Ustad Zakir Hussain on Shakti's 50th Anniversary and the Emergence of Tabla in Western Ears
The pair of small hand drums known as tabla has been THE essential percussion instrument in Hindustani classic music since the 18th century. But it wasn't until the 1960s that the sound of tabla began to seep into Western consciousness through a series of significant events and recordings. Credit George Harrison with first bringing tabla to a wider audience beyond the Indian subcontinent through his work with the Beatles. After flirting with sitar on "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," John Lennon's tune from Rubber Soul (recorded on Oct. 21, 1965 at London's EMI Studios, released on Dec. 3 of that year), the Eastern-leaning Harrison took the plunge on his droning raga influenced number "Love You Too" from Revolver (recorded April 11-13, 1966 at EMI and released on August 5 of that year). With Harrison on sitar and vocals and Paul McCartney on backing vocals, Indian tabla player Anil Bhagwat was recruited for the session at Abbey Road. As he recalled in Mark Lewisohn's book, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Story of the Abbey Road Years 1962–1970: "A chap called [Ayana] Angadi called me and asked if I was free that evening to work with George...he didn't say it was Harrison. It was only when a Rolls-Royce came to pick me up that I realized I'd be playing on a Beatles session."
Harrison would go even deeper into the Hindustani musical tradition the following year on "Within You Without You" from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (recorded on March 22, 1967 and released on May 26 of that year). With George once again handling sitar and vocals, Amiya Dasgupta from the London-based Asian Music Circle was recruited to play tabla. In some ways, the release of Sgt. Pepper's kicked off 1967's Summer of Love, which accelerated just a few weeks later with the Monterey Pop Festival, held from June 16-18, culminating in a compelling Sunday afternoon performance by sitar master (and Harrison's teacher) Ravi Shankar accompanied by Hindustani classical tabla master Alla Rahka (Zakir's Hussain's father). The following year, Rahka would appear alongside the iconic jazz drummer Buddy Rich on Rich à la Rakha (released on Feb. 8, 1968 on the World Pacific label), further acquainting Western ears with this most Eastern of instruments.
Born March 9, 1951 in Bombay, Maharashtra, India, Zakir was just 16 years old when his father, Allah Rahka, stunned the Monterey Pop Festival audience with his performance alongside Pandit Ravi Shankar. Just six years later, in 1973, he would join Mahavishnu Orchestra guitarist John McLaughlin in forming the seminal world music ensemble, Shakti. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, Shakti is currently gearing up for summer tours of Europe and the United States following the June 23rd release of This Moment (Abstract Logix), their first studio album in 45 years. Hussain has also kept extremely busy outside of Shakti, collaborating with banjo legend Bela Fleck, bassist Edgar Meyer and Indian bansuri player Rakesh Chaurasia on 2023's As We Speak, with saxophonist Charles Lloyd on 2022's Sacred Thread featuring guitarist Julian Lage and with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart on 2022's Planet Drum album, In the Groove. In pre-pandemic times, Zakir joined with bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist Chris Potter in forming the Crosscurrents Trio, which toured Europe in 2018 and released Good Hope on Edition Records the following year.
A working professional from the age of 12, when he began performing concerts of North Indian classical music in his native country, Zakir has also collaborated with bassist/producer Bill Laswell on the electronica flavored Tabla Beat Science project and with guitarist Henry Kaiser in his electric Miles Davis tribute band, Yo Miles!, which also featured trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. To date, he has appeared on nearly 400 recordings, lending his unique sound and rhythmic sensibilities to such a diverse array of artists as George Harrison, Earth, Wind & Fire, Joe Henderson, John Handy, Jan Garbarek, Pharoah Sanders, Idris Muhammed, Van Morrison, Kenny Loggins, Jack Bruce, Joe Zawinul, Billy Cobham, Kazumi Watanabe, Tito Puente, Peter Erskine, Alex De Grassi, Jeff Coffin, Leni Stern, Renee Rosnes, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Garaj Mahal and the Kronos Quartet. He formed his own Moment! Records label in 1991 and has frequently toured with his group Masters of Percussion, which demonstrates both the North Indian (Hindustani) and South Indian (Carnatic) musical traditions and features Zakir’s younger brothers Taufiq Quereshi and Fazal Quereshi.
