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EXCLUSIVE: John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain and Shankar Mahadevan Discuss Music, Legacy and Beyond

The three titans deliver a stellar collaboration on their album ‘Is That So?’ and the newly released single “Sakhi”

Nirmika Singh Oct 12, 2020

(From left) Zakir Hussain, John McLaughlin and Shankar Mahadevan

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What makes a great collaboration in music? Given that the word collaboration is so oft used these days, one might even wonder what the ambit of a true collaboration is. In a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone India in relation to his band 4th Dimension’s newly released album Black Light, John McLaughlin had shared a secret to ensuring how any song can be a beautiful collaboration between artists no matter who is driving it: “When I give the scores to the musicians, I tell them that I don’t want to hear what they think I might want to hear; I want to hear what they want to play, I want to hear that person and how strongly they feel about what they are doing musically. So we all have freedom even in a structured way,” said the English guitarist and composer. Black Light featured icons like Gary Husband (keyboards and drums), Etienne Mbappe (bass) and Ranjit Barot (drums).

Since the Sixties, McLaughlin’s musical hallmark has been his indomitable pursuit of innovation that sees no boundaries between genres, cultures or styles. His latest album Is That So? from his super trio featuring tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain and celebrated vocalist Shankar Mahadevan is yet another testament to that quest. The six-track album is remarkably vast and layered, revealing a new facet upon every play. Is That So? is also uniquely endearing because all three musicians serve as each other’s enablers; it’s almost as if you can sense their need to drive the other to excellence even as they shine bright independently. Mahadevan feels collaborations like these are rare and precious. “What more does an artist want when he gets to collaborate with one of the greatest musicians of this world,” he says. Hussain continues to be in awe of his longtime ally: “John bhai has found a new way to harmonize and voice and the chordal arrangements, representing the union of both jazz and Indian music without disturbing either sensibilities.” For McLaughlin, Indian music has been one of the paths to what he considers enlightenment. “I am a jazz musician. Indian music and jazz share the fundamental element of spontaneous improvisation,” he says.

In this exclusive interview, the three titans of music reflect on their legacy and share their thoughts on the ever-changing music industry.

“Sakhi is an exquisite composition. Thank you for this gem. How special is this collaboration (and the song and the album) for you?

John McLaughlin: To work and play with Zakir bhai and Shankar ji is not only one of the greatest joys of my life, it is one of the highest honors. The album Is That So is a true work of love. The only thought and effort put into the album came directly from love of beauty, love of music and love of each other. It is truly a milestone in my life both personally and musically. “Sakhi” is a marvelous song, but so are all the others. There is not one song that I personally can put above the others. They are all priceless jewels.

Zakir Hussain: First and foremost — I get to work with two of my most favorite artists on this planet; equally special is the fact that John bhai has found a new way to harmonize and voice the chordal arrangements representing the union of both jazz and Indian music without disturbing either sensibilities yet opening up a new dimension of collaboration between these genres. This is one of the most emotive and innovative musical experiences that I have had the honor of being involved in.

Mahadevan: “Sakhi” is a very special composition for all of us because this was conceived when as a Shakti family we were travelling extensively and we travelled Alo most 20 years together. During that process “Sakhi” was created when we were on the road and this is one of the few collaborative compositions that is composed by all three of us so me John ji and Zakir bhai have co-composed this together. Zakir bhai has written the lyrics of this wonderful piece. The feeling we used to get when we performed all over the world was just unimaginable. So now to see that as a piece of music that has come out for everyone to hear is really special. And this is a result of our immense love for each other, my respect for John ji as my mentor, we have worked on this album for six years now. What more does an artist want when he gets to collaborate with one of the greatest musicians of this world. I have no words to express my gratitude for this opportunity in this lifetime to collaborate with John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain on the same album together.

As artists, each of you has had a range of stellar collaborations throughout your career with a great number of artists. How unique and rare is the experience of working as this trio?

