Spheres of influence
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1999 Anil Prasad. All rights reserved.
This is a companion piece to the "Remember Shakti: Four people as one" story. Please refer to that article for comprehensive contextual, biographical and historical information related to this interview.
Describe how you initially became fascinated with Indian culture.
I became very interested in comparative religion around 1962 when I was 20. I was raised without any religious education whatsoever. I became a member of the Theosophical Society because they had a wonderful library. On discovery of the wonder and profundity of Indian thought and philosophy, my appetite was really whetted. I became aware of Ramana Maharshi, a man who had a strong impact and continues to exert quite an influence on me. I went on to become aware of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Premananda and Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. My discovery of Indian music was also quite a revelation. I was first struck by the beauty of it and the mastery of the improvisation that exists in both the North and South. The relevance of this to my music, which is jazz music, was great—the necessity of mastering this kind of discipline for improvisation.
How did you go about balancing the mathematic equations of Indian rhythmic development with the less-studied, more chaos-laden leanings of jazz?
There is really a great deal of common ground. The mathematics of rhythm are universal. They don't belong to any particular culture. It's true that the sensuality of rhythm is coupled with the mathematical mind in India. It's not for nothing that India has produced some of the greatest atomic engineers, mathematicians and astronomers—particularly in the 20th century. They even have an observatory that goes back many hundreds of years in which the orbits of planets were calculated. So, you can say it's been developed to a more sophisticated level there than in jazz music. But whether it's from Africa, China, Brazil or Bombay, rhythm is rhythm. If you try to improvise in jazz without some degree of rhythmical mathematical proficiency, you'll be lost by the drummer and flounder.
The Remember Shakti album is much more steeped in Indian classical traditions than it is in any Western forms.
Yes, things went the natural Indian way. This, of course, included the introduction of the raga, the various ways of collective playing and the principal improvisations from the soloists. As musicians, we are playing notes, music and rhythms and we hope to play the right melody in the correct way, but this is only part of the process. The other side that is important is the communication of the musicians and the playing and playfulness that comes from that interaction. You can put a piece of music in front of somebody and he may play it perfectly. So what?
Interplay and interaction are the integral parts of music—they're as important as the notes. Without them, I don't think I'd be here. You can't just play over someone. There are many examples in jazz fusion in which you have a soloist playing over a steady drumbeat and I find this terribly boring, because I want to hear the interaction between two people. I want to know what kind of imagination and spontaneity they have. Only in spontaneity can we be who we truly are. The record was an afterthought. I spoke about the idea of taping the shows to Zakir during rehearsals—which was actually only three hours for the group. I told Zakir "We may never play in this formation again, so wouldn't it be nice to have a souvenir for ourselves?" He thought it was a great idea too. It's a nice idea to have memories because as time goes by, you don't know if things will come together this way again. So, we rented an ADAT [recorder] and taped the shows. Upon listening to the playback, we thought that this was really amazing music. We also thought "Wouldn't it be wonderful if it was a recording?"
How did the current Remember Shakti line-up come together?
For this tour, I again said "Why don’t we try to get Shankar?" We tried again with no success. We left messages and tried to get through by fax and any way possible. So, we said "Let’s go another way" and we invited Vikku’s son Selvaganesh and now Shakti begins to have some history. Twenty years ago, Zakir and I were sitting across the stage from his father and now we look across and see his son. And when you hear Selvaganesh and Zakir play, it's very different from Vikku and Zakir. Selvaganesh's principal instrument is kanjeera, but he also plays ghatam. Srinivas is a monster too. I first saw him as a young mandolin player on a video 16 years ago. He would have been 14. He was phenomenal then and he is even more so now. This group is amazing. We have electric mandolin and guitar which is a nice combination of contrasts and harmony with two different kinds of percussion. It's about vitality and creating a joyful experience that doesn't happen at the expense of soul. One always hopes for this. This group is like the original Shakti in some ways, but quite different also. The spirit, joy and happiness is still there. I mean, Zakir and myself go back to ‘69. We’ve known each other 30 years. He’s really a brother to me whom I love very deeply and have tremendous admiration for. He's a wonderful musician and without equal on the tabla. The people are reacting to this group in an amazing way. The reaction was great before, but we were a little more obscure then. There was no such thing as world music in those days. This kind of east-west fusion was virtually unknown. But I couldn’t ask for more than the wonderful reactions we’re getting.