In this phone interview with Zakir, who was calling from his home in San Francisco, the tabla master sounded excited to be reunited with his Shakti bandmates for their 2023 summer tour.
You recently had some triumphant gigs in India with the latest edition of Shakti, featuring yourself and John McLaughlin, percussionist V. Selvaganesh, vocalist Shankar Mahadevan and the dazzling Carnatic violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan. How did it feel going back out with the group?
Oh, my God! It is about time, first of all. And secondly, I can't yet digest that it's been 50 years. We've obviously been in touch with each other and connected and done things over these years, different projects that we've been a part of. And so it's not like we've been totally disconnected from each other. But it's like coming back home after being away. Now I understand how the tribe felt when they finally reached the promised land.
You played on John McLaughl's 2020 album, Is That So. But I'm guessing you weren't in the same room for that pandemic-era recording.
No, we were not. But one or two sessions did take place before the pandemic actually set in, so we were together in the studio for those sessions. We weren't sure that we were going to actually embark on making that into an album. John and I both happened to be in India at the time so we went into Shankar Mahadevan's studio and just kind of fooled around with exploring some ideas. And one of those 'fooling around things' turned out to be one of the pieces on Is That So. So that track actually did happen in the studio but the rest of the album was done with me in San Francisco, Shankar Mahedevan in India and John in Monaco, just Zooming and FaceTiming and sending files back and forth to each other, placing our material on top. And then things got corrected or edited as required or as suggested by one of us to the other. And so it was in that way a collective effort, but none of us were really in the room together during the process of making that album.
Were you all in the same studio together for the new Shakti album, This Moment?
Actually, no. We did most of the work, again, through the pandemic. Is That So? spawned the idea that we must do another Shakti album because it seemed to work out that we could do it long distance. And so we thought we could do a new Shakti album that way. At that point, in our heads, it wasn't yet clear that we actually were approaching our 50 year anniversary. We just wanted to make an album that was a studio album, which Shakti hadn't really done much before. The second and the third Shakti albums in the '70s (1976's A Handful of Beauty and 1977's Natural Elements) were studio products, but all the other Shakti albums were live concert recordings. So it felt like since we are confined to our spaces, it might be a good idea to initiate a studio album. So it began that way.
And while we were doing it, we figured out that it was possible for at least two of us to be able to work in tandem together in real time. We could lay down tracks that were simultaneously played, no matter where we were on the planet. And so, the rhythm tracks on the new album between me and Selvaganesh are a product of that. Selva was in a studio in Chennai, India, while I was here in San Francisco. We worked together on a click track and came up with all our parts and how we would interact under the song with the breaks and everything. So that part happens to be an effort that was together but still long distance. And the rest of it was, again, sharing the files and putting the material on top of existing tracks, then we as a group getting together on a Zoom or a Facetime and reviewing it and making suggestions for fixing things or leaving it as it is or adding things, and so on and so forth. So this Shakti album is most certainly a studio album, and I think for how it was put together with us being long distance, it turned out really, really great. John helmed it and he did very well, and the mix sounds very good. So it's interesting the way it found its way to where it is.
You've added some new personnel to this latest edition of Shakti.
Yes. Bringing in Ganesh, the violin player, kind of harkened back to the original Shakti sound with L. Shankar's violin. But this current edition has much more of an understanding of the harmonic elements and is more like a concoction of our collective experiences over the last 50 years, all boiling down to this. The way we arranged the songs and the breaks and the way it all worked is very different from how we did it the old Shakti way, where we would arrive in the studio and start playing live and it would be recorded. And then what was recorded was the final product. Here we had the ability and technology and time to be able to fine-tune stuff that was put on the hard drive. So in that sense, the new product is much more carefully sculpted than it was in the '70s.
A tune like "Sono Mama," which incorporates a repeating synth bass line or sequncer, is certainly a new approach compared to the acoustic purity of the original Shakti ensemble.