McLaughlin: It is absolutely unique. I believe it was destiny that brought us together with the sole aim of love of beauty. One cannot play music when one is angry or resentful. It is only possible when your heart is full of love, and this is love of the other. To create a thing of beauty can only be done through love and love alone. Beauty is the face of truth. How can something be true if it is not beautiful? Even the greatest mathematicians speak of  the “elegance” of an equation. Shankar ji and Zakir bhai are like me, always searching for beauty. And the greatest beauty of all is in the heart of a human being.

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Hussain: John bhai and Shankar bhai are two of the true global musicians of our times. They have the ability and the tools to be able to exist comfortably in any musical combination. For me this then is also a great learning experience, what their vision is vis a vis the music at hand in turn shows me and guides me on a new path of creativity. This kind of interaction is rare and therefore precious.

Mahadevan: I have collaborated with a wide range of artists all over our country and around the world, but let me tell you about these two artists. My intentions of just meeting them both, probably just clicking a picture with them was so strong right from my childhood. They say if you put out your intentions strongly and the universe gives it back. That’s exactly what happened with me to somehow at least know the people of Shakti that some divine force put me in that van and I ended up being with these people on stage for 20 years. They’re literally my pillars of support, my mentors, my gurus, from whom I have always sought inspiration and even today when I see them and their passion and dedication for music and the kind of excellence they have in whatever they do; there’s a lot to learn from these people is truly a privilege and honour for me.

John, in my last interview with you in 2015, you had said that the music industry is in a state of crisis: “There are young musicians coming up who are fabulous players, and they have absolutely no chance to get a record contract. Worse is to come in the music world.” Do you feel the same way today? How much has changed and how much is the same today?

McLaughlin: Alas, it is worse than I could have imagined. Particularly with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was already bad before the pandemic arrived, but the situation is absolutely appalling today. No musicians, or at most, one or two have any work. Every spectacle in almost all the countries of the world has been cancelled: the record industry hardly exists anymore and without a recording contract, how can musicians get to be known? It’s almost impossible just on a national level, and on the international level truly impossible these days.

Zakir ji and Shankar ji, whhat do you make of the current state of the music industry in India — are there things that you wished changed for the better?

Hussain: Music industry is exactly that — ‘industry.’ For them, balancing the books and making sure the profit margins are as far up as possible is most important. Having said that, when you get past the personal with checks and balances on their mind, you do find people sympathetic to meaningful and high quality product. The industry therefore needs to accept that they need to maintain a good balance of product output that represents not only the mega money-making records but also music that represents the core of Indian culture. The same goes for promoters and sponsors.

Mahadevan: I have mixed feelings actually about the state of the industry. And this is about the music industry in India — on one side you hear people complaining about why are songs being remixed and that songs are no longer melodic like the gone era, why is film music not of that caliber now! Even songs like Dil Chahta Hai (2001) and Kal Ho Na Ho (2003) are being remixed. I don’t have an answer to this as the creative team is different and people who make these decisions are different. But on the other hand, there are artists who are putting out their creative music and have eliminated the music companies and connected with their fans and listeners directly. So every artist is his own record label. With the advent of the digital medium and the Internet, they are free to do what they want. So let’s look at the brighter side instead of complaining. There are these new generation of talented singers, songwriters and musicians who are inspired by music across the world and are putting out some fabulous stuff. Even 15 year-olds are coming out with really fresh and good music that sounds international and you really feel proud listening to them.They don’t need a label to put out their material. But if you’re looking for top 10 variety then you have to dig deep and find out.

How have the past six months been for you, creatively?

McLaughlin: They have been very good personally. The principal reason for this is since we are all obliged to stay at home, we are given much time to work in depth on all aspects of playing the instrument, and composition has been particularly satisfying. In a way 2020 is payback time in which musicians do everything for free just to stay in contact with the people who enjoy their music. Without these music lovers, we are all out of a job…

Hussain: I have been in family bliss at home with both my daughters, my son-in-law and grand-daughter. Having been a busy traveling musician, this is a welcome change. My wife and I take walks regularly, I read books, watch masterpiece theater, help my wife in the garden. I am also getting some time now to revisit my father’s teachings and refresh my memory and find new ways to tell the same old story.

