India — the land of wonders”. This was a line from the BBC series Rome that I recalled when I heard the news that Shakti, Zakir Hussain and Rakesh Chaurasia have won the Grammy. Naturally, it intrigued me and I looked into the categories and the work involved. I had heard This Moment by Shakti before since I am a huge fan of the band, but upon receiving this news, I made it a point to listen to it again and also listen to As We Speak in detail. I kind of felt a little ashamed that I hadn’t heard it before because I am a keen follower of Bela Fleck, but, hey, I’m human! And, of course, I searched for a Live version of the tune Pashto from the album, which won the Best Global Music Performance Award. Here are my thoughts on the works that rocked the international music community at the 66th Grammy Awards.
SHAKTI: THIS MOMENT
Time after time, they have proven that they are not only masters of their art and craft but fearless explorers of time and space. With their latest album This Moment, they have further extended their spiritual journey, and are one step closer to unlocking the divine mysteries of the universe. The album starts off with Shrini’s Dream, which is I feel a tribute to U. Shrinivas, featuring all the trademark wizardry of the band and the “Shakti” sound is strong and omnipresent. A perfect opener! The second tune Bending the Rules, eclectic and euphoric in nature, showcases McLaughlin’s flawless guitar synth avatar and his grasp on the angular approach of music. Karuna has an incredibly moving violin intro by Ganesh Rajagopalan which stayed with me long after I heard the album. Mohanam is a beautiful tune that imbibes speed, skill and technique to present the art of engaging storytelling.
Giriraj Sudha has an incredible intro, and Shankar Mahadevan is an absolute monster on this one. I found Las Palmas to be most interesting and unique. Featuring sublime solos from Selvaganesh and Zakir Hussain against the backdrop of gypsy-style hand claps, the melody, the bluesy undertone and the whole tune perfectly capture the essence of the Spanish archipelago, so much so that I could see myself wandering about in the city of Las Palmas and soaking in the vibe of the Canary Islands, but from the “Shakti” point of view.
The penultimate tune, Changay Naino, is my personal favourite. The dark overtone and the tension-building chords of John
McLaughlin immediately resonated with my personality, and the clean electric guitar tone from which McLaughlin extracts long slow notes is a standout in the composition. The album ends with Sono Mama, easily one of the hippest and coolest compositions the band has ever produced. McLaughlin’s synth bass with Selvaganesh’s kanjira sets up the intro and lands into a dissonant chord worth a million dollars. They keep bringing that chord back in places throughout the composition, which I found really tasteful and cool. The main melody is incredibly complex yet engaging, and the album ends with one of the strongest unisons one can come across. Overall, I found the album very inspiring and yet another step forward in the journey of these maestros, making their music timeless and mesmerising listeners now and for many generations to come.
AS WE SPEAK
I have always been a follower of Bela Fleck, but this is an album that I listened to after it had won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album. And it is an absolute gem! The core trio of Bela Fleck (banjo), Zakir Hussain (tabla) and Edger Meyer (double bass) featuring Rakesh Chaurasia (flute) has created what I think is one of the most complete and wholesome listening experiences in a long time. To capture the full essence of the album, one shouldn’t really listen to the individual songs separately, but rather the entire album in its continuity to understand and feel the entire story of conversations, juxtapositions, mysteries and experiences told through sound.
Bela Fleck has really set a very high benchmark as a composer, and all the arrangements of the songs come together as one, and these master musicians breathe life into the story. From the first tune to the last, one can really hear the arc of storytelling, complete with an engaging opening track Motion, which puts across abstract melodies meandering across an incredible design of sound, followed by a step-by-step collection of chapters right through the rest of the album and finally resolving into the assertive yet calm closing tune As we speak.
Rakesh Chaurasia absolutely shines throughout the album. The way he has incorporated an amalgamation of different styles and presented his own unique footprint is nothing short of magical, my personal favourite being his solo on The B Tune. Beast in the Garden has an epic banjo solo by Bela Fleck which gets into some serious jazz improvisation followed by a feature of Zakir Hussain where he recites a solo from his voice through tabla bols or syllables. In the track 1980, I was particularly struck by Edgar Meyer’s solo on the double bass, which was played with an enormous amount of passion and depth. Truly unforgettable. My personal favourite tune is Hidden Lake, which has a very interesting groove and a somber melody which keeps on going like a loop, engaging the listener at a very personal introspective level. This tune has an amazing outro which goes into fierce jazz fusion territory, while the penultimate tune Conundrum has to be the grooviest and most blues influenced in the entire album.
Now let’s come to the tune Pashto, the eighth track of the album which won the Grammy for Best Global Music Performance. The story behind this tune is particularly interesting. As Zakirji explains in the Live performance of this tune, when he and Rakesh Chaurasia were in Scotland, they came across Celtic musicians who played bagpipes, and the way these musicians played reminded them of the brass bands that played during the many religious festivals in India. It turns out that during the British Raj, many British marching bands of the army interacted with local musicians in the frontier lands of North West India, and hence created a hybrid sound, which eventually moved to the Eastern parts of the world, mainly Central Asia. As a homage to this long bridge between these different cultures, the tune was created, and the name Pashto is a nod to the language spoken in the North West frontier lines of undivided India (now the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands). Musically, it is a masterclass of synthesis. It is a modal tune on an upbeat rhythm of seven beats (which is also called Pashto) which starts off with a haunting intro by Rakesh Chaurasia and an incredibly intense bass recital by Edger Meyer. It is a very unique and grand composition and is a must-listen for all lovers of music, irrespective of genre and style.
WHAT THE WINS MEAN FOR INDIAN MUSIC
I personally, like every other Indian am very proud of culture and our arts. Traditional Indian music has stood the test of time and will continue to do so. But what I feel is most interesting about the wins in the Grammys this year is that now the West has opened up to the concept of Indian musicians creating hybrid and experimental sounds, and venturing into very serious standards of global improvisation. This should really inspire musicians living here to try new and different things and create an identity that is unique and novel. I believe this is just the beginning. The possibilities are endless, irrespective of the instrument you play or the style of music you pursue.