Yeah, that's John playing that bass line on a processed guitar. And that represents where Shakti has arrived in terms of the awareness of each other's ability, to be able to live in each other's house, so to say. With the old Shakti, we were playing largely a South Indian-based material and John found his way in it, amazingly. And I have to say that he's a one-of-a-kind musician. I mean, who else can be sitting with Paco de Lucia, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Carlos Santana, etc., and then also be playing with Indian musicians and looking like he belongs, as opposed to looking like somebody who's just finding it. It's not like just sitting in and playing one tune with somebody on a stage, it's actually putting together a whole album, a whole tour, doing concerts and being able to live in that world. So John did that in Shakti. When he wants to interact with musicians which are somewhat other than the kind of music that he grew up with, he takes the time to learn about that music and get comfortable in it. And in that way, he's paying respects to the music. And that's so special. So I feel that now it is time that we acknowledge that and find our the way across the fence into his world. And I think Shankar and Ganesh, as melodic maestros, have both risen to the occasion really nicely and found their way in John's layers of harmonies and counterpoints on this new album.
"Las Palmas" definitely reflects John's flamenco connection with Paco de Lucia.
Yes, it does. And in a way, it's a tribute to Paco. Of course, it's also tying the knot with the roots of flamenco, which come from the desert of Rajasthan in Northern India, when the gypsies traveled over the Khyber Pass and into Eastern Europe and brought that music and that way of life into that world. And then it found its way slowly into Spain, which is why you find scales and melodic structures in flamenco music that are so close to Indian structures. And there are also rhythmic ideas that have similarities, like on "Las Palmas." The palmas is a kind of a form that we in South India and in North India also mess around with -- the idea of playing in a rhythm cycle where the one is not actually the visible one. It's a one that's just before you get to the downbeat. That's one of the things that flamenco players excel in and it is something that we do in North and South India in our melodic and rhythmic world. So it was interesting for me and Selva to be able to bring our template of rhythmic repertoire and just place it on the cycles, and it fit perfectly on the grid. We didn't have to in any way alter it or edit it at all.
You mentioned that historically the music traveled from India into Spain over time. There's a great documentary that came out 30 years ago called Latcho Drom, which was directed by Tony Gatlif, a French film director of Romani ethnicity. The film begins in the Thar Desert in Northern India and ends in Spain, passing through Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and France. All of the Romani portrayed are actual members of the Romani community.
Yeah, I remember it. Exactly! It shows how that music traveled from India and spread throughout Europe.
Right. And tracing that continuum of music and the non-tempered vocal tradition that carried through all those cultures helps explain the connection between flamenco and Indian singing.
Yes, it is very obvious but it's not talked about much. And so that documentary went a long way to making people aware of this connection. And after all, we are more similar than we are different when it comes to music and rhythm. And to be able to just sit up and acknowledge it -- and to find a way to be able to have that kind of a smorgasbord available to us on a constant basis with reverence for each genre of dishes -- is something that the world is starting to notice and acknowledge. And Shakti, obviously, was at the forefront of it way back when, 50 years ago. And now it is great that it is being welcomed back. We recently had a fantastic India tour and it's just been amazing to be able to perform together again, doing these two-and-a-half-hour concerts nonstop. I didn't know if we had it in us to be able to do that, but here we are. And it felt like we just picked up where we left off. It felt like the way it should be. And that feeling I am eager to share with Europe and America on our upcoming summer tours.
I imagine the audience response in India was ecstatic.
Oh, yes. They just loved it. And the way they came to the concerts -- thousands and thousands of them. I had no idea that we have that kind of following. I mean, I knew that people remembered Shakti but I thought it was just the people who were from way back then. But here were young people -- teenagers, 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds as well as the old Shakti fans -- who lined up to come into the concert hall. And they were all just grooving on what we were doing and they knew the material and were just so happy to see us perform. And so , if that happens again in Europe and America, it's going to be ecstasy.
I remember seeing Shakti open for Weather Report in Milwaukee in 1976.
Wasn't there another band on that tour? Was it the Billy Cobham/George Duke Band? Or maybe that was just for the first European tour.
You also recently did a Masters of Percussion tour. What was that all about?
We had a percussionist, Lady Melissa Ye, who represented Burkina Faso and the instruments from that part of the world. And it was a reminder that rhythms, as we know, emerged from Africa and traveled all over the world. So it is possible that we in India were beneficiaries of it, just as the rest of the world was. But Masters of Percussion combines Indian percussionists, a Colombian percussionist and, of course, the African one. So we had four percussionists and one melody player and it was amazing. It was great to play and perform together. We had 14 concerts all across the United States. And again, it was a reminder that we are all similar as opposed to different.
