West may have. Namely, because it is sometimes referred to as Indian Classical music, it might be inferred that there is no element of improvisation inherent to it. You're saying that's not true at all. So, is there a major difference between jazz and Indian music?

JM: Only in the aspect of harmony. But if you look at the modal school of jazz, which Miles Davis conceived in the late '50s, Coltrane developed it to an astonishing level because he was deeply into Indian music. And it directly relates to the linear raga school of India—that's both North and South.

Basically, in Indian music, they improvise in a raga. In Western music, we improvise using scales. But we have the addition of harmony where you have to know all of the scales so you can move linearly through the harmonic structure.

One of the classic Coltrane pieces was based on the Miles Davis composition "So What." Coltrane wrote from it a piece called "Impressions" and it's two chords—D minor to Eb minor, then back to D minor. So you have a D Dorian scale and an Eb Dorian scale; that's it. So you might as well be in an Indian [harmonic] environment here because you've only got two scales—one for 16 bars, then one a half-step higher for eight bars, then back down again. But Coltrane is so captured by the spirit and moving into scale extensions and so forth, if you don't pay attention, you don't even know where that Eb minor comes in!

So the fundamental concept is identical. How many pop tunes today are written with one chord? Even jazz tunes—they are modal. It's the same as Indian music. Yes, you have one fundamental scale, but even in Indian music, they have rag mala—garlands of ragas—where you move ragas. Which basically means you are moving in a harmonic environment. Ali Akbar Khan was a master at this. A chord is only notes of a scale played simultaneously—a vertical view of a scale or a raga. So even in India you have this type of movement, but they don't call it harmonic. They call it garlands of ragas—rag mala.

ZH: Yes, and you can tune the tanpura—the drone instrument—with at least two or three notes going simultaneously so the drone has that harmonic effect. Also, the sympathetic strings suggest harmony so it's all part and parcel—all one school—as John-ji said.

AAJ: Was there a melodic or harmonic component to your North Indian classical percussion training, Zakir?

ZH: Yes. One thing we are taught from the get-go is that the high drum of the tabla is tuned to the tonic of either the vocalist or instrumentalist you are accompanying. So you tune to the C or D or Eb and you are locked into the scale or raga you are going to be playing.

Lately though—and this has come directly from playing with Shakti—I've gotten into playing melodic scales on the tabla. Sometimes I use two or three tablas or try to play melodic patterns on the bass drum. Also, the high end of the tabla has two or three notes that can suggest harmony. When I tune to a tonic note, I can get a flatted 2nd playing a certain part of the drum or pressing with my finger, I can get a natural 2nd. Then, within the raga system, I am able to play what we call Vadi or Samavadi—dominant or subdominant notes—and harmonically support the main instrument. It works well with a one-note instrument like a flute or bansuri that is very naked out there. It creates a sympathetic harmonic effect while tuning to the tonic gives a drone effect. It fills the canvas below and helps the main artist to perform and fly all over it. So in this sense, there is a harmonic element that is available.

JM: If I may add, Zakir-bhai neglected to mention that he has already introduced into Shakti tuning his tabla to the dominant in a composition that he wrote. The tonic of the piece is E, but the key is actually A. This allows me to go to different places when I improvise that I would never go to if we were in E. With this one tabla, Zakir has done something that is quite unique in my experience.

AAJ: Growing up a jazz listener with Western ears, the challenges a Western jazz musician might encounter integrating with Indian music might seem more obvious—the reverse, maybe not so much. Zakir, were there any challenges for you, as an Indian musician, integrating with Western music?

ZH: Well, John-ji very carefully and patiently took us and dipped us into that world. It's a real testament to his ability that he took the time to get to know our world. He had already climbed over the fence into where we existed, so it was definitely much more comfortable [for us].

I can remember there were certain melodies that John-ji would have to take a moment to transpose over to the guitar and figure out how to execute at break-neck speed—while simultaneously maintaining the raga structure and improvising. At times, it was focused, hard, and very patient work on his part—but he came over [to us] to do that.

Then later on—around Handful of Beauty (Columbia, 1976)—there was some very subtle nudging, moving us to his way of thinking. There was a tune... what was that? (hums tune) It was in 15 and moved through different rhythm cycles. It was great to be playing almost a form with a chorus, in terms of soloing. So he slowly nudged us in that direction, even more so on the Natural Elements (Columbia, 1977) album.

JM: But Zakir-bhai, you also had some great experiences [with other Western musicians]. Who was that drummer from The Grateful Dead?

ZH: Well, yes. I was playing with Mickey Hart and Jerry Garcia. And I was doing concerts with Van Morrison and Earth, Wind & Fire and those guys...

