John McLaughlin: “Listening to any kind of real music is a meditative experience”

Chandrima Pal | Updated on January 17, 2020 Published on January 17, 2020

Original sound: Members of Shakti (from left to right) singer Shankar Mahadevan, tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, the late mandolin exponent U Shrinivas, guitarist John McLaughlin and kanjira player V Selvag. Photo: Paul Noronha   -  paul noronha

The guitar legend on the evolution of his band Shakti, the joy of playing with Shankar Mahadevan and their new album Is That So?

British jazz guitar legend John McLaughlin is still doing what he does best — making jaws drop.

The 78-year-old musician who defined Indo-jazz fusion in the ’70s with his band Shakti — which also featured Zakir Hussain on the tabla, Vikku Vinayakram on the ghatam and L Shankar on the violin — was in Kolkata to perform with a new-look Shakti. The concert on Tuesday featured, apart from McLaughlin and Hussain, Shankar Mahadevan on the vocals, Ganesh Rajagopalan on the violin and Vikku’s son Selvaganesh on the kanjira. McLaughlin is also out with an album called Is That So? featuring Hussain and Mahadevan.

Is That So? John McLaughlin, Shankar Mahadevan, Zakir Hussain


“The idea was to abandon the rules of the raga system completely and apply my own western harmonic liberty to the amazing voice of Shankar Mahadevan,” the guitarist-composer said in an email interview to BLink before the concert. Excerpts:

When you collaborate as musicians over decades, you witness each other’s personal growth and journeys. How much of the individual artistic experience makes it to the material that defines the musical philosophy of Shakti?

There is a simple answer to your question: The moment one musician leaves a group and another arrives, the whole group changes. It is inevitable, particularly when many concerts have been shared. Only one example is needed to show this to be true. In December 2013, [mandolin exponent] U Shrinivas played what was to be his final concert with Shakti. Plans had been made to record in 2014. Everything was put on hold when Shrinivas fell ill during the summer of 2014, and we lost him on September 19 that year. All of us musicians were in complete and utter disarray, and it took over five years to get to the point where we could consider moving on with another musician to replace him.

Ustad Zakir Hussain has been integral to Shakti almost since its inception. How would you describe your association with him? How has it evolved over the years?

This year, Zakir Bhai and I celebrate 50 years of friendship and we began playing together 47 years ago. Zakir is a brother to me and the heartbeat of Shakti. My association with him is one of love, admiration and endless gratitude. This is a person who changed the direction of my life in the summer of 1969 when we first met. Since he has enriched my life so deeply, you can understand that he has enriched my musical life as deeply.

Recently, I was present when he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Berkeley College in Boston. In my speech I said: “I cannot imagine how my life would have been without the presence of Zakir in it”. Zakir is a maestro, but he was simply amazing already in 1972 when we first played together.

Many artists seem to be of the opinion that we are losing our ability to engage with art in a deeper, more meaningful way that goes beyond the moment and our desire to ‘share’ and ‘broadcast’ (on social media). What are your thoughts about it?

The relationship music has with people in general has evolved over the years — for the worse and for the better. For the better, more and more people listen to music on a daily basis and their lives are enriched by their close contact with music. For the worse, there are two aspects: One, I see that people want more and more, to have music as a background to their conversation. As a jazz musician, this bothers me because, frequently, “smooth jazz”, which is not jazz at all, is played as a kind of wallpaper in cafes and bistros. The result is that people actually do not listen at all. It has become a kind of “muzak” which has nothing to do with real music. Music demands to be listened to, and its traditional value is that it brings joy, tears, inspiration and cultural enrichment.

String theory: McLaughlin has over 40 years playing with some of India’s greatest musicians   -  BEAT PFAENDLER


Two, the record industry is not dead but is almost so. In the West, it is now virtually impossible for a young musician to obtain a recording contract. Without a recording contract, it is impossible to become known even nationally, not to mention internationally. This situation is leading us into a crisis that we will see within the next 5-10 years.

