Lets face it – the idea of fusing Indian music with those from other countries / genres has existed for several decades. I have personally listened to Jazz-Carnatic renditions from as far back as the 1950s. People like Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan moved to America and spread Indian music to a large variety of audiences. But while Indian music is universal in substance, it was largely niche by consumption. Indian musicians played all over the world in the most exotic countries, but, with a handful of exceptions, it was heard only by Indians and others who got serious about Indian music.
Shakti, in my opinion, was one of the institutions that took Indian music to a different level. John McLaughlin, a British guitarist, himself trained in Indian music, specifically in Veena, decided that while he would collaborate with Indian musicians, he would not play Indian music. In other words, he wasn’t going to take his perfectly-Western guitar and play ragas on it.
Shakti had two incarnations – one in the early 70s and another in the 90s. The 70s version included musicians like Zakir Hussain, L Shankar and TH Vinayakram. The musicians were young, had lots of energy and were out to prove something. They created music that defied any and all characterizations of the genre. Producers and retailers struggled to put the CDs in any particular genre or shelf – to the point where it became its own genre. The music was high-tempo, high-volume, high-energy and went on to inspire several musicians (I know of at least one band that called itself the monkey out of Shakti’s shadow)
The later incarnation of Shakti was going to be just a commemorative concert John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain were going to play along with TH Vinayakram and Hariprasad Chaurasia, on the occasion of 50 year anniversary of Indian independence. But soon they saw the potential to indoctrinate a new generation of musicians, where the music took a more subtle, sublime form. L Shankar was replaced by U Shrinivas and TH Vinayakram was replaced by TV Selvaganesh. But it didn’t stop there – the band became more “open” and created a place for many more musicians including Debashish Bhattacharya, Shankar Mahadevan, Bhavani Shankar, Taufiq Qureshi, AK Palanivel, Shivkumar Sharma, etc. While each of these musicians are accomplished in their own right, their coming-together created something greater than the sum of the parts.
While Shakti doesn’t do many concert performances today, it was to be played in every corner of the world, and attracted connoisseurs from different genres, nationalities – whether it was Canada or Israel or Japan or India.
Shakti is one of the truly global collaborations to consist of an Indian element.