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Instagram |  28 Nov 2009 16:06 |  By chiragsutar

Jazz guitarist John Mclaughlin - "We had received a lot of criticism for Shakti's music, and Zakir got criticised by a lot of people. They said, 'You are making music impure by playing with a non-Indian player'

Guitarist John Mclaughlin is perhaps one of the most mischievous musicians you will ever come across. Born in Doncaster (England), Mclaughlin's muscial career goes back to the 60s (that's five decades of playing music!!) But at 67, he appears childlike, and bursts with enthusiasm that might put any youngster to shame. McLaughlin for many years has been learning Indian classical music (both Carnatic and Hindustani) and has incorporated many of its elements in Jazz music - the testimony to this is the phenomenal musical genius Shakti, a musical powerhouse of the late 70's that featured virtuoso's musicians like Indian violin player L. Shankar, Zakir Hussain (on tabla), R. Raghavan (on the Mridangam) and T. H. 'Vikku' Vinayakram (on Ghatam). Without any doubt, Shakti can easily be be called as the first 'fusion' experiment that laid the foundation for experimental music between two varied cultures.

On November 24, Mclaughlin received the Ustad Haafiz Ali Khan Award for his contribution to world music. In an inspiring chat with's Chirag Sutar, Mclaughlin takes us back to the days of Shakti and speaks about how all the musicians came together, his and Zakir Hussain's first performance for Ali Akbar Khaansaab (the formation of Shakti) and the initial criticism the group had to face from the purists.

During the conversation, Mclaughlin also expresses his thoughts on guitar players fixation with certain techniques and about Rolling Stone rating him at no. 49 among 100 best guitar players in the world. Get your cup of coffee, and read on..  

One of the reasons you are receiving this award is for your phenomenal work with Shakti.. does the group still perform together?

I played with Shakti three weeks ago and it was in New York at the UN building for the UN peace keepers it was a celebration ceremony for the UN peace keepers. You know the forces that go to Sudan and Yemen? They are very brave people. There were many groups from all over the world and Shakti was one of the groups that were invited....

Let me go back a little bit... what was it like when you started playing with Shakti? was there an instant connect when you started playing together?

(immediately) No, It began much more slowly. I met Zakir (Hussain) in 1969 (before you were born!) we soon become friends he was living in California and I was living in New York, but in 1970 when I played a benefit concert with  Mahavishnu Orchestra in LA for the Ali Akbar School of Music, Zakirbhai was also there he was teaching at the school. Later I and Zakir Bhai went to meet Ali Akbar Khan saab in Northern California... we had dinner with him at his house, and while we were there, we actually played for Ustad Ali Akbar Khansaab  Zakir had his tabla and I had an acoustic guitar but it was very pretentious (the playing) for me but I think this was the beginning the birth of Shakti because to play with Zakir Bhai was phenomenal. He is unbelievable. He is still unbelievable and this was forty years ago. and he is still the same! 

Go on, 

After this first meeting, I went to New York and Zakir continued his teaching in California, but in 1972, I also began to study South Indian Veena with Doctor Ramanathan, and this is where I met the nephew of my teacher Ramnath Ragahvan who later joined Shakti as a Mridamgam player. Later, R Raghavan was the one who introduced me to his nephew (L Shankar) who taught south Indian violin. I got along very well with L Shankar and became good friends called Zakir the next day and told him about L Shankar, I thought L Shankar was really great – because at that point of time, Zakir and I was serious about playing more together... I said why don't we get L Shankar to join us in the group and you get my teachers mridangam player Ramnath Raghavan and he said, "If you like him, he should be good" ... I said, "you can trust me, he is OKAY" that's how the four of us got together we rehearsed and it was very magical.

When did you start touring together? 

