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Shakti50 - A powerful dream fulfilled

On August 23, 2023, at 8:40pm, four members of the current Shakti band, Ustad Zakir Hussain, John McLaughlin, Selvaganesh Vinayakram and Ganesh Rajagopalan walked on stage, began playing one of the old Shakti pieces putting me in a trance for the next ~2hrs. It was a dream come true and one of the most cherished live music concerts I've attended. There are many reasons why it's the most cherished. Zakir Ji being in the band is only one part of it. 


My first ever concert of Ustad Zakir Hussain was a two-part show. First part was his solo and the second part, one of his brothers, Fazal Qureshi and Shakti OG band member, Vikku Vinayakram and his son and current member, Selvaganesh were present. This was in 2003. Back then I didn't know something like Shakti existed. This was the pre-YouTube era (YouTube started in 2005). I was learning Tabla for only a couple of years then and growing up in a traditional Kannadiga household, I didn’t have exposure to World music. I knew of Ustad Zakir Hussain, but very little knowledge beyond that. 


Over the years, as my music repertoire expanded and YouTube came into our lives, I learnt about Shakti. My first tryst with the band was not the original one, but with Remember Shakti, a band they formed in the 1990s. It had the famous vocalist Shankar Mahadevan and mandolin maestro U Shrinivas. From the moment I listened to them, I fell in love with the band. Especially the track, Giriraja Sudha. I was mind blown by the mastery and the blending of Carnatic and Hindustani music with the guitar. Having heard Remember Shakti and googling about them, I learnt why they were called Remember Shakti and about the original Shakti. To then learn that these musicians produced such music in the 1970s was absolutely unfathomable for me. 


I've watched almost every interview and the 1977 documentary about Shakti on YouTube and read so much about them, including in Nasreen Munni Kabir’s Zakir Hussain: A Life in Music. This book is a compilation of 15 interviews of Zakir Ji by Nasreen.


Further, in 2016, my first quarter as a PhD student at UCSB, Zakir Ji had come and stayed for a couple of days in Santa Barbara giving three guest lecture-demonstrations and a concert with sitarist Niladri Kumar. Needless to say, I attended all of them and interacted with him quite a bit. I was always asking questions and he had really warmed up to me at the very end. The highlight of the two days was him blessing me all the best in a very loving manner in the parking lot outside the music building when they were about to leave. In one of those lecture-demos, I had asked him a couple of questions about Shakti too and his relationship with John Mclaughlin. He had given a very nice, lengthy answer. Amongst all the questions I had asked, he seemed to really like this one the most.  


Shakti's impact in World Music is unparalleled and grossly underrated. Them having recently performed to a few sold out shows in the US notwithstanding. I think the main reason they aren't as well-known as they should be is because they haven't been a super active band nor have they produced many studio albums. In fact, their most recent album, This moment (released on 23 June 2023), is their first studio album in 46 years!! They identify themselves as a live-music band rather than a studio band. They perform every now and then. I think from their inception in 1973, to date, they might have toured for around 10-15years in total at best. Hence their impact hasn't been as far reaching as it should've been. Yet, I say at the start of this paragraph that their impact is unparalleled. The reason is because they invented world music before the term was born. Zakir Ji fondly and famously recalls how they took their first album to the record company and they couldn't place it in a bin. They couldn't call it Jazz, or Hindustani or Carnatic. It was just music. That’s when a new bin, World Music, was specifically created for Shakti.


Another story I've seen in one of the many videos, is the description of their early years in New York. Zakir Ji and Vikku Vinayakram Ji rented an apartment together for a few months. He described Vikku Ji's early morning rituals and how they would be his natural wake up alarms. As a practicing Hindu, I connected myself with Vikku Ji just from Zakir Ji's descriptions. It was inspirational for me. How a traditional ritualistic Brahmin guy, embraced and pushed world music boundaries rather than sticking to the confines of Carnatic classical music. In the process, perhaps breaking all the stereotypes of Carnatic musicians as being closed, narrow-minded and sticking to their own music traditions. 


Knowing so much and listening to so much of Shakti on my computer, one of my deepest desires was to be able to see them perform live one day. When their US tour was announced at the beginning of the year, I wasn't sure which part of the country I would be in, and the wait to book the tickets to the appropriate venue was agonizing. As soon as my postdoc in American University was confirmed and I knew I would be in Washington DC in August, I booked tickets to the show in Wolftrap, Virginia on August 23rd. I booked the concert tickets even before I booked my flight tickets to DC. That's the extent to which I was waiting for this.


When this deep desire of mine started to be fulfilled on Wednesday, August 23, it was quite natural for me to be in a daze. It was also natural for me tear up when they played Giriraja Sudha and Shrini's dream. Whilst I enjoyed every single moment of the concert, these two songs were the absolute pinnacle of the evening for me. Giriraja Sudha for probably being the song that initially got me hooked to the band and Shrini’s dream because they paid tribute to a former band member, Mandolin U Shrinivas. I had also consciously stayed away from listening to their latest album (except for their single, Mohanam which was released in January. Back then when Mohanam was released, I didn't know if they would tour or a full album would be released later in the year, so I listened to it the day Mohanam came out). The reason I stayed away from listening to their album was because they identify themselves as a live-music band, I wanted to hear them perform songs from the album live before I listened to the studio version. Now, since August 23, This Moment, has consumed every moment of my music listening time. It's been playing on loop. Natural Elements and my all-time favourite piece, Mind Ecology have taken a backseat.

Shakti in action at the famous Ryman Auditorium in Nashville


I have been so consumed by Shakti’s 50th anniversary tour that, despite having heard them live on August 23rd, I bought a ticket to the livestream of their concert from Nashville on August 31. It’s September 16th today and as I sit and finish up this article, Shakti50 tour is concluding in Austin, Texas today. I can’t help but wonder, when next will I hear Shakti? Will I ever hear them live again? I don't know, but the dream to listen to them again and again and again and again will live on. 

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