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‘Music keeps me alive'

SANGEETHA DEVI DUNDOO
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CONVERSATION Ustad Zakir Hussain talks about being part of Remember Shakti and the challenges faced by the band

Beyond genresUstad Zakir HussainPHOTO: K.MURALI KUMAR
Beyond genresUstad Zakir HussainPHOTO: K.MURALI KUMAR

Ustad Zakir Hussain, along with guitarist John McLaughlin, founded the band Shakti in the 70s and the duo ventured into fusion music, a term that most music lovers in India were not accustomed to at that time. A hiatus later, the band came together as Remember Shakti, with mandolin maestro U. Shrinivas and kanjeera artiste Selvaganesh taking the place of L. Shankar and Vikku Vinayakram who were part of the original band. Shankar Mahadevan joined in for vocals. Zakir Hussain talks about the journey of Shakti and Remember Shakti and its brand of music that crossed boundaries. Excerpts:

Shakti ventured into fusion music much before it became a buzzword in India. What were the challenges when you and John McLaughlin came together?

Shakti was one of the first combinations of musicians trying to do something that crossed all musical boundaries. John Mclaughlin and I met in California in 1973. I was living in the Bay Area. He wanted to meet Ali Akbar Khan, with whom I was playing then and also teaching at his music college. So I took John to his home in this small town of Fairfax. They met, and at some point, Ali Akbar Khan said, “Well, play something for me.” John had his guitar with him and he asked if I would play with him. That's when we first played together and the seed of Shakti was sown.

The basic approach of Shakti was different. We didn't approach each other thinking ‘Okay, you (L. Shankar) play South Indian, I play North Indian and John plays Jazz and let us see what happens'. We just jumped into the wagon and took a ride together. We were very young and had no qualms about trying different things.

Shakti faced a lot of teething problems. The record companies had no idea what to call Shakti, which category of music to fit into, or which bin in the record shop to put it in. So they looked at it with great hesitancy. But soon they were proven wrong and within no time Shakti was accepted wholeheartedly.

This is the 36th year of Shakti. Can we expect a new album to mark the occasion?

It seems like yesterday. We keep talking about doing a new album but the team of Shakti is making a lot of music individually and it keeps us all very busy.

It is difficult to find time for all five of us to be able to spend time together to record an album. But Inshallah, soon we will come about with a new album.

In the 70s, the band went on a hiatus for a few years. Back then, did you believe that the team would return with greater strength?

We tried to revive Shakti with the original members but unfortunately, L. Shankar was nowhere to be found. Vikkuji was getting old and was finding it difficult to tour, so he asked us if we could take his son Selva Ganesh instead and we were more than happy. And U. Shrinivas took the place of L. Shankar with his mandolin. Now we have Shankar Mahadevan on vocals who has joined as a full time member of the team.

You've been performing at an average of 100 to 150 concerts a year. What's the toughest part — travelling, doing riyaaz in different time zones or staying abreast of the latest developments in music despite such a schedule?

I have far crossed all these challenges. Even when I am travelling, I am playing, doing riyaaz. Music keeps me alive.

You have collaborated with many Indian and international musicians. What are the basic tenets for a successful team?

Understanding each other, being a good listener, keep listening to great masters and patience. It's like having a conversation with your best friend or lover. Each one knows what will come next.

SANGEETHA DEVI DUNDOO

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