What role do you believe Shakti played in the establishment and acceptance of world music?
It must have played some role. I'm extremely proud of Shakti because prior to it, there was very little collaboration between North and South Indian musics. Shakti played a role in the reunification of the North and South in the musical sense. Since Shakti, the collaborations between North and South have grown a thousand times. We now have very regular North-South meetings. As far as Shakti’s influence on the Western ear, it’s difficult for me to estimate how and what kind of influence. We were very timely as far as we were concerned. And subsequently in the ‘80s, ethnic music and world music became much more popular. People began to seek out a new sound. The globalization of the world is part of the same process. The shrinking of the planet and increased intercommunication between countries and cultures has played a role too.
You chose to use a hollow-body Gibson electric with Remember Shakti, rather than the acoustic guitars you played in the original group. The irony is that you’re using the electric to play in a more delicate and sensitive manner than you did in the group’s ‘70s incarnation.
I adapt myself to the environment in which I find myself. The Remember Shakti group with Hariprasad is very different from the group with Selvaganesh and Srinivas. They are two separate entities. The moment you change one person, the entire form changes. So, there are some pyrotechnics on the recording, but because of the lament and soulful sound of Hariprasad's bansuri flute, everybody adapts 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.
Describe the importance of konnakol to your understanding and knowledge of Indian classical music.
Essentially, konakkol is a marvelous system of Indian rhythm that is done without an instrument. You use your voice and your hands so you don't have to learn a percussion instrument in order to fully understand the simplicity and sophistication of Indian rhythmical traditions. It's a system I highly recommend to all my students, although I don't claim in any way to be a master of konnakol. But as I said, rhythm is really universal and if you can understand konnakol—the most superior system of learning rhythm in the world—you can understand any rhythm from any country on the planet. For example, if I have to communicate something to one of the percussion players in Remember Shakti, I can sing it to them in a rhythmical sense and vice-versa. It could be "Ta-ka ta-ka ta ta-ka tin day ta." You then immediately see the mathematics of it. And if you can sing a rhythm, it means you understand what it is and then it's a question of applying it to your instrument.
The long-lost Mahavishnu Trident sessions were finally authorized for release and are about to come out on Sony. Any thoughts on that?
I didn’t authorize them! I don’t have any power whatsoever over these people, let’s get this clear right away. They do precisely what they want. They don’t care what I want or don’t want. They are essentially the owner of the tape and I am a secondary consideration. It’s as simple as that. That’s the way record companies are, but we need them. But I’m delighted because it’s a wonderful recording and they are idiots for losing the tapes and not releasing them a long time ago. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise because it’s a great studio recording from 1972—that’s a long time ago. It has a great analog sound. In fact, there was another recording made of the Mahavishnu Orchestra live in Cleveland, Ohio in 1971 by CBS who are Sony now. It’s great and I would love it if they would release it as a recording. It was a phenomenal night. I asked them "Why don’t you do it? It’s great!" But they say "Yeah, maybe, yes, no, but…" So, they do what they want—whatever they want.
How do you feel about the fact that neither Mahavishnu or Shakti have received the reverential, anthology treatment that Miles and Herbie have?
Oh, who cares? I don’t give a damn. [laughs] What matters is I know what it is. There are two kinds of success. One is musical or artistic and the other is commercial. We enjoyed great success with Mahavishnu. But when I formed Shakti, it was dimly viewed, I should say! After coming out of Mahavishnu—a very powerful electric band—here I was sitting on a carpet with Indian musicians. Everyone thought I flipped out. It was not well-received at all by the record company or my agent and manager. Artistically, I thought it was wonderful, but they all thought I was a little loopy. It was not good news to them.