We started to do concerts together 1973-74. Even while I had Mahavishnu orchestra. That time Zakir Bhai was still teaching and so was L Shankar and Ramnath Raghavan. In 1975 we had done a dozen concerts and we made a recorded concert which was the first Shakti recording. After that I had asked Ramnath Raghavan if he would be able to tour with us if we go on a tour... but he said, "I am little old". So, I came to India in search of another South Indian percussionist who could play with Zakir Bhai and that is when I met Vikku Vinayakram so, Shakti existed for quite a number of years but by 1978-79 Vikku had to come back because his father had passed off and he had to take over the school.

Go on,

L Shankar wanted to do more of a pop thing and so the group kind of broke up at that point, but Zakir and I stayed in touch- we were always jamming or doing concerts with Hariprasad Chaurasia or Pt. Shivkumar (Sharma) just because we love to play together so much.

But Shakti did come back after a few years..

We did a tour in mid 80's in the original Shakti group in 1997 and we put Shakti back together but it was not possible with Vikku (Vinayakram) because he was running this very big school ... and (L) Shankar we couldn't even find him!! So, in the end Vikku gave us his son Selva Ganesh who is fantastic and he and Zakir are phenomenal and instead of L Shankar we invited U Srinivas on mandolin and Shakti was back again.Actually the first tour was with Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia, but he was too busy, he didn't have time to tour. 

And how did the vocal element came in the group?

In 1999 I was thinking of having a singer in the group I wanted to sing, but I don't sing, so I called Zakir Bhai and told him, "you must know some one who can sing well there are great young singers in India just find somebody" .. By then I was already a fan of Hariharan but he was also very busy. In 1999, Zakir met Shankar Mahadevan, and told him that we were looking for a singer. We got his demo and after 30 seconds of playing it – I asked if he can sing with us for a festival that we had organized in Mumbai. I said, I would be very happy if he can participate because he is so good and that is really the story of Shakti.

When you played for Shakti, did you make any changes in your playing style?

Of course! I had to make changes it was a new form of music. Shakti, in a way made a new form of music that was Indian, but not quite (Indian). You know we had a lot of criticism and Zakir got criticized by a lot of people. They said, You are making music impure by playing with a non Indian player - but Zakir doesn't pay heed to such things, he is too big for that - and the purist anyway are a pain in the neck.

Any incident that you can recall about one of those on edge' moments I will never forget that in 1975.

I was studying with Raviji (Pt. Ravi Shakar) in North Indian theory, and, at the same time I was studying South Indian theory with Dr. Ramanathan... but in 1976, Shakti gave a performance in Central Park in New York and Raviji (Pt. Ravi Shankar) came with Allah Rakha to watch the performance. While we were playing, I saw them standing aside and they were probably saying, "What are these kids doing!!" or "What kind of music is this" and they both were looking at us very strangely... Well, don't forget, it was very new what we were doing and it was natural for them to feel that way, but in the end, it was for the best because I remember Raviji came to watch us play some five years back and sat in the front row... and all the musicians were very nervous... We played at the concert and we were thinking that he will go away but he sat there till the very end doing "wah wah" (says animatedly) Towards the end, he walked on stage, took the microphone and said, "We might think of this form or that form of music but in the end its just 'good music' or 'not good music' - he blessed all of us after that. We felt like we made it ... (laughs!) Finally, after 30 years we made it.

You seem to have experimented with so many different styles from Mahavishnu, Guitar Trio, Shakti and now what sounds like a very progressive jazz ensemble with Chick Corea - The Five Peace Band... are you like constantly searching for a sound?

I don't know what it is I am very curious person I don't know why but from the 60's I have a lot of inclination towards Indian Philosophy like many other people including the Beatles  we look to the East for the ways of enlightenment because the ways of enlightenment stop in the West where you (India) begin. I continue my yoga and meditation I am 67 years today and I am continuing that to this day. India is an integral part of my life whether its yoga, Buddhism, Sufi... whatever you call... its all the same … we are all part of the One.. but the music fascinated me because you have such great players here and improvisation is an integral part of jazz music too just like Hindustani music ... we are the only two schools of music that share this common ground... so jazz musicians have a lot to learn from India..