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Mahadevan: It has been mixed. On one side we have our brothers and sisters and who are dependent on daily wages, people who play in hotels, at weddings and who accompany artists; these are dependent on others for their living. They are so badly affected and it’s terrible to see a situation like this. We have been constantly doing activities to create awareness about their plight, raise funds for them and support them — and not just Mumbai but also in other industries. But on the personal front, it has been the most creative time for me, as we are always on the road and there’s no time to think and introspect and create. This has been that time and I have learnt a lot in these last six months on what not to do. It’s nice to step back and take a little breather in life.

As touring musicians, what are your thoughts and views on the touring economy coming back to life? Do virtual concerts match up at all?

McLaughlin: Unless you are a soloist, there is no such thing as a virtual concert. There is home recording which is sent to other musicians around the worldwide record their parts and resend it on for other musicians to record their part and that’s it. The technology of the internet today is far too primitive for musicians to actually play together over the internet. We would all be so happy if it were possible.

Hussain: Virtual concerts are now a necessary means of income for many musicians. This is a good way to support the arts and the artists, until we can get back to concert halls. We have to help preserve our traditions and the ones who represent this ancient form, we are nothing without our culture. Virtual concerts are not live in hall events but a close second. The audiences must realize that this is stop gap until we can get back to performing live.

Mahadevan: I don’t think live concerts are going to come back in full force soon because firstly, the artist has to have confidence, then the listener has to have confidence to go and stand in a crowd and risk his health. So unless we have confirmed news about the vaccine, it’s highly unlikely that the live gigs will be the same again. Normally people put  entertainment as last priority so we have some time before we will be regularly travelling as before for at least the next seven to eight months. On the other hand, people are getting very innovative and lots of online virtual concerts, seminars and talks are going on. When you are pushed against a wall, you start creating and coming out with new stuff. Let’s keep our fingers crossed and pray for things to return as before.

Tell us about the new projects you are working on currently?

McLaughlin: I will release a detailed system of mastering improvisation very soon. It is a system that was released on DVD some years ago, and is now being transferred to digital format for the internet. I will also be releasing supplementary lessons related to each lesson.

I will also start recording a new album a little later this year, although with people unable to travel internationally, I’m going to have a very difficult time bringing it to life. I recently wrote the score for a movie shot in New York, which was a real thrill. The film will be released next spring.

Hussain: I have composed some new music and also working on a record with my old friend Mickey Hart.

Mahadevan: Currently, I am focusing a lot on music education. We all have realised the importance of the Internet in our lives and e-education is the future, which we have accepted because of the convenience and advantage of the amazing technology. In fact it’s because of this that the number of students at my Shankar Mahadevan Academy have quadrupled. We are working towards enhancing and and improving the curriculum and other aspects. Film work is on parallely, and am doing the music of a film Toofan by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Bunty Aur Babli 2, Prithviraj Chauhan, a film with Rajshri Productions, etc. Then there is the Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy chapter — there are collaborations, individual non-film projects that I am focusing on and also collaborating with my sons Siddharth and Shivam, the two musicians inside my house. So lots of exciting stuff is happening!

What are your hopes for the music industry — it’s been a tough few months…

Hussain: When we get back to some semblance of normal work, we will all have to help each other pull through, it will take at least three years for the industry to emerge from the economic hole they are in and we the artists will have to be sympathetic to this.

Mahadevan: Yes it has definitely been not just tough but our industry is shut. If we can financially and emotionally sustain ourselves, we should find ways and means to help out our musicians and people from the industry. Even if it is a very small contribution we must shy away to help out as there are lots of people suffering out there. This is the time for you to engage in a personal CSR activity and each of us should self reflect from within and try to support our brothers and sisters from the industry and a strong prayer at this time is most important.




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