JM: So you had a lot...

ZH: Yes, but I was just a percussionist playing along and every now and then getting featured a little bit. But to be integrated into the creative process, to be a part of this unit and help build this incredible idea, it was something that... (pause) Like I've said a million times, John-ji is like a teacher or a mentor from whom I have learned not only about music but about life in general. His ability to be patient with us... and forgiving...

JM: No, no... None of this is true... (laughs)

ZH: (laughs) It's totally true. When we launched into Shakti at the first concert in Southampton—what became our first record [Shakti with John McLaughlin (Columbia, 1976)]—there it was. It was straight-out Indian Classical music with South Indian ideas and patterns. Then his slow nudging of us... It has been a great learning experience.

JM: It was a spontaneous joy. But listen, I just have to respond to what Zakir is saying. He's so sweet saying, "John-ji was so patient" and all that, but when I get on the stage with Zakir-bhai, he's kicking my butt! (laughs)—and that is exactly what I want. (laughs) I just wanted to clear that up.

ZH: (laughs) The feeling is mutual, believe me.

AAJ: Zakir, you mentioned that you were gratified to be brought into the creative process in Shakti. What is that process exactly and how are compositions introduced and developed?

ZH: John-ji?

JM: Traditionally, I was bringing music into Shakti because even though I have studied North Indian classical music and to a greater extent South Indian music, I am not an Indian classical musician. I am by discipline a jazz musician and so I am not in a position to go onstage a play Indian classical pieces in a classical way—and I don't want to. Starting with that first jam Zakir-bhai and I had, I didn't feel obliged to follow any raga. So I'll come up with some ideas and put them to the other musicians. It's in this particular rhythm, there's a melody, there's a structure where we can improvise. Immediately, Zakir-bhai and now V. Selvaganesh take it and see what they can do with it and they come up with the most fantastic compositions within the piece itself. They are mindblowing. On the new album [This Moment (Abstract Logix, 2023)] in particular, there are things that I listen to and think, "How is this possible?" It's so right, and at the same time, so out there... but this is their talent.

For example, there is that piece that Zakir-bhai gave us for the album that had a harmonic structure. I had to find a way to bring that in, in my Western way. But the way of playing and the atmosphere—this was something I really had to think about. I need that challenge though. I need it from any musician that I play with. It then takes a great deal of thought, reflection and listening to say, "Yes, I can go this way"—but it never happens immediately.

There's always work involved. Shakti, in a way of looking at it, is a workingman's band. It's so much work. It's almost like a collective sculpture that is built. And even though I'm playing in it, it's a marvel to listen to—the structures, the improvisations. It's inspiring the way they bring their fantastic imaginations into just a simple idea or chord sequence. Everyone is bringing their beautiful mind to the music.

ZH: Also, the pieces of music evolve when the band is on the road. A piece starts the way it is and then halfway through the tour, you find it has blossomed into this incredible thing.

JM: It's amazing how alive the pieces become. Everybody has to find their way into every piece. Some pieces, you have immediate identification and some pieces take deep reflection to find what you are going to do to truly enhance them. But, in the end, it always seems to come.

AAJ: What was the recording process like for This Moment?

JM: It was done almost entirely remotely.

AAJ: Considering the type of interaction inherent in Shakti's music, that is a little surprising.

JM: Well, Zakir-bhai and Selvaganesh came to visit me together and we did do some recording in my home studio but the band is scattered all over the world so we all traded files back and forth. I would send out a very rough base with chords and a little melody. I would get it back from Zakir and Selvaganesh, put my headphones on, and all of a sudden, they are in the room with me. I see them in my mind's eye and feel them in my ears. Yes, I may not be able to affect them but I am certainly affected by them—and I'm inspired. So I'll lay down something and then they will be inspired by something and want to lay down a new track. I don't even know how many times the tracks were redone.

ZH: Back and forth, back and forth...

JM: It was continuous inspiration coming in. It was a fabulous experience. It was the longest-produced album I've ever made.

ZH: Me too.

AAJ: How long did it take to record the album?

JM: Eighteen months.

ZH: But when we talk about overdubs, there is attention paid to recording in a way that we can reproduce onstage. It's not like layers and layers of guitar and percussion on top of each other. It's still the five of us performing as we would do live.

This album has been such a wonderful experience because going into a studio, you have time constraints of maybe three or four days to record. Then you go on the road and say, "Oh, maybe we should have done this or put this over there." With this much time available, it was possible to really explore the piece in a multi-dimensional way to find the combinations of sounds and breaks and rhythmic grooves to make it just right. It was time well spent, I have to say.

