On Stage Extra: East meets West with Shakti, at The Keswick

By Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor, The Times


On August 22, the Keswick Theater (291 N. Keswick Avenue, Glenside, 215-572-7650, www.keswicktheatre.com) will present a special concert – a concert featuring a rarely touring international supergroup – a concert where East meets West and North meets South.

That band is Shakti. It is led by English guitarist John McLaughlin and Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain.

McLaughlin is a legendary guitarist in rock, jazz and fusion genres. He is one of the most respected guitarists by his peers as well as music fans around the world.

Back in May, McLaughlin was one of the stellar musicians performing two tribute concerts in London for the recently deceased guitar god Jeff Beck.

The lineup included organizer Eric Clapton along with Gary Clark Jr. Doyle Bramhall II, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, as well as Billy Gibbons, Robert Randolph, Imelda May, Olivia Safe, Rod Stewart and Joss Stone.

Post-show reports had the guitar greats talking about paying tribute to Beck and having the opportunity to perform onstage with McLaughlin.

In 2010, Jeff Beck said, “John McLaughlin has given us so many different facets of the guitar. And introduced thousands of us to world music, by blending Indian music with jazz and classical. I’d say he was the best guitarist alive.”

Hussain, a master percussionist in North Indian Hindustani classical music, is recognized as the world’s premier tabla player.

Hussain is today appreciated both in the field of percussion and in the music world at large as an international phenomenon. A classical tabla virtuoso of the highest order, his consistently brilliant and exciting performances have not only established him as a national treasure in his own country, India, but gained him worldwide fame.

Hussain is the eldest son of Alla Rakha, a world-famous tabla player known for his work with sitar legend Ravi Shankar.

His playing is marked by uncanny intuition and masterful improvisational dexterity, founded in formidable knowledge and study. The favorite accompanist for many of India’s greatest classical musicians and dancers, he has not let his genius rest there.

Widely considered chief architect of the contemporary world music movement, Hussain’s contribution to world music has been unique, with many historic collaborations, including Shakti, which he founded with John McLaughlin and L. Shankar, Remember Shakti, the Diga Rhythm Band, Making Music, Planet Drum with Mickey Hart, Tabla Beat Science, Sangam with Charles Lloyd and Eric Harland.

He is also known for his recordings and performances with artists as diverse as George Harrison, YoYo Ma, Joe Henderson, Van Morrison, Airto Moreira, Pharoah Sanders, Billy Cobham, Mark Morris, Rennie Harris, and the Kodo drummers.

The original Shakti in 1974 featured violin player L. Shankar, percussionist T. H. “Vikku” Vinayakram on Ghatam. The band played acoustic fusion music which combined Indian music with elements of jazz. The band’s name means, in English, “creative intelligence, beauty, and power.”

In Hinduism, Shakti is the fundamental cosmic energy and a central deity within Shaktism, a significant theological tradition of Hinduism. Representing dynamic forces that permeate the universe, Shakti embodies feminine energy and is often depicted as the consort of Shiva. In this tradition, Devi, the Goddess, is regarded as the Supreme Brahman herself, with all other divine forms seen as her manifestations. The worship of Shakti entails a diverse array of goddesses, including Durga, Kali, Parvati, and Tripura Sundari, each representing unique facets of her power.

The group came together after the dissolution of the first incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and toured fairly extensively during the period 1975-1977. It made only sporadic appearances (with personnel changes) thereafter.

After 1977 the albums which L. Shankar recorded with Hussain and Vinayakram stayed close to the music made popular by Shakti.

In 1997, McLaughlin and Hussain put together another band with the same concept, called Remember Shakti, including V. Selvaganesh (son of “Vikku”), mandolin player U. Shrinivas and eventually Shankar Mahadevan.

“Every time I sit on stage with Zakir, I’m thrilled,” said McLaughlin, during recent phone interview from his home in Monaco. “That thing is still there. It’s a magical thing.”

The tour celebrates Shakti’s historic 50th Anniversary. Together, McLaughlin and Hussain have shattered the boundaries between eastern and western music to forge the template of what is now called “World Music.” They are highly influential and important figures in the world of music, specifically in the genre of fusion music, which combines elements from so many different musical traditions.

Their new album celebrating the landmark anniversary, “This Moment,” was released on June 23, 2023, and their final tour, the first in 45 years, launched on August 17 in Boston.  The tour cements Shakti’s pan-cultural ethos by introducing jazz and American elements via the supporting spots by a rotating cast of players. At tonight’s show, Bèla Fleck will open the performances with a solo set and will then join forces with Shakti later each evening.

The 2023 Shakti lineup also features Indian superstar vocalist and composer Shankar Mahadevan, violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan, and percussion maestro Selvaganesh Vinayakram. It is a powerfully dynamic collective, defined by deft interplay, dazzling unison passages, extraordinarily dexterous improvisations, and the ability to draw from a vast well of global traditions and, miraculously, put them in conversation with one another.