Bill Laswell told Innerviews that he’s going to be remixing Tony Williams’ Lifetime’s Turn It Over, as well as Santana’s Love, Devotion, Surrender. Is that something you support?
I didn’t even know he was doing that. How about that? Wow. Amazing. He’s doing a very interesting job on those Miles’ remix albums. Some of the recording quality of those times was really terrible. Bill is a great producer and he’s a musician as well. I think more power to him if he can do something to them and make a remix and enhance the poor recording quality in some way. I think it’s a good thing. If only I had a remix of [Tony Williams’ Lifetime’s] Emergency! That was one of the most atrocious-sounding recordings I’ve ever had the misfortune to make. It was a great shame. I remember the first playback. I was at the control room and I had been recording for a number of years, so I was able to say "I hate to tell you guys, but there’s something wrong with the board." And in fact, there was distortion on eight tracks of that recording. Anyway, it was put out as it was and it was a shame because that was a wonderful, wonderful trio with Tony and Larry [Young]. It was my debut in the United States after Tony invited me to come play with him in late ‘68.
The more ferocious side of fusion is still alive in bands like Tribal Tech. You recently caught them in Europe. What did you make of them?
I’m a fan of Tribal Tech and have been for a long time. Scotty [Scott Henderson] is just a great guitar player and a beautiful guy too. I’m a fan of Gary [Willis] as well. We ran into each other on tour in the airport of Rome last year. I like what they all do.
The Promise, your 1995 album, contained jungle elements. How closely do you follow the electronica movement?
I listen to a lot of things from the English underground be it jungle, weird trance or techno things. There's a lot of it that's garbage, but there's some very nice things in there such as D*Note, Lemon-D and Grooverider. I really enjoy them.
Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m surprised at that.
Good, good! [laughs] I’ve also got a record by Colonial Cousins with Hariharan and Lezz. They’re singing pop in Indian, but it’s different from when Hariharan sings ghazals. They’re both great voices and they’re working in a pop environment with sequences, but I like it. I was listening to Sheila Chandra the other day too. I have a great faith in every generation's ability to come up with its own music. What's really amazing to me is that some of these young, English underground people don't really know too much about music. Their musical knowledge is very limited, but it's what they do with that knowledge that is very interesting and really attracts me. They've got great imagination. You know, you can have the greatest player in terms of mastering an instrument and you could be yawning your head off when you hear them. So, it's not what you do, but the way you're doing it and in the end that's all that we have.
My belief—and I know I’m in the minority on this—is that trip-hop, drum and bass and other electronic forms are largely extensions of the fusion movement you played a major role in pioneering during the ‘70s.
Yes, they’ve taken some things. A basic jungle beat is a ‘70s beat, but double speed. So, it’s true. When I first heard jungle, I felt I knew where it was coming from and that’s a part of my history. So, of course I liked it. I really loved Mahavishnu. In a sense, we broke some ground to the chagrin of some and to the pleasure of others. But how are you going to please everyone? Look at the way they advertised The Promise or The Heart of Things. In America they said "John McLaughlin: The man who’s not afraid to use the F-word." As opposed to "fuck," the word was "fusion." [in disgusted tone of voice] Can you imagine this? It gives you some indication of the state of mind of the critics. They’ve really slagged me off because I’m a fusion musician. But I’m proud of it. I don’t care what they think. I never read critics anyway because they love you one week and hate you for the next two months, then they like you again, and then they don’t care. They’re so capricious. I’m too old for that now. [laughs]
Joe Zawinul told Innerviews that he believes he invented the hip-hop beat during his days with Weather Report. Do you agree?