JM: It is marvelous. I just listened to the album and it's a delight. It's rich in the melodic concept, the rhythmic concept and in every way. Is That So? (Abstract Logix, 2020) was a milestone for Shankar Mahadevan, Zakir-bhai and me, but This Moment is a testament. I'm so happy with it and proud of it.

ZH: I didn't get a chance to personally thank John-ji for putting this together and it's also great to see a Vinayakram involved in the building process of things. Vikku-ji always played but didn't get a chance to be involved in building things the way [his son] Selvaganesh has. Vikku-ji has been so important and such a great pillar of the original group, it was great to see input from his house.

AAJ: The two of you are the only ones to have been members of Shakti throughout its entire tenure. Any thoughts on the current or former members as contributors to the Shakti legacy?

JM: Every participant from the beginning... (pauses) The thing about Shakti is always that it has evolved because we all continuously learn. I am learning every day and will be until the day I keel over. But for some reason, Shakti, even from the very beginning, has always had the quality of joy. It is spontaneous joy and every night we go to the stage, that spontaneous joy comes out. That's not the case in every band, believe me. We are all born with innate joy. I think Zakir-bhai will agree that everyone who came into the group had it and Shakti brought it out. It still does to this day.

ZH: Each and every individual comes with that energy in place. It's like a booster and each one takes the band around the next corner and onwards.

JM: There is something unique about Shakti insofar as it is always new to me. It is open but, I think it was Zakir-bhai who said, "Shakti is one being." We've been playing for fifty years and every time I go to the stage with them I'm excited. I'm gonna get my butt kicked, (laughs) but I'm excited because they push me to where I have never been before.

AAJ: Shakti is set to embark on a world tour with a much-anticipated series of dates in the US as well. At the band's outset, and along with a few others, Shakti was pretty much a major ear-opener in terms of introducing Western audiences to what we now refer to as "World Music." Over the fifty years of performing with Shakti, have you detected any change in the audience in its reception to Shakti's music?

ZH: I would have to give today's audiences much more credit. They come prepared, knowing the music they are going to be a part of—what it is, where it comes from. Now it's all right at their fingertips. They can Google us, read our bios and watch us on YouTube. That wasn't available in the old days when you would have to buy an album and read the liner notes to get to know the band. With that kind of information available, the audiences have become that much more discerning and intelligent in their listening process.

These days, I find myself getting onto the stage with Indian classical musicians or others not needing to even say a word. We just play and they move with you, they bend, they float, they fly. It's just uncanny how rich the listening process of today's audiences has become. It's amazing.

AAJ: Was there ever an issue with your early audiences opening up to Shakti's music?

ZH: I don't know if there ever was an issue but they are reacting much more now. Maybe they were a bit more hesitant in the old days.

JM: I'm not so sure about that, Zakir-bhai. The 1975 recording? The audience in Southampton?

ZH: Yeah. The audience is screaming their heads off...

JM: An amazing audience. They were into it...

ZH: I thought they were all cheering Arthur Ashe beating Jimmy Connors. (laughs) That was actually going on that day. (laughs)

JM: For me, audiences will always be audiences. When they sit down and wait for you to start playing, they are waiting for one thing—just like I am when I go to a concert. We want to be captured by the emotion, exhilaration and joy of the players and be swept off our feet into their world. And we will live in their world throughout that concert and go home happy, having forgotten ourselves totally. I think this is fundamental about human beings when it comes to listening to music. So basically, if the band is happening, the audience is happening.

AAJ: What do you both have in your sights for the future, either together or separately?

ZH: For me, to learn some more. It's out there, I mean...

When my father would start to talk to me about music, about rhythms, about tradition, the first thing he always said to me was, "Son, don't try to be a master. Try to be a good student and you'll get by just fine." I find that to be true of all the great legends. They have proven themselves time and time again, yet they take the time to go out and discover more, learn more and reinvent themselves more. That's such an amazing thing.

There's a line about someone saying to a maestro, "Maestro, you were perfect today." and he answers, "I haven't played good enough to quit yet." And it's true, you have to learn and there is no other way out of it. You're a student from day one on this planet and you are a student when you go to sleep. So yes, there's much more to learn, much more to do.

This new album, for instance, is a revelation. I can't recall being part of a creative process together where this kind of music came out. It's mind-blowing. My "pride meter" goes up, just to have been part of it. But I'm also sure that I have miles to go before I sleep. There's more to learn, more to grow. We all do different things and say, "Well, this was it." But no, then you realize that this was it but for the moment. There's more out there.

JM: I'll second that. (laughs) You know, every day is a brand new day and I'm not like I was yesterday. We're different every day and isn't it marvelous? I am in awe to learn something new, to see something new, and to be alive in this mysterious, fabulous universe.

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