The compositions making up “This Moment” each pass through a series of connected movements, highlighting different vocal and instrumental sub-groups within Shakti while transitioning between taut thematic statements, riveting solos from McLaughlin and Rajagopalan, invigorating rhythmic shifts, and soaring vocal passages by Mahadevan.

McLaughlin’s contributions are remarkable in their ability to reconcile the great ragas of North and South India with a chromaticism born of jazz and the blues, and the speed and precision of his articulation remains exhilarating. The engine room of Hussain and Vinayakram (son of original Shakti ghatam player T.H. “Vikku” Vinayakram) gives space to allow passages to breathe and resound, while equally capable of fomenting a roiling, galloping underpinning that push the soloists to increasingly ecstatic heights.

In addition to fusing American and Indian music, Shakti also represented a fusion of the Hindustani and Carnatic music traditions, since Hussain, who has received numerous awards and honors, including the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan, two of India’s highest civilian honors, is from the north region of India while the other Indian members were from the South.

Shakti’s original lineup disbanded in 1978, and for two decades each of the musicians pursued their own highly successful careers. In the late ‘90s, the band reformed with Shankar Mahadevan on vocals, U.Srinivas on mandolin and Selvaganesh Vinayakram replacing his father Vikku alongside McLaughlin and Hussain – bringing another creative dimension to an ensemble that was already considered one of the best groups in the emerging world music genre.

After the tragic loss in 2014 of Mandolin U. Shrinivas, Shakti once again ceased to perform. However, in early 2020 the group once again reconstituted itself, convening with violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan for two sold out concerts – the first one in Kolkata, India on January 14, 2020, and the second one in Singapore on January 16, 2020.

These events were a catalyst in the renaissance of Shakti, with this new formation continuing to perform together for special events and bring the magic of Shakti once again to the public.

“Using Carnatic musicians was my idea,” said McLaughlin. “I’ve always loved drummers and I wanted to have a South Indian drummer.”

One of Shakti’s high points was the release of the “Natural Elements” album in the late 1970s.

“Our first studio music was ‘Natural Elements’ in 1978,” said McLaughlin. “This is really a very special record. I’m really happy with it.

“On ‘This Moment,’ basically everything was done in Seattle and South India. We started with some basic premises and recorded them. Then, we came back and changed what we’d done.

“I had to re-do my part on almost everything – sometimes three or four times. It was a real labor of love. This album is a crystallization of five decades of love and dedication. Our musical evolution recorded here is the history of Shakti.”

McLaughlin had a particularly tough year in 2014 that included the death of his frequent guitar partner, the flamenco great Paco de Lucia and the passing of Shakti’s mandolinist U. Srinivas in September.

Additionally, the notably dexterous guitarist was stricken with painful arthritis in his right hand and was unable to play. He sought medical treatment, but it wasn’t working. In 2019, McLaughlin hooked up with Dr. Joe Dispenza, an American chiropractor, teacher, and best-selling author who was said to have cured himself of a broken back through meditation.

The guitarist tuned into Dispenza’s YouTube videos and found “a wonderful technique that incorporates meditation” in lieu of medication.  Within six to eight months, the pain of McLaughlin’s arthritis was gone.

Born in England in 1942, McLaughlin’s love affair with music goes back a long time.

“I got my first guitar when I was 11,” said McLaughlin. “I also started violin when I was really young. I tried violin, but after nine months, I asked my mother if I could learn piano.

“When I was 11, my older brother brought a guitar into the home. That was in 1962 – right when then the blues boom swept the U.K. The guitar got handed down to me.

“I was entranced by the guitar. I stopped playing piano that day. I’ve been playing guitar for 70 years and I’m still earning every day.

“I was drawn to the blues. Big Bill Broonzy was the first I listened to. Next was Muddy Waters. They’re my old heroes. Then, I got into flamenco via Paco de Lucia and then the jazz of Django Reinhardt.

“At 16, I heard Miles (Davis) for the first time and that was it. Miles, Coltrane – these guys were killing. I was lucky that I got to work with Miles. He was looking for a guitarist. I flew to Europe and 24 hours later was playing in his band. Miles was at the top of his form then.”

Then, a new element arrived – Indian music.

“My introduction to India came from getting involved in meditation and yoga in the 60s – coming out of LSD, asking questions, looking for answers,” said McLaughlin. “What blew me away with Indian music was the level of musicianship and improvisation – also the sentiments behind it.

“I knew I had to study Indian music. I had to play with Indian musicians. By 1972, I was a student of veena. After a while, I realized I spent too much time on veena and not enough on guitar. That same year, I met Zakir, who was already on his way to greatness.

“We were at Ali Akbar Khan’s house hanging out. I had an acoustic guitar and we started playing. After 30 seconds, I knew I had to play with Zakir. That was the start of Shakti.”

Video link for Shakti — https://youtu.be/E639RwijZmo.
The show at the Keswick Theater on August 22 will start at 8 p.m.

Tickets range from $69-$139.

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