Rattling percussion drives the tune along, with violin flourishes and soulful vocalising adding up to a very satisfying mix.
Abstract Logix ABLX 68
John McLaughlin (guitar, acoustic guitar, guitar synth); Zakir Hussain (tabla, chanda, madal, konokol); Shankar Mahadevan (vocals, konokol); Ganesh Rajagopalan (violin, konokol), Selvaganesh Vinayakaram (kanjira, mridangam, ghatam, konokol)
Recorded Mediastarz Studio, Monaco; Swara Yoga Studios, Covington, USA; Offbeat Music Ventures, Cherrai, India; Lambora Studios, Mumbai, India (no recording dates).
To say that the release of a new Shakti album is an event, is a bit like saying the Pacific Ocean contains rather a lot of water. Although the band is now in its 50th year, this is just its fourth album, and the last album, Natural Elements, was released 46 years ago. The CD version of this album was released at the end of June and a 2-LP version is out on 21 July.
Shakti (which means power in Hindi) was formed by guitarist John McLaughlin in 1974, when the first incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra had broken up, and the second band line-up was still a work in progress.
He teamed up with master percussionist Zakir Hussain to create a band that fused East with West – the harmonies, melodies, rhythms, scales, time signatures and instrumentation used in Western music (predominantly jazz) were paired with those used in Carnatic (South Indian) music.
In many cases, so-called fusion or world music is simply Western style music with the occasional ‘exotic’ instrument tagged on, but this definitely isn’t the case with Shakti – it’s a genuine blend of two great musical cultures.
McLaughlin and Hussain are the constants in Shakti, having played together for fifty years. This band includes three more Indian musicians: vocalist Shankar Mahadevan (who has been associated with the band for around twenty years); violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan and percussionist Selvaganesh Vinaykaram, who first played with the band Remember Shakti, which was formed in 1997.
In many ways, this is a continuation of the 2022 release Is That So, an album that featured McLaughlin, Hussain and Mahadevan, Is That So? and the recording process was similar, that is, the musicians recording their parts in studios on several continents. That said, everything sounds as if everyone was in the same room at the same time.
McLaughlin and Hussain are titans of their instruments, and the three other musicians are no slouches either. Shankar Mahadevan is an amazing vocalist; a man who sings from both the heart and the soul. His range is impressively wide and his vocalising often includes sighs, moans, scats and cries – emotion pours out of his beautiful voice.
He can extend a phrase as if it’s on a slow-stretching elastic band or deliver a volley of rapid-fire vocalising with barely a pause for breath. If he sang the telephone directory, you’d be happy to listen to it. Violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan can play with fire, passion and fury, as well as with the greatest of sensitivity, his instrument sometimes sounding as if it’s a cry from the heart.
Percussionist Selvaganesh Vinaykaram plays an assortment of instruments, providing the band with an exciting array of cross-rhythms, polyrhythms and beats.
McLaughlin plays acoustic and electric guitar, as well as the guitar synth, which is used to create a rich tapestry of sonic textures, moods and sounds. Sometimes it sounds as if he is playing a keyboard synth; other times, his guitar sounds like a flute.
Some McLaughlin fans were disappointed with Is That So, because the guitar was used purely in a supportive role (often used to provide synth-sounding background sounds) and there were no electrifying solos to be found. McLaughlin is not so restrained on this album, but that said, don’t expect to hear extended guitar passages on any of the tunes.
This is not the John McLaughlin +4 band, and the guitarist is clearly keen to let others take the limelight. Every musician, except for Rajagopalan, has contributed at least one solo composition.
Fans of konokol – rhythmic, wordless vocalising – will find plenty to enjoy, as almost every number includes a konokol section, with all four Indian musicians displaying their finesse in this art form. Some konokol sections involve elaborate call-and-response vocalising; others are multi-part sections where the musicians’ speed and verbal dexterity are simply breathtaking.
The album is dedicated mandolin player and ex-Shakti member U. Shrinivas, who died in 2013, aged 45. The opening number, ‘Shrini’s Dream’ – composed by four of the band members – is an additional tribute to him. The intro sounds more the start of a pop tune, with a happy, bouncy synth sound, before the Indian elements emerge: a brief konokol section, followed by the sound of tabla.
There’s even a hint of the blues, as Mahadevan scats along to a bluesy guitar riff. The song is dominated by a heavy percussive beat and Mahadevan’s vocals, which include a series of haunting cries. Rajagopalan also plays some impressive fast violin and the piece ends with violin, vocals and percussion combining with the same riff.
‘Bending The Rules’ has McLaughlin playing an African riff on guitar , with violin and voice doubling up and reaching a frenzied pitch – Mahadevan’s vocal gymnastics are extraordinary, as is the depth of emotion he conveys. ‘Karuna,’ composed by McLaughlin, is a gorgeous tune.
McLaughlin plays a sustained chord on the guitar synth, over which Rajagopalan, plays sweetly and tenderly on violin, before soaring off into the heavens (it does bring to mind Vaughan Williams’ ‘Lark Ascending.’). Mahadevan’s anguished vocals duet with the guitar synth, and McLaughlin plays a solo, his guitar sounding like a keyboard synth.
It’s a gentle, reflective piece, but like much of the music on this album, the time signatures shift and the percussion section seamlessly takes over. McLaughlin plays a short guitar solo, showing flashes of his speed and agility
Vinayakaram’s ‘Mohanam’ (named after a raga or musical scale used in South Indian music) contain lots of fire and passion, while the album’s longest piece, ‘Giriraj Sudha’ (a traditional piece arranged by U. Shrinivas and Mahadevan) takes you on a long musical journey.
It starts off as a reflective piece, with Mahadevan’s emotional vocals accompanying McLaughlin’s delicate guitar picking (reminding this listener of his playing on the Miles Davis track, ‘In A Silent Way.’) The tune switches gear at the three-minute mark, as a slow violin section picks up tempo and the tune transforms into a joyful rendition that, for this listener at least, conjured up visions of smiling dancers spinning around each other.
Violin and vocals engage in an energetic duet and the song’s exciting coda has vocals, violin and percussion racing together like sprinters heading for the finishing line.
McLaughlin’s ‘Las Palmas’ is a highly rhythmic piece, consisting of hand clapping, percussion and konokol (McLaughlin gets the piece rolling with a cry of “One, two, three! One, two, three! One, two, three!”) The song has strong Flamenco flavour, with flourishes of gypsy violin.
Hussein’s ‘Changay Naino’ starts off like a dream with Mahadevan’s sighing vocals. The tempo and percussion on this track reminds me of The Beatles’ ‘Within You, Without You.’ McLaughlin plays some really nice blues guitar, but sadly, it doesn’t last long.
The album ends on an upbeat mood with McLaughlin’s ‘Sono Mama’ (a play on the Japanese word Sonomama, which means ‘as it is’), a midtempo piece which includes a fluent guitar solo that will please McLaughlin fans.
Rattling percussion drives the tune along, with violin flourishes and soulful vocalising adding up to a very satisfying mix. Was this album worth the wait? Most definitely yes. I would have liked a little more of McLaughlin’s guitar playing, but overall, this is a very good album that will delight many fans of Shakti.