So improvisation is the common thread you think between jazz and Indian music?

Absolutely this is the only reason why we were able to play together ... because we were able to improvise... it's one thing to learn a melody for instance, Yehudi Menuhin with Raviji in the 60's and 70's was a wonderful combination... but Yehudi Menuhin could not improvise so Raviji wrote improvisations for Yehudi Menuhin in western notations that was the only was they could play together. I know I have saw them performing because I studied with Pt. Ravi Shankar but I also knew Yehudi Menuhin he was a fantastic musician, but could not improvise. Once you play the melody what are you going to do? Play spontaneously!! Right? Only Indian musicians and jazz musicians can do this. For example when Miles Davis conceived this model school of jazz it was very relative to Indian music. John Coltrane was another musician who was very influenced by Indian musician and Ravi Coltrane too... the association with jazz and Indian music has been going on for 40-50 years now and we have a lot to share and we have a lot of work to do but this what is fascinating ..

Well, I'd like to ask you about some of the new guitar players that you find fascinating... anyone you like?

(Thinks) I am big fan of Debashis Bhattacharya (Indian Slide Guitar Player) and this American guitar player called Derek Trucks he is great we will tour together in Autumn next year in America...

I think at the moment he (Derek Trucks) is also touring with Eric Clapton.

He plays on and off with Eric (Clapton) but he's a great blues player ... other than that (thinks) I saw a young boy on YouTube from Holland. He's a 14-year-old boy and he was playing some Oscar Peterson solo phenomenal phenomenal just 14 year old!! was wearing short pants... (adds enthusiastically)

Goes on,

You know I don't really listen to guitar so much this happened a long time ago, and it is because of my conception of guitar  I listen much more to saxophone, Coltrane or Miles Davis whom I have played with for a long time. I like piano because I used to be a piano player before I became a guitar player, and I love the drums I used to have drum at home but I don't play it any more but I like the Indian style of playing drums they have a wonderful percussive way of playing it and rhythmically it is so sophisticated and very articulate and this is the style that I have been trying to develop – be it Zakir Hussain or with the Mahavishnu Orchestra or Paco de Luc?­a or my own band Fourth Dimension.

What do you observe about the present day guitar players?

Today I hear today a lot of guitar players play so much of hammer-on and pull off's and legato's… you know this liquid kind of playing.. But that kind of playing floats over the drums and for me this misses the point because you have to get with the drummer… and you have to get with the rhythm section because that way you can really interact and have a lot of fun at the same time you can throw a banana skin under their feet (the drummer's), and they throw a banana skin under your feet ... so you have to be careful! And you have be on your toes…but once you get this kind of complicity with the drummer, in a way that you can only go together… you know what I mean? And this, for me is the old school. 

You mean one has to focus on playing together.

Right Coltrane, Miles Davis they all had fantastic drummers with whom they played along but they always played 'with' the drummers... they didn't get over, and that is why they were able to achieve marvelous things together and this is also my approach to playing - and that is why I like to play with Zakir Hussain ...because to play with Zakir is a fantastic challenge. Believe me… he is such a maestro of rhythm and if you want to provoke him which I won't... means you have to be really really aware of rhythmic possibilities on your instrument. You need articulation and you have to be very clear as well as melodic. So, if you are working on the guitar you have to work on the rhythm... in my opinion its the most important... someone might tell you don't worry about it but you have to master this rhythm articulation without being forced, it has to have a sensuality to it, it its should be sexy if you know what I mean .. And this takes a lot of work - nothing good comes easy ... do you know anything that comes easy?

I don't!! Nothing in this world comes easy... you have to work very hard 

Last question before we sign off the Rolling Stone magazine ranked you at no. 49 among the '100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. How do you see these rankings and numbers?

Foolish people... how can they make such an error?!! (laughs) I am number one!

</p><p><a class="arialredten" title="video" href="" target="_blank">Shakti performing for the United Nations force in New York</a></p>