Speaking of your other activities away from Shakti, I know you have a new record with Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer (As We Speak) and another new one with Mickey Hart's Planet Drum (In the Groove). You've been collaborating with Charles Lloyd since his Sangam album from 2006 and now comes his new trio record with you and Julian Lage (Trios: Sacred Thread). Of course, there's also the Crosscurrents Trio with Chris Potter and Dave Holland (Good Hope). You've been very active musically in the last few years in a number of projects, bringing your sound to bear in so many situations.
Yeah, I've just been so lucky. And some of these projects survived and emerged even through the pandemic, like Is That So?, In the Groove and This Moment. And now the album with Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer and this Indian bamboo flautist, Rakesh Chaurasia, is about to show up. And I'm like, "Oh, my God. How does the Grammys feel about so many albums with me on it coming out?" And what's really interesting is Planet Drum and Shakti both started in the same year, 50 years ago. We both formed in 1973 and put out our first albums in 1976. That year, Mickey Hart and I did an album called Diga, which was the first ever composed and arranged world rhythm ensemble. And the funniest thing is the name comes from Spain -- diga, which means to speak. So that album happened and it was released the same year that the first Shakti album came out. And both projects are still going. So it's like...Wow, how fortunate can one be to have these friends for all these years and a relationship that spans these decades, but at the same time have a chance to be able to grow in a very deep manner and an understanding of each other's abilities and roots and creative processes and so on. And therefore, we arrive at this juncture more enriched than when we began 50 years ago.
And you're making all of these contributions at the age of 72, which is amazing.
Yeah, it's very exciting. A lot is happening. There seems to be some kind of a musical renaissance that is taking place. And I guess the pandemic had something to do with it, because people were sitting at home and had the technical ability to be able to print and put together ideas on a hard drive and interact with each other without getting out of their pajamas. So I guess that has a lot to do with it -- just the convenience of not having to fly somewhere and bring the equipment and tech and pay excess baggage and whatnot and do all that, which takes half your energy away. Instead, now you were in your own environment and you were still doing the same thing you would have done when you sat in the studio with the rest of the band and somehow live together in this part or this space being a digital bit in the web planet. So it's exciting. It's also amusing and very, very revealing and a great learning experience. And many people have done this. Herbie Hancock released an album doing this kind of stuff, and I know that other musicians have been working on and releasing stuff on a regular basis through the pandemic. So, yeah, it has been much more of a creative boom than it would have been if we were all still traveling and performing the way we were before the pandemic.
Speaking of age, John McLaughlin turned 81 in January of this year. And he sounds fantastic on this new Shakti record.
Yeah, he sure does. What an amazing life this man has had! And the kind of inspiration he has spawned over the years in the world of music is equally influential in America, in Europe, in India, everywhere. I mean, this is something that's so unusual that you don't see that happen with any one musician in that way. John is truly a world musician, I would have to say. That label fits with him much more than anybody else, as far as I can tell.
I noticed that John's use of guitar synthesizer on This Moment as well as on Is That So? is sort of emulating the warm sound of a bansuri flute.
Yeah, yeah, he does. I mean, he's definitely been influenced by Indian instruments. And when we did an album called Remember Shakti with Hariprasad Chaurasia, the great Indian flutist...that was John's wish to play with him. When I did my ECM album in 1986 called Making Music, I requested John to be on that album. And when he came in for the session, he and Hariprasad met then and played for the first time on that album. And I think it kind of made him get into a situation where he wanted to be able to in some way pay tribute to this incredible instrument, which is just a piece of bamboo but with a world full of sound in it. And John worked on being able to find the right kind of processing that will make that happen. And I think if anybody's come closest to imitating that sound or paying reference to it, it's John.
On the new Shakti album you partake in some rather intense bits of konnokol (a kind of Indian scatting) with Selvaganesh on his tune “Mohanam." It's really hard to imagine that you weren't in the same room together doing that incredibly tight call-and-response.
No, we were not in the same room together, but we played together. There is this process called Team , which is a software which allows musicians to be thousands of miles apart from each other but be able to sync through a click track and play in time together. So I was here in my music room at home in San Francisco and Selva was in his studio in Chennai, India, and there was an engineer in London who was controlling the click and was actually in charge of my computer and Selva's computer. And he was bringing both those informations together into the soundboard, and then he put the information onto the hard drive. And the information was arriving at the point of printing exactly at the same time. And so we were able to play together that way.
