For 25 years, tabla player Zakir Hussain has been a strong link between Indian music, jazz and rock.
That link will has been made stronger with the return of Shakti.
The Indian-fusion group Hussain formed in 1975 with British guitarist John McLaughlin (Mahavishnu Orchestra) has been performing throughout the world the last three years in support of what promises to be a continuing series of live material, both old and new.
But instead of performing with original violinist Lakshminarayana Shankarand percussionist T.H. “Vikku” Vinayakram, with whom Hussain played in September at New York’s Symphony Space, the latest version of Shakti features mandolinist U. Shrinivas and Indian percussionist V. Selvaganesh. Shankar and Vinayakram did join the group along with several other special guests for a homecoming concert in India last month.
Since reforming in 1997, the ensemble has released two live albums of mainly new music. A third will include the original members, Hussain indicates.
“John and I both love India and Indian music,” says Hussain, who was born in India but is based in San Francisco. “We want to showcase what we love to do, but we don’t want to spend three months arranging and all that to record. We want to write new pieces of music but perform them on stage and record them live. That’s what’s exciting about music, to see a bunch of really good musicians sit onstage and go toe-to-toe. That’s what we want to preserve on record.”
Shakti reformed when the British Arts Council asked Hussain and McLaughlin to recreate the former’s 1986 solo album, “Making Music,” with Indian flutist Hariprasad Chaurasia.
But the project soon became “Remember Shakti” when they incorporated the three epic tunes from Shakti’s landmark self-titled album.
Fans of the band also now have last year’s two-disc “Remember Shakti” and the new “Remember Shakti: The Believer,” both released on Verve Records.
Hussain expects a third live disc to be recorded in December in India with the original lineup intact, plus several special guests.
The percussionist also expects to perform the modern-day fusion album, “Tala Matri,” which he recorded with a supergroup called Tabla Beat Science at House of Music in West Orange, N.J. with remix master Bill Laswell.
The Rykodisc release combines classical Indian tabla rhythms and harmonics with modern techno beats.
“I’m not going to stop learning the various layers of what my instrument is all about,” Hussain says. “I’m going to use a modern as well as a traditional approach. I’m not the kind of musician that shuns something because it’s not traditional. Any modern music still has the trace of traditional music. That, for me, is the connection.”
Also a member of Mickey Hart’s Grammy-winning Planet Drum, Hussain often jams with his Bay Area neighbor. The percussive pair, who first played together in the mid-‘70s in the Diga Rhythm Band recording a follow-up to Planet Drum’s two albums. “Mickey Hart has been a godsend,” says Hussain, the son of Ustad Allah
Rakha, the longtime collaborator of Ravi Shankar, the sitarist who turned the world onto India music with the help of The Beatles in the ’60s. “When I was 18 years old, I had done nothing but traditional Indian music for 13 years. You tend to become very rigid and follow discipline. I didn’t know what else to do when I came in touch with Mickey. Through his eyes I saw so many other things. He put me in touch with Baba Olatunji and so many great musicians. I heard the music of the Nile because of him. I was able to learn how not to look at a music form from the traditional Indian point of view but to look at with an open mind and an open heart, to understand the beat. I went to school along with Mickey and found out about the world.
“When we doing world drumming in the Diga Rhythm Band, drums were not yet the main focus of music. Since then, drums have come into the forefront. Planet Drum won the Grammy. Now rap and techno are very drum and bass-oriented. The rhythm has become the most essential part of modern music. That was not really the case in the ’70s. There was a drummer and a singer might play a tambourine and that was it. Olatunji was still not a household name. Through Mickey’s efforts, along Rykodisc’s help, he was able to accomplish this incredible thing where drums came to the forefront and rock music took on a whole different sound that your hear now, like Sting working with third world musicians and people making records like Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland.’ It was Mickey whose vision started all this. That’s Mickey’s contribution to rock music.”
Bob Makin is an entertainment writer for Gannett New Jersey.