Remember Shakti was a border-free concert for a barrier-free world for the physically challenged
The five constructive members of Remember Shakti — John MacLaughlin, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Mandolin U. Shrinivas, Shankar Mahadevan and Selva Ganesh built musical ramps, bridges and pathways by melding and straddling genres to convey the message of a barrier-free world for the physically challenged at Shakti Foundation's 21st annual fundraiser held at The Music Academy recently.
John and Zakir, like sitar maestro Pandit Ravishankar and Beatles star George Harrison, positioned East and West in one direction by forming the band Shakti (besides the two there were Vikku Vinayakram on ghatam and L. Shankar on violin) in the early 1970s. Together they performed across the globe and recorded several Indo-jazz albums such as ‘Shakti', ‘A Handful of Beauty', ‘Natural Elements and Making Music'. They disbanded only to come together 20 years later as Remember Shakti. Their well-conceived fusion communicated splendidly with disparate groups of listeners.
At the Chennai concert they once again collaborated as if picking up from where they'd left off. The cross-pollination of influences came through in their easy-riding and near-definitive compositions. The tabla head and the guitar strings sounded off in-sync their traditions, thoughts and motivations.
John's understated jazz flourishes gave Indian classical phrasings an exuberant cadence. As he worked on his guitar soundboard to beckon a soothing timbre or unleash formidable power his cheery team egged the talented experimenter on to keep up the improvisational tempo.
The concert began with unrestrained melody flowing from U. Shrinivas's gleaming blue mandolin gifted by John. The purity of tone and emotion in his interpretations complement any composition. The mandolin and guitar strings, individually and together by turn, embellished the phrases creating a symphony of sound. The tabla Ustad and Selva Ganesh (on kanjira) rallied in call and answered with abstract and methodical thumps and strokes.
In solo or fusion passages, the Ustad with an extended drum kit (including cymbals) got into the core of the rhythm, with sounds that were fragile or strong, edgy or tender. Even when performing in a familiar setting, he has something compellingly unique to convey each time.
Selva Ganesh on the handful of an instrument, kanjira, never missed an opportunity to create a sonic boom. He showed his skills on the ghatam and mridangam too. The concert's focus was on camaraderie and music as a whole rather than letting things spiral off into duelling musicianship.
Shankar Mahadevan provided vocals to the ensemble. He began with a stylistic rendition of Tyagaraja's ‘Giriraj Suta Tanaya' proceeding to some Hindustani pieces including a thumri. The brief alapanas followed by hurried and breathless (remember his popular album ‘Breathless') swara structures had a euphoric effect on the teeming audience but the plaintive notes often sounded sterile and synthetic.
Zakir sprung a surprise on the audience and the ghatam maestro Vikku Vinayakram who was in the audience by inviting him on the tastefully done-up stage to play ‘Bridge of Sighs', an original Shakti piece. The Ustad, John and Vinayakram created soothing sound-tapestries with straightforward playing.
More exciting exchanges followed with the fivesome's multi-octave performance that was about tension and release. It is hard, rather inappropriate, to deconstruct this kind of a feel-good concert that had a full audience till the final note. Yet, to remember Shakti for long, one hopes there are more minimalist music passages which do not stop at the ear but traverse the soul.