The percussion jams and konnokol between you and Selva are so intricate.
Yeah. Selva also wrote a good tune for this album, so I'm very happy that the Vinayakram family got a chance to finally contribute a tune onto a Shakti album. His father, Vikku Vinayakram, and I, of course, played with Shakti from its inception and were responsible for many of the rhythm breaks and arrangements and stuff. But contributing an actual song, that is something that rarely happened. I did contribute a couple of songs in the past ("Ma No Pa" on Remember Shakti's 2000 album, The Believer, and "Bell'alla" from 2001's Saturday Night in Bombay) but Vikku never did. But now his son has filled that void and I'm very happy for him.
Vikku was such a great performer. I remember he'd unbutton his shirt and push the ghatam (clay pot) up against his belly when he was ready to really get down.
Yeah. And in India last January when we played, Vikku joined us on stage. And it was such an emotional moment, not just for us but for the audience as well. As he walked on the stage they all stood up and gave him a rousing welcome. And in that moment in that arena, it was as if we were all one family, thousands of us all together belonging as one. It just was a moment where the realization set in amongst us, the band members, and we looked at each other like, "Wow! We are wanted by people. They haven't forgotten us, this hasn't left. It still is here and thriving and nurtured!"
Selva must've been a little kid when Shakti started out.
A wee man...a very, very little baby. And so, therefore, it is a moment of pride for both John and me to see him turn into this successful grown man. You know, he's a very prolific composer for the South Indian film industry. He even directed a movie (2008’s Vennila Kabadi Kuzhu). So he has his fingers in many different pies and is a very creative young man and a very good sound engineer himself. Selva has brought himself into this modern world with the tools needed to be able to be valued not just for his playing but for his overall understanding of the craft. It's amazing.
Speaking of compositions, you have one yourself on the new album called "Changi Naino." It's a very beautiful ballad but it's got a tinge of melancholy in there.
Ha! It does. It's actually based on a North Indian traditional form called khyal, which means imagination. In that form, the song or the composition is usually performed in a very slow cycle of 12. And in some ways it's like a very, very slow moving 12 bar blues, but with a mode that is more Indian than a blues riff. But the form is exactly like that. I always wanted to pay tribute to the American blues by revealing it to the audiences here, that we have a form in India that is so similar in that way. So if you keep the count together, you can see that there are 12 beats that are happening and very slowly moving each cycle, taking maybe 14, 15 seconds. And usually a singer is the lead person in that form who will sing and everybody else will accompany. But here we made sure that the melodic element of the band -- John and Ganesh -- had equal say in the piece. It's not the kind of piece that Shakti usually delves into, so it was interesting to bring that to the table. And I'm grateful that the band accepted it and tackled it.
That would also explain John's very wicked string-bending on that tune. He sounds very bluesy.
Yes! He sounds really bluesy. And he understands the emotional content of each piece of music that he's a part of, more intimately than I can possibly explain. So it's always a revelation playing with him. He's a mentor to me and a dear friend and advisor who has guided me over the decades, and in some ways helped shape how I turned out as a musician.
Did you two meet before you started playing together?
Yes, we did. We met in 1972 in New York City at this place called the House of Musical Traditions. I was doing a tabla workshop there and he came in and we interacted, said hello and all that. I was doing a rhythm workshop and he talked to me about wanting to learn Indian vocal styles. You know, here is this great musician who's always looking to learn more, to be a student and find other ways to be able to take his music and bring different languages into his music. So I gave him a lesson. And I guess he remembered me because later on when he came to the Bay Area, which is where I was living then, he sought me out. I was teaching at the Ali Akbar College of Music in Berkeley at the time. So we met and he brought an acoustic guitar with him, which he used to keep which him for practicing. We ended up jamming that night at Ali Akbar's home and it was like we had done this before. It never felt like we had to adjust or tell each other what to do, we just started playing and it was right. And then it took another year or so before John could put us all together, including L. Shankar and me, because he was still doing Mahavishnu at the time. But he decided that we should play together, and so we played a concert in New York (at Saint Thomas Church in midtown Manhattan in 1973). And at that point, it was clear that there was something brewing here that was out of the ordinary. It was something special. And so John arranged another concert in Southampton College on Long Island. We played a live concert there (July 5, 1975) and the people just went nuts.
