John McLaughlin: Remembering Shakti

Interview with legendary guitarist about the connection between jazz and Indian music, and other topics

John McLaughlin
John McLaughlin

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Without a doubt, jazz-fusion guitar legend John McLaughlin’s East-meets-West explorations with Shakti played a pivotal role in establishing world music as a viable, potent force. Formed in 1974, the groundbreaking group also consisted of North Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain, and violinist L. Shankar and ghatam player T.H. “Vikku” Vinayakram, both of whom hail from South India. The band seamlessly bridged jazz and Indian classical music-genres previously perceived as disparate traditions. McLaughlin’s enormous fan base from his years fronting the wildly popular early ’70s jazz-rock act Mahavishnu Orchestra ensured Shakti had a large audience from the outset. As a result, it opened the ears of listeners worldwide to the immense possibilities cross-cultural musical collaborations can yield. In 1997, a new version of the group emerged as Remember Shakti, a band that continues to this day. In this excerpt from my book Innerviews: Music Without Borders, McLaughlin reflects on Shakti’s achievements, the common ground between jazz and Indian music, and why “music is the face of God.”

What role do you believe Shakti played in the widespread acceptance of world music?

When I formed Shakti, it was dimly viewed, I should say! After coming out of Mahavishnu Orchestra-a very powerful electric band-here I was sitting on a carpet with Indian musicians. Everyone thought I flipped out. It was not well-received at all by the record company or my agent and manager. Artistically, I thought it was wonderful, but they all thought I was a little loopy. It was not good news to them. But I’m extremely proud of Shakti because prior to it, there was very little collaboration between North and South Indian musicians. Shakti played a role in the reunification of the North and South in the musical sense. Since Shakti, the collaborations between North and South have grown a thousand times. We now have very regular North-South meetings. We were very timely as far as we were concerned. Subsequently in the ’80s, ethnic music and world music became much more popular. People began to seek out a new sound. The globalization of the world is part of the same process. The shrinking of the planet and increased intercommunication between countries and cultures has played a role too.

Remember Shakti’s debut album is much more steeped in Indian classical traditions than it is in any Western forms.

Yes, things went the natural Indian way. This, of course, included the introduction of the raga, the various ways of collective playing and the principal improvisations from the soloists. As musicians, we are playing notes, music and rhythms, and we hope to play the right melody in the correct way, but this is only part of the process. The other side that is important is the communication of the musicians and the playing and playfulness that comes from that interaction. You can put a piece of music in front of somebody and he may play it perfectly. So what? Interplay and interaction are the integral parts of music. They’re as important as the notes. Without them, I don’t think I’d be here. You can’t just play over someone. There are many examples in jazz-fusion in which you have a soloist playing over a steady drumbeat and I find that terribly boring, because I want to hear the interaction between two people. I want to know what kind of imagination and spontaneity they have. Only in spontaneity can we be who we truly are.

How do you balance the mathematic equations of Indian rhythmic development with the jazz universe?

There is really a great deal of common ground. The mathematics of rhythm are universal. They don’t belong to any particular culture. It’s true that the sensuality of rhythm is coupled with the mathematical mind in India. It’s not for nothing that India has produced some of the greatest atomic engineers, mathematicians and astronomers. India even has an observatory that goes back many hundreds of years in which the orbits of planets were calculated. So you can say it’s been developed to a more sophisticated level there than in jazz music. But whether it’s from Africa, China, Brazil, or India, rhythm is rhythm. If you try to improvise in jazz without some degree of rhythmical mathematical proficiency, you’ll be lost by the drummer and flounder.

You once said “music is the face of God.” Elaborate on that.

I am convinced, as many people are, that we all have divine origins and that essentially everything is divine. We all come from the One, we all are in the One, and we can never be apart from each other and the One. This is the personal conviction. It all comes down to an intellectual game in the end if you start to consider truth, goodness and beauty which are probably the essential attributes of what we consider to be God. If something is really true, it has to be beautiful. And music is beautiful, so it has to be true. God is the most beautiful of all the beautiful and the source of all beauty, so music has to be intimately acquainted with God in some way. Let me put it another way: truth without beauty is the atom bomb.

The complete interview is published in Innerviews: Music Without Borders book available from the Abstract Logix website.