[29 April 2008]
PopMatters Features Editor
Having grown disillusioned with the increasingly chaotic late ‘60s music scene, and fearing an emptiness at the core of his LSD-driven quest for authenticity in experience and expression, John McLaughlin turned, like many of his British contemporaries, to the exotic, essentialized East. To Yoga and Karma, to Maharishis and Yogis, many young western people looked for answers to basic, fundamental questions of life, the universe, everything, and hoped to find them in an oversimplified version of eastern mysticism.
While LSD could change your mind for a time, offer new perspectives and insights, it was always already an inauthentic experience – its revelations were chemically induced, and thus dependant upon an external motivator, enhancer, catalyst. With eastern transcendental religion and practice, some believed, all that was needed was a quiet space and some disciplined dedication.
This last bit would turn out to be a sticking point for a great many would-be yogis as they made pilgrimages to India in the wake of the Beatles’ much-lauded pre-White Album experiment. The kind of discipline we are talking about was simply out of reach for most young, affluent, TV-reared westerners. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll didn’t find an easy replacement in mantra, meditation, and the sitar.
But, for McLaughlin, a man whose proficiency with the guitar had demanded untold hours and days and weeks and years of devoted, regimented attention and practice, there was something attainable in the demands of the yogic way. He came alight in this new setting, while so many others faded. He also, quite impressively, grew to master many of the traditional Indian arts in a very short period of time.
By the late ‘60s, he was already lending his inimitable fusion approach to such landmark records as Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and On the Corner, and was putting together his own breakthrough outfit, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. And so, by the early ‘70s, he was playing traditional Indian music with a fusion twist in a fashion that to many ears was plainly revolutionary. For many jazz and world music fans, a Yorkshireman named McLaughlin had somehow identified and managed to devote himself to the ancient Indian way of aural beauty.
Teaming up with the irrepressible fingers and churning musical mind of Zakir Hussain, among the world leaders on the tabla, McLaughlin put together a group called Shakti in 1975 as a way to explore his growing fascination with the rigors and rhythms of Indian music. Their collaboration is fairly legendary stuff amongst aficionados of the fusion of “western” and “world” styles.
Their hybrid approach – a mingling of classic Indian forms with out-there jazz-fusion techniques – turned many people on to the delights of this music of chance, of possibility. (It also helped, of course, turn many more people off of jazz entirely in the mid-‘70s, but that’s another story. Just don’t ask Ken Burns to tell it to you.) Hussain and McLaughlin worked together for a brief period in the mid-‘70s, and then only sporadically thereafter, as each went separate ways on their respective searches for ever more arenas to conquer.
But, at the turn of the millennium, Shakti was reformed (under the moniker Remember Shakti) and began to tour again, backed by an extraordinary collection of Indian musicians on traditional instruments. This reunion, of sorts, also marked the re-emergence of John McLaughlin the visionary, and Zakir Hussain, the nimble-fingered god. Anyone who was fortunate enough to catch one of their shows (mine was at the Montréal Jazz Festival back in 2001, and wow) knows what to expect from this DVD collection – a dreamy, explosive collaborative effort steeped in a mystical past but forward-looking in its execution. It is a human music fueled by a touch of the sacred.
As a collection of films, Remember Shakti – the Way of Beauty is a testament to the diversity of talent, and breadth of imagination on exhibit at any one of their concerts. Combining selections from four different performances – one in Bombay (2000), two from the Montreux Jazz Festival (1976 and 2004), and an intimate private concert shot during a sound check prior to a concert in Paris (2004) – with a full-length documentary (okay, a series of one-camera interviews intercut with musical interludes) detailing McLaughlin and Hussain’s respective journeys, this document is sure to delight fans of the Shakti sound. Lush, intimate photography, great clean sound, and stirring performances define the experience. Highly recommended.