Monday, September 4, 2017

Remember Shakti - 2000 - The Believer

Remember Shakti 
The Believer

01. 5 In The Morning, 6 In The Afternoon (18:13)
02. Ma No Pa (14:56)
03. Lotus Feet (7:06)
04. Maya (13:40)
05. Anna (10:34)
06. Finding The Way (12:40)

- John McLaughlin / Guitar
- Zakir Hussain / Tabla
- V. Selvaganesh / Kanjira, Ghatam
- U. Shrinivas / Mandolin

Recorded live during the 1999 European Tour

The original Shakti employed much more composed pieces with planned melodic themes which not only made the music more accessible but also more focused. The new group really is an improvisational format and not surprisingly the group's recordings are essentially live. The Believer is the second formal album from the group, with McLaughlin joined by a Indian mandolin player (already a hybrid sound) with a second traditional Indian percussionist.

The sound is very musically interesting and all the players' level of virtuosity is simply mind- boggling. The level of interaction between the musicians also eclipses virtually any blues or jazz jams you hear by Western groups. Indian drumming is such a more nuanced science than European playing, and the percussionists' freedom to call and respond, lead and follow, equals the lead instruments during the long improvisations found on the disc.

Shakti went to great lengths to try to vary the sound between songs, sometimes to a fault. At times, they would do more standard vocal tunes that sounded like soft jazz to the point of background music. Remembering Shakti never does this, both for the good and bad. For the good, this is intense music that demands close attention to appreciate. For the bad, the lack of melodic themes specific to each song makes the disc get a little same-y by the time you're finished. Though each song has a slightly different feel to begin, eventually all evolve (or devolve) into free improvisation.

McLaughlin himself sounds mature to be kind, less hungry and on the edge of his seat than he was in the 70's. At the same time, his speed is if anything more intense than ever. This translates to a number jaw-dropping passages and occasional not very inspiring scale running. The best times are when McLaughlin and the mandolin player (U. Shrinivas) weave in and out between each other, forced to maintain a tighter focus. Shrinivas plays a five string, single course version of the instrument, and it sounds more like a high strung guitar than the mandolin most of us are used to hearing. His chops easily match McLaughlin's but as I've observed in many such settings, the elder musician shows a bit of musicality that the youngster has yet to master. In the end, there is no doubt this is McLaughlin's show. By contrast, he was but a popular hook in Shakti, the learner himself rather than the leader.

Having seen Ravi Shankar live, this is quite a left turn from truly traditional Indian music though still grounded in the tradition. I would have loved to see this music performed in person. (There are some youtube videos that are quite good) On recorded format, I enjoy listening to it and return to it not infrequently when in the right mood. There are much higher peaks in the genre, and I really only recommend this disc once one has explored the realm a bit more. Of course, if you were fortunate enough to have seen the group live, this is a great representation of what you must have experienced.

On its first live release, Remember Shakti was a serious-minded, bottom-ended, soul-searching ensemble. This time out, Remember Shakti raises its pitch. McLaughlin has an excellent foil in young electric mandolinist U. Shrinivas, who has created a whole new vocabulary for the instrument. Tabla player Zakir Hussain has his foil as well. V. Selvaganesh is featured on the kanjira, a tambourine-like instrument on which he can create sounds that would make some trap kit players jealous. (Note: Since a CD listener may not be aware of the physical exertion demanded of Selvaganesh on his chosen instrument, his virtuosity can be overlooked on this recording. To truly experience Selvaganesh's talent, you must see him perform live.)

The Believer sounds louder, brighter, and more light-hearted than Remember Shakti's first recording, which featured flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia and ghatam player Vikku Vinayakram. Of course, it has its serious moments as well, such as Hussain's touching tribute to his late father Ustad Allarakha through the music of "Ma No Pa." (The title also has another clever meaning for Indian musicians.)

Shrinivas is a real discovery for Western audiences. He is a wizard on electric mandolin, an instrument not known for its use in Indian music. He and McLaughlin play unison lines with the kind of precision and feeling that make these moments transcendent. Both players put their strings through a stretching routine which is genre bending. Importantly, Shrinivas seems quite at home soloing over Western jazz and blues changes. This is something that violinist L. Shankar, as great as he was with the original Shakti, never seemed to quite grasp.

As expected, McLaughlin sounds at home in almost any context. The superlatives have been tossed around too many times. But what does stand out, especially so in Remember Shakti, is his role as a teacher. This is not meant to imply that John McLaughlin, as a Western musician, has the capability to teach Shrinivas about Eastern music. Instead, it is quite clear that McLaughlin loves this music and passes its vitality and new heritage onto the younger player. Such a relationship is much clearer with Hussain and Selvaganesh. Make no mistake about it: Shrinivas and Selvaganesh are the future of this music.

It seems that percussionists often pay the price of being under-appreciated. In the Western world, listeners focus on the musicians who carry the melody. Zakir Hussain has proven through his various percussion projects and performances that there is more to his music than the melody. In fact, the truth is that in ensemble work the drummer or percussionist is of utmost importance. Zakir Hussain is essential to Remember Shakti, and for that matter, he is one of the most important percussionists in the world today.

The high point of the album is "Finding the Way" which appears both on the CD and on the included CD-Rom video. This idea of "searching" best describes the band's music. Unfortunately, as much as I like the classic "Lotus Feet," its appearance on two albums in a row is a bit much. Another tune would have been more appreciated.

So, after listening to The Believer, will you believe? Yes. The Believer is an outstanding CD that represents the best the worlds of Eastern and Western music can offer. That The Believer follows on the heels of its more serious-minded predecessor is a tribute to the imagination of the two elders of the band.

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