In 1997, as part of the celebrations for India’s fiftieth year as an independent country, John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain were asked to perform a series of concerts around England. The group’s music was a great fit for the commemoration of the historical event with its spirit of bringing together east and west cultures. The timing was perfect given the success of the recently released compilation The Best of Shakti. The band’s activity, mostly dormant since its great run in the late 70s, has sparked again after Zakir Hussain got the rights for the band’s output and the released the compilation under his Moment Records label. The Best of album consisted of material from their 70s records Shakti with John McLaughlin (1976), A Handful of Beauty (1976) and Natural Elements (1977).
McLaughlin and Hussain tried to get the original band together, which also consisted of master ghatam player Thetakudi Harihara (known as Vikku) Vinayakram and violin player Lakshminarayana (L.) Shankar. Vikku was game to play a short run of performances but efforts to find Shankar were fruitless, so an invite was extended to bansuri (Indian flute) player Hariprasad Chaurasia. The band had three hours of rehearsal before they embarked on a mini tour of four performances in Oldham, London, Birmingham and Southampton in September 1997. No name was given to the band, and the shows were billed with the four musicians names.
There was no plan to record the shows, but John McLaughlin decided to record them for his personal collection. This was a stroke of luck, for in my opinion the music that band played was more sublime than its 70s incarnation. John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain and their band mates can engage in virtuosic music duels that keep the audience in awe, but here they leave the chops behind and play a serene set of music. In an interview for Innerviews in 1999, McLaughlin said: “There are some pyrotechnics on the recording, but because of the soulful sound of Hariprasad’s bansuri flute, everybody adapted themselves automatically without thinking “Should I do this? Should I do that?” It’s a natural process. The moment you start to talk about playing music, you destroy music. It cannot be talked about. It can only be played, enjoyed and listened to.”. The decision to record the shows was even more serendipitous for that lineup would never perform again. When an album with recordings from these shows was released in April 1999 it was decided to call the band Remember Shakti.
After the success of the 1997 shows there was more demand for the band’s music. However Vikku Vinayakram and Hariprasad Chaurasia could not devote the time required for more extensive touring. Both of them had teaching careers, Vikku in South India and Hariprasad at the Rotterdam Conservatory in Holland. Vikku recommended his son V. Selvaganesh, who played various percussion instruments but mastered the kanjira, a small south Indian frame drum with a single pair of jingles. Looking for a second melodic instrument in the band, McLaughlin remembered a child prodigy he met in 1983, then 14-year old U. Srinivas, who played a 5-string electric mandolin. That sealed the new lineup of Shakti, which lasted more than the original band and toured well into the following decade. I was lucky to see that band, one of the best live shows I was blessed to experience.
Lotus Feet was first performed on Shakti’s debut album from 1976, and remained on their live set through all incarnations of the band. Written by McLaughlin, it is my favorite in their repertoire. “A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever” as John Keats wrote many moons ago, and Lotus Feet is truly a thing of beauty. McLaughlin’s acoustic guitar from the 70s recordings is replaced in the 90s incarnation of the band with a warm tone of an electric guitar that fits this piece of music perfectly. I love The calm interplay between McLaughlin’s guitar and Chaurasia’s phrases on the bansuri. Here is the version from the short lived Remember Shakti lineup from 1997.
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