Shakti: My India Connection
Updated: Nov 23, 2021
Most people of my generation were first exposed to Indian music through the psychedelic movement of the 1960's.
Many pop groups of the mid to late '60's incorporated the sitar into their music (the Rolling Stones, the Byrds and the Beatles come to mind) and that's where I first heard that instrument. I thought it sounded like a cheap acoustic guitar with massive fret buzz. I wasn't impressed.
"A passing fad" I thought. And in many ways it was.
In 1972 I went to see George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh. The first part of the film was a performance by the world-renowned sitarist, Ravi Shankar. That's when I got a clue that this was a musical tradition that was centuries old - of which I knew nothing.
Still, it didn't "take."
It took a direct association with the guitar that was more than just a single, simple guitar-like line like what the Stones did with "Paint it Black" or the Beatles with "Norwegian Wood."
In the early seventies, I was appreciative of McLaughlin's formidable technique, artistry and musical boundary-pushing, but was not a big fan of his music. I have since very much become a fan.
I knew he was a disciple of an Indian guru named Sri Chinmoy about whom I knew nothing and had no curiosity. McLaughlin seemed (to me anyway) to be an odd duck that had very short hair at a time when long hair was important (it was a marker for the counter-culture), had sworn off doing all drugs (drugs were also a counter-culture marker), was a vegetarian, preached the gospel of meditation and, when onstage, dressed in Indian-style clothes. He seemed to me to be uptight and hyper-religious; I felt like he was pushing his religion in my face - the antithesis of the hippie ethos. At least my romanticized version of the hippie ethos.
The album that snagged me was Shakti's second record; a 1976 album called A Handful of Beauty. By this time McLaughlin had let his hair grow a little and didn't look so rigid and austere. He seemed a little looser - at least to me.
I don't remember what prompted me to buy that album but by late 1976 and on into '77 I was deeply into it. I never formally studied Indian music; I just immersed myself in this one album.
The first thing that blew me away was the beginning of the opening track, which is syllabic recital. Here is the first 30 seconds:
When I first heard it I thought, "I've never heard anything like that before. Is it like Jazz singers scatting?" It sounded like "speaking in tongues" - except the two percussionists were speaking to each other in call-and-response patterns.
The instant the percussion started I heard that they had been vocalizing what they were going to play. I realized that the vocalization itself was a complete, defined language.
I didn't know at the time that what I heard was indeed a complete, defined language. It's a system of rhythmic recitation called, Konnakol, and comes from South India.
I have since learned that Indian musicians learn to vocalize what they are going to play before they are ever allowed to touch their instrument. The melodies and rhythms are consciously internalized apart from actually playing.
The second thing that blew me away was the sheer virtuosity of the unison playing. The long angular phrasing as well as speed and intensity of the playing was mind-boggling to me.
"How can they do that?" I wondered. I knew it would require a high level of concentration and an uninterrupted focus - besides the technique involved, which would also require a high level of concentration and an uninterrupted focus.
I began to push myself to up the intensity of my focus and concentration span while playing.
By mid-1973 I had ceased all illicit drug use (see, See the Sound!) and had been engaging in various forms of meditation and prayer and so by the time I heard Shakti I could appreciate a little more of where McLaughlin was coming from.
I realized that their concentration and focus when playing the music was similar to the focus one tries to cultivate with prayer or meditation. It was at this time I learned that the typical concentration span of an American adult was 7 seconds. Most people cannot concentrate on one single thing for longer than 7 seconds without something else coming into their mind. That was in the '70's. It's now down to less than 5 seconds.
Ravi Shankar, who established a music school in Los Angeles, taught at several American institutions and tutored many Westerners, became disappointed with the impatience and lack of focus displayed by the majority of his Western students.
He played the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and, while complimentary of the talents of several of the rock artists at the festival, he said he was "horrified" to see Jimi Hendrix set fire to his guitar on stage:
That was too much for me. In our culture, we have such respect for musical instruments; they are like part of God.
In the late 1960s, Shankar distanced himself from the hippie movement and drug culture. He explained during an interview:
It makes me feel rather hurt when I see the association of drugs with our music. The music to us is religion. The quickest way to reach godliness is through music. I don't like the association of one bad thing with the music.
You can see from the above statements the lack of compartmentalization;
music is religion
godliness through music
instruments are like a part of God.
Shakti is made up of practitioners of Classical Indian music; McLaughlin is the only westerner. Indians are steeped in a culture that values spirituality and meditation. I suspect that this cultural milieu gives many a leg up in the concentration span department. Plus, anyone who masters an instrument in the Indian tradition has, by definition, mastered the ability to intensely focus on a single thing. You can't play the way they do without being able to do that.
Furthermore, even though McLaughlin is the only westerner, he was a disciple of an Indian guru and so is practiced in the areas of spirituality and meditation. The mystical and religious references in his music and image are ubiquitous.
All this is part of the reason why I'm constantly challenging my students with techniques and tips on how to practice. It's why I sometimes speak of practicing and playing the guitar as meditation.
I talk about finding fulfillment and gratification in the daily repetition - much like meditation, chanting or prayer - and how it must be an end in itself.
It's behind the right-brain/left-brain construct I teach and how that applies to playing music, which is a way to couch things in Western, psychological and scientific terms rather than Eastern, mystical terms.
However you frame it, I'm trying to get my students to deal with "the impatience and lack of focus displayed by the majority of Western students."
Inspired by Shakti, I consciously nurtured the practice of maintaining an intense focus while practicing and performing. I made practicing and playing meditative. I pushed the boundary of my concentration span; being totally focused on the music and what I was doing, not thinking of anything else, only to come to myself and realize a couple of hours had gone by and I wasn't even aware of it - it seemed like a minute.
I'm sure an Indian musician like Ravi Shankar would say, "Two hours is but a meager beginning!"
As an aside; when I was in India in April of 2019, I had many conversations about music (I found a love for Jazz among many Indians). Everyone knew of Ravi Shankar; I found no one who knew of Shakti.
A young girl dancing to Indian music at an orphanage in Bangalore was a thing of beauty to me, in part because of my exposure to and love for Indian music through Shakti:
There have been many other ways Indian music has influenced me.
The rhythm cycles in Indian music are very complex and I am by no means knowledgeable; I am an imitative hack in this area. Nevertheless, listening to Shakti influenced what I wanted to hear in my own music. For example, listen to the percussion in "Stuck on the Horns of a Dilemma:"
Here's Shakti at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976:
In the late '90's - early 2,000's, McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain (the original tabla player), put together another band with the same concept, called Remember Shakti. Here's an entire concert from 2004:
There's no accounting for taste, but to me this music is amazing, haunting and beautiful.
In this latter incarnation, McLaughlin is incorporating more chordal stuff and a more vertical sensibility to his soloing; implying altered chords/tonalities in his improvised lines. This comes from his Jazz background, and is the unique thing that Western music brings to the table. No other music has this harmonic development; the stacked, vertical tonalities that evolved in Western Europe and came to an apex in America with modern Classical and Jazz music.
While incredibly rythmically and melodically complex, Indian music does not have the harmonic dimension of Jazz and Western Classical music. It's an exciting prospect to consider; adding Western harmonic complexity to the amazing rhythmic and melodic sensibilities of Indian music. Shakti provides an example and a template for further exploration and development.
Maybe I'll pursue that in my next life.
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