In your press release, you speak of how the idea for the new album was born during your tours with Shankar Mahadevan. Could you take us a little deeper into the creative process behind the work, which has been six years in the making? Would you say this album is a departure from the John McLaughlin sound we have been familiar with? Was it deliberate or did it happen in a more organic way?

At the outset, the idea of the new concept was organic and emerged out of over 40 years as a western musician working and playing with some of India’s greatest musicians, and in particular with Shakti and Shankar Mahadevan. Afterwards it became intentional, but this intention only happened after Shankar and I heard the first humble origins of what was to become the recording you hear today. We both shared an indescribable thrill from hearing the first 30 seconds of the experiment of creating a true western harmonic accompaniment to the marvellous voice of Shankar singing in true Indian classical way. This had never been done before.

Going backwards and forwards, collaborating and working on the direction we desired to move towards entailed much work. Meeting in India and Europe to listen, plan and record continued over the years. After four years of collaboration, we decided the music needed the spontaneity of improvisation and, of course, there was only one person whom we considered to be the one to accompany us, Ustad Zakir Hussain.

The compositions seem to have a meditative quality, especially with the bandishes sung by Mahadevan. Is there any particular composition that resonates with you in a special way?

Listening to any kind of real music is a meditative experience. We sit in silence and let the music envelope us. In meditation we sit in silence and experience pure being. The two actions are definitely related. Each song on the album gives me a unique experience. The unique interpretation of the song by Shankar with its lyrics, coupled with my orchestrations that were written precisely for that song, renders it unique. Add to that the improvisational movements where maestro Zakir plays with Shankar’s and my improvisations, which lend a further unique experience to the piece. I can say quite categorically that every piece resonates with me in its own unique way, and I cannot say that I have a preferred piece: I love them all.

Fusion, as a genre, has gone through much change. Would you still define the music of Shakti as such?

First of all, the word fusion was employed by the record companies back in the 1970s. It was used as a marketing device to designate a particular kind of music such as jazz-rock, smooth-jazz, world music. These labels were then applied to the different genres of contemporary music being released at that time, and were used exclusively for marketing. However, if we look back in time, already by the 18th century, the classical music of Austria and Germany was being influenced by the Italian schools and vice-versa.

Already by the 1940s, jazz was being influenced by the music of Cuba, and in the 1950s, you can hear the marvellous integration of the Hispanic and Flamenco schools into the music of Miles Davis in his recordings Miles Ahead and Sketches of Spain. The music of Shakti was originally born out of the cultural and musical experiences of the original Shakti group. Today we are all influenced to some degree or other by the musical cultures of other countries. This applies to Shankar Mahadevan, Zakir Hussain and myself. Only from my point of view, in addition to the music of North and South India, I have studied the Hispanic musical culture, and collaborated with a number of its greatest exponents such as Paco de Lucía and Manolo Sanlúcar. Of course, my principal traditions are Western classical music and Jazz, and this includes rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll. So you can see that musical fusion is integration by experience and love of other musical cultures.

As someone who has performed all over the world, is there any venue that is special?

All the venues are special!

Do you follow the works of any new, upcoming musician?

Yes. There are several young musicians with whom I am involved and try to help musically and also with their careers. At this time, the situation is very difficult for the young instrumentalist. None of the record companies is offering any kind of contract to instrumentalists these days. No one is buying CDs, certainly not enough to cover the costs of making a CD with the costs of the studio, musicians and fabrication. Without recordings, young musicians are not becoming known and, as a result, find it increasingly difficult to have concerts since nobody knows them.

How would you say the sound of Shakti has evolved over the years? Do you see the music being more introspective?

The recording Is That So? is without doubt more meditative and introspective than the Shakti recordings. That said, however, this recording is not a Shakti recording even though its roots are in the Shakti tradition. The music of Shakti has always been passionate and dynamic, and this tradition has not changed.

Chandrima Pal is a freelance writer based in Kolkata

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Published on January 17, 2020
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