And it was at that point that John floated the idea for us to play together as a band and travel. I guess he had been considering at that point moving on from Mahavishnu, and it was a very courageous decision that he took. He gave up a money-making machine like the Mahavishnu Orchestra and put himself in this situation where there was no surety that this would survive, that this would even fly, that people would even accept it or understand what was happening. And while it did not fly as well as Mahavishnu had, it did OK. It did not lose money. But the powers that be at CBS wanted to see platinum and gold albums, which Shakti was not doing. They wanted John to get back to playing electric music and the contractual obligations finally forced him to move onwards from Shakti. I remember the day when he told us, "We have to stop this for now," and he was in tears at that time. But we didn't stop totally. We occasionally got together and played a few concerts here and there, but we did not tour as a band or make any more records again until the late '90s.
John had actually recorded with a tabla player before he met you. He had Badal Roy play tabla on his 1970 album My Goal's Beyond. That was only a few years after your father had played with Ravi Shankar at the Monterey Pop Festival.
Yes. Badal Roy was my father's student. And so was another gentleman called Colin Walcott (from the group Oregon) So, yes, my father was one of the big hits at the Monterey Pop Festival. He was the one who got the ball rolling in terms of collaboration of different genres of music by making a record with Buddy Rich (1966's Rich à la Rahka). So already there was this idea bubbling of interaction and finding similarities. And he put it on the table with the gracious support of Buddy Rich and we took it up from there with Shakti. And here we are.
I even noticed the other day that there's a morning news program, CBS Mornings, that has an undercurrent of tabla in their sign-on theme song. It sounds like it might be a sampled tabla on a loop, so that's yet another example of the sound of tabla filtering into our consciousness as well.
Yes, I heard that too. I think tabla has arrived at the point where it is now being considered as a world percussion instrument, as opposed to just an Indian percussion instrument. Similar to like congas or bongos, which have become very universal instruments used everywhere. I think tabla has finally found its place amongst these instruments. And I guess, rhythmically, it is easier to be able to take one and transpose stuff on it from another part of the world. Because if you're hand drumming, the techniques are very close, whether it's tabla or congas or bongos. And so it is easily possible to transpose repertoire from each of these traditions on to the other instrument, which has happened. When I worked with Giovanni Hidalgo in Planet Drum, it was so easy for us to be able to interact with each other's repertoire and be able to play in unison, as if our instruments belonged together. And so people are now using tabla, or tabla samples, without thinking, "Oh, it's Indian." Instead, it's much more like, "Oh, this is a nice percussion sound. I like it." So it's been interesting to be able to see the kind of understanding that the world has arrived at with the music, by considering it to be a universal voice as opposed to sections that don't belong together.
The tabla is such an incredible instrument. I'm always amazed at the nuanced touch that you bring to it with each finger; very much akin to ten fingers on a piano. I remember seeing you running bass lines and doing different things on the tabla.
Yeah, my basic technique is something that I learned from my father, but I've also absorbed the influences of people like Giovanni Hildago, Airto Moreira, Amando Peraza, Humza Al Din and so many different percussionists from all over the world who play their instruments with hands. Looking at all that and trying to move all that information on to my tabla has been my goal. This melodic element of the tabla, where I bass lines and all that stuff, is definitely not an Indian thing to do. But watching people like Max Roach or Elvin Jones and seeing how they utilize the whole drum kit in a very rhythmic and melodic way and how they stretched time -- that was a huge inspiration to me. Or watching Armando Peraza use five congas, and when he took a solo the congas not only projected rhythmic patterns but also melodic ideas. So all that information inspired me to be able to try and make tabla talk in the same manner. And that's changed the way the tabla is played these days. A lot of young tabla players now have adopted this approach to being able to play tabla not just thinking about it as a rhythm instrument but also a melody instrument with the possibility to express emotions.
Another musical outlet that you've had over the years is Tabla Beat Science with Bill Laswell.