Umm, well I don't know about that, but we cannot underestimate the impact of Weather Report on the latter part of 20th century modern music. I think they had a fantastic, amazing impact. This was a very influential group. But in a sense, we’re all Miles’ boys. Miles is the Godfather. Whether or not Joe invented HipHop, this doesn’t mean anything. But what Weather Report did was inspire and touch a lot of people who do jazz, rock or those HipHop things that came later. Weather Report exerted a strong and beneficial influence on those people. What they did musically was wonderful.
Are there plans for Heart of Things to regroup for another album and tour?
I love this group, but as a form to tour with, it is very difficult because there’s a lot of people involved. It’s not like it used to be unless you’re filling big halls. We’re still marginal. I think I’ll be marginal until the day I die, but I’m happy to be marginal. Touring is difficult these days because we have six musicians, three technicians, a tour manager and bus driver. So, you have 11 or 12 people and this becomes quite heavy. But I definitely want to record again and there will be a live record released later this year or early next by the band. We recorded a show in Paris. It’s a great recording—really wonderful.
How do you situate Heart of Things amongst your other fusion projects to date?
They’re all important to me. Every group is just part of my life. Every recording is a painting in a sense. It’s something frozen in time and it bears testimony to my musical talent and spiritual state as of the moment. It’s difficult for me to make any kind of judgmental view on a comparative basis. To me, Shakti was something that some people were disappointed with and it was only subsequently that people came up to me and said "This is a really good group. It’s very good that you did it." Since, I am in the middle of all of this, I can’t objectify it. Maybe after I’ve died, people can say "This was good" and "That was not so good." Even so, it’s a kind of intellectual game because I can’t situate the group in terms of my other work because it was the best thing I could do at the time. It’s the same thing with Remember Shakti. We did a television interview the other day in Paris and the first question was "What’s the use of reforming Shakti?" I thought "What a stupid question!" And I said "What’s the use of you interviewing us right now?" It was so silly. I actually said that on television. [laughs] I don’t think they’ll invite me back. But what to do? What a stupid question! What’s the use? What’s the use of getting up in the morning? You might as well stay in bed! What a wally!
You once said "music is the face of God." Can you elaborate on that?
I am convinced as many people are that we all have divine origins and that essentially everything is divine. We all come from the one, we all are in the one and we can never be apart from each other and the one. This is the personal conviction. It all comes down to an intellectual game in the end if you start to consider truth, goodness and beauty which are probably the essential attributes of what we consider to be God. If something is really true, it has to be beautiful. And music is beautiful, so it has to be true. God is the most beautiful of all the beautiful and the source of all beauty, so music has to be intimately acquainted with God in some way. Let me put it another way: truth without beauty is the atom bomb.
How does the rest of the year unfold for you?
I’ve started working on a modern ballet for the Ballet of Monte Carlo. It’s a very exciting pleasure. I’ll have to work on that until the end of the year. It’s a big project with a symphony orchestra and everything. It will be premiered next year in June in Monte Carlo. I’m a fan of ballet and dance in general. I’m an old Fred Astaire fan. I was also delighted to see street dancing and break dancing—what Michael Jackson does in terms of contemporary choreography. When you go to modern ballet today, you see the influence of the street. This is great because jazz came from the bordello they say. But it came from the streets too. I am from that. I am a jazzman. So, I’m delighted to see the classical world taking in these influences from the street because they’re full of vitality, originality and imagination. I think the classical world needs this because it tends to become a little ivory tower.
Do you have any thoughts on music’s relationship to what many call the end of the millennium?
The end of the millennium is important, but it's something that only exists in the minds of people. The millennium’s relationship to reality is the extent that it matters to the individual because we've been around for hundreds of thousands of years and we will hopefully be around for hundreds of thousands of years to come. I'm delighted to see the evolutionary role that music has played whether it's punk or rock music. For instance, rock music helped knocked down the Berlin Wall. Rock became the lingua franca of the young people and this is a very wonderful, unifying and healing thing. So, I believe absolutely and implicitly in music. I'm thrilled and very hopeful about its future.