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Shakti's Grammy Win: At 50, the Indo-jazz Fusion Band Oozes Sublime Energy

Shakti, though classified as jazz, is a far cry from the kind of old-world stuff you'd hear from Louis Armstrong.

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If you are a fan of the Oscar-winning A R Rahman's music, you ought to know that the discerning listener can hear in some of his finest songs, the footsteps of Shakti, the Indo-Jazz group that has just deservedly won a Grammy for its album This Moment in the global music category — coinciding with its 50th-anniversary tour since its founding in 1973. 

Much has changed within the group and in the world of music since then, but what has not changed is the freshness of Shakti's sound, their magical creativity, a daring to experiment, and an uplifting mix of sublimeness and energy that is its hallmark. The group also signals the highest level of harmony between Britain and India, with an engaging history of musical interaction that often gets ignored in the noise over the political and economic wounds of colonialism.

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Before more on all that, I must tell you about what I call "love at first sound." As a schoolboy in the late 1970s, in an age when we could not afford to buy music available in vinyl records and expensive cassettes, I had the good fortune of visiting the house of a school friend who had just returned to India after a few years in New York, where he had bought Shakti's first album, A Handful of Beauty.

It was also my first encounter with the clarity of Bose speakers.

What I heard then was beyond expectations as Ustad Zakir Hussain and T H Vinayakaram sprung rhythmic 'jatis' that one only heard in Bharatanatyam concerts, and before I knew what was going on, in came some guitar that soared into the consciousness, and the violin that was unmistakeably Carnatic in its soulfulness and yet with a spring in its step. 

"This is it," I told myself.

The song, La Danse Du Bonheur (literally translated to the 'dance of happiness'), was the beginning of a long musical affair.

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The Structural Integrity of Shakti's Music

The humble Carnatic clay pot, the ghatam made with a mix of clay and metals, had captured the world's imagination with that number, and Vinayakaram, who went on to get a Grammy nomination later, was compared to Billy Cobham Junior, the Panamanian American percussionist whose jazz drums stood like an army in front of the lone ranger ghatam!

Decades later, Rahman recognised that Shakti had been an early influence in his music. If you listen to his Thee Thee song from the Mani Rathnam hit Thiruda Thiruda (1993), you can hear a jati pattern I heard in La Danse... from the 1976 album. If you enjoy the rhythmic title song in Kandukondein Kandukondein (2000) you can spot Happiness Is Being Together. The latter song was from the album Natural Elements released in 1977, which remains my personal favourite.

Even its song titles can move you, like Mind Ecology, which has European folk influence mixed with the Carnatic violin and a distinctly Kathak-style tabla in its climax.

Fusion is not as easy as it sounds.

'World music' is now an acknowledged genre in a yuppie world of experimental listening, but was not in the early years of Shakti.  As any Masterchef fan will tell you, fusion cuisine is not about randomly mixing ingredients from here and there. There has to be an integrity that pleasantly surprises your palate when they come together. 

Music is much the same as food for the years. Dozens of fusion albums have come and gone, some preceding Shakti and many later, but the structural integrity of making it all work is rare. That is what Shakti is all about.

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Shakti, though classified as jazz, is a far cry from the kind of old-world stuff you would hear from Louis Armstrong. It is free-flowing, rule-breaking, and yet welded together in a manner that seeps into you.

Yorkshire guitarist John McLaughlin, just a little this side of England's north from where Liverpool's famous four, The Beatles, put sitarist Ravi Shankar in the global musical consciousness, and tabla maestro Hussain form the backbone of Shakti, which, like many things in music, has reformed and transformed over the decades, or should I say centuries.

It is not very well-known that long before these men made new sounds, the 18th-century Carnatic composer Muthuswami Dikshitar, one of his genre's famous trinity (alongside his two contemporaries from Tiruvarur, Tyagaraja and Shyama Shastri), introduced the Western violin into southern Indian classical music with lyrics in Sanskrit!

The violin is now as Tamilian as the equally foreign-bred filter coffee, not to be confused with Kaapi, which remains one of Carnatic music's fusion-prone ragas.

Dikshitar also composed arguably the first Indo-western fusion tunes, called Noteswarams after watching English military bands play in colonial India. They include one based on God Save The King, the English national anthem! Fusion was taking its baby steps from British patriotism towards world music. It has indeed come a long way, as we can see in this year's Grammys which has a rich crop of Indian artists, with Ustad Zakir Hussain in two.

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Much Has Changed in Music Since Shakti's Early Ears

Vinyl records gave way to cassettes, compact discs, and then electronic drives and then to streaming services like Spotify, on which I discovered This Moment last year. The line-up has changed as well. 

Laxminarayanan Shankar (less known than his elder brother L Subramanian) played some high-speed violin in the early hallmark albums before being replaced by mandolin player U Srinivas, who tragically died young after suffering an unfair dowry case. The violin has returned with Ganesh Rajagopalan, and with him there is added Carnatic muscle with Shankar Mahadevan, whose Breathless style is now an integral part of the group's marquee composition Shrini's Dream in the Grammy-winning album.

Maybe Srinivas is up there somewhere, happy to see his name etched in the annals of Grammy.

Meanwhile, "Vikku" Vinayakaram's son Selvaganesh has replaced his father and the clay pot has been swapped for the kanjira — an equally humble percussion instrument that is Carnatic music's answer to the Western tambourine.

After the 1970s, Shakti became more of a live act, but This Moment, as a studio album marking Shakti's 50th-anniversary world tour, shows that the magic of Natural Elements is still there in the new lineup with new inspiration to match.  

Over the years, Shakti has brought in a range of collaborating artists ranging from Hindustani flutist Hariprasad Chaurasia to American Bluegrass banjo player Bela Fleck (who has won another Grammy this year with Chaurasia's son Rakesh).

Shakti, like the river Ganga, is happy to welcome tributaries that enrich its sound. That is a very bouncy, youthful thing to do at 50.

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Shakti   Grammy Awards 

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