Yeah. Bill has not been very well lately. Actually, it's been a couple of years. So we've all been contributing and supporting and doing our bit to make sure that his head stays above water. And it's coming along, he's getting better. He's starting to play a little bit. And he's able to keep his studio (Orange Music Studio in West Orange, New Jersey), which is important. As a musician and producer, if he doesn't have a place to be able to make music, that is like a death knell. So it's good that that has not happened. He has a studio and he's starting to work himself into some kind of physical shape to be able to play again. And hopefully he will come out of this and resume where he left off. (Laswell's GoFundMe page: bit.ly/42WBCUo)
Tabla Beat Science was really a groundbreaking group in the early 2000s. Where else were you going to hear tabla going toe-to-toe with turntable?
Yes, it was groundbreaking. People were using samples of tabla way back when and it was Bill's idea that there are real live tabla players who can do this better than a sample. And why not try and combine it in that manner and bring what the samples were trying to accomplish in terms of patterns and processing and playing, and just have the source be an organic sound being produced by human hands? And that approach started with Tabla Beat Science. The first things that were put down on the hard drive were my tablas with a click track. And then the rest of the stuff was built around it. It was interesting process to watch, how just a tabla rhythmic pattern could spawn an idea of a song.
The opening track of the new Shakti album is "Shrini's Dream," is a beautiful tribute to the late, great mandolin player from Remember Shakti, U. Srinivas, who passed away on Sept 19, 2014. I noticed that all of you share composer credit for that tune.
Yeah, because when we were on the last tour that we did with Srinivas, we were beginning to develop an idea of a piece that we should play. We were kind of fooling around at a rehearsal -- Shrini suggested something, I suggested something, John suggested something -- and we were just kind of playing around with it. But we never finished it. Somebody made an iPhone kind of a recording of us fooling around with this idea at a rehearsal. And then Shrini went home and, lo and behold, he decided to leave us and move on. Suddenly, Shakti just stopped in its tracks. We were just starting to fly again and we were going to make a record and we were going to travel and start touring again because this last tour that we had done in Europe and in America was a big success. So the plan was, "OK, let's do this! Let's make a record and go back on tour." But then Shrini passed away and it was a terrible shock to all of us. It was impossible at that point for us to be able to even consider doing Shakti without Srinivas. I remember meeting John a little while after receiving the news, and we just hugged and cried for such a long time. It was just one of those shocks that we thought we would never recover from. Over the years some mending has happened, but the ache still exists. Meanwhile, somebody found the iPhone recording of our rehearsal and said, "Hey, here is this!" And so we all sat down and worked out our ideas and offered our collective tribute to the young maestro. He passed away when he was only 45 years old, and at the top of his musical ability. It is a tribute about our humble reverence to his spirit. Because Shrini was not of this world. He was an angel, a spirit that just descended in our midst and showed us what being a good spirit is all about, and then decided to move on. We were all touched by his pristine purity. And so we wanted to begin this album with an acknowledgment of how we felt about him. And what is interesting with this piece is that the arrangement has this kind of melodic and rhythmic interplay that could be called a jazz-funk idea with an Indian motif. It sounds more like a melodic refrain from a guitar player or a bass player or piano player on a jazz, blues, funk idea. I'm glad that we got to finish this piece, and I'm glad that it is the first piece on the album. It couldn't have been better than that.
The other tune that doesn't have a composer credi is "Griraj Sudha."
That is a traditional South Indian kriti, which has been adapted. Kriti is a very common song formin South India. It has like an A part and a B part and a C part and a D part. And so it moves like a jazz tune but with choruses. And so, we decided that we wanted to adapt one of these tunes, and "Giriaj" was one famous kriti that Srivinas liked to play a lot. We actually dabbled in performing that piece on tour with him, so it was great that we got a chance to be able to adapt a traditional piece like that, which was one of his favorites.
You cover such a wide range of music on this album, from that traditional raga "Giriraj Sudha" to the synth bass song "Sono Mama," which has an electronica quality to it, to the flamenco flavored "Las Palmas," and your Indian blues, "Changay Naino." That's really covering a lot of bases.
Well, this is the thing: If we were to to have sat down in a studio to do this album, we would've had only three days to come up with enough stuff to be able to fill a 60-minute CD. In that environment, you rush through, you put it all down fast. But because of the pandemic, we had a long time at our disposal to be able to experiment with different things and take our time and make this album be a better 'look-in' as to where we all are as musicians at this point in our lives, with all the influences and inspirations and inputs that we have received as students of the art.