To a world seeking to heal itself from the blight of a fearsome pandemic, John McLaughlin, Shankar Mahadevan, and Zakir Hussain offer a new recording of their expansive, collaborative incantation “Sakhi” — recorded via ISDN from each artist’s respective home. Available for free on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter the performance is a gripping testament to the profound awe, wonder, and spiritual intensity unleashed when these three iconic figures join together.
The miles melt away, as McLaughlin (in Monaco), Hussain (in California), and Mahadevan (in Mumbai) fluidly trade supporting and soloist roles, delighting in one another’s musicianship and intangibly conveying the song’s message of support and trust. ”Sakhi” translates to “friend” in Hindi, and was featured on the trio’s full-length collaboration, Is That So?, released this past January on Abstract Logix/Mediastarz. The collection is available for FREE to fans for a limited time, visit Bandcamp to download the album. Fans are encouraged, in lieu of payment, to donate to the Grammy Foundation’s MusiCares.
“…our recording Is That So? is one of the greatest milestones in my musical life.”
– John McLaughlin
Visionary guitarist and composer John McLaughlin first captured international attention as a facilitator of audacious, gripping new directions in music in the bands of Miles Davis and Tony Williams in the late 1960s, appearing on such pivotal albums as Emergency! and Turn It Over by the Tony Williams Lifetime and Davis’s Bitches Brew, In a Silent Way, and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. His own music came to the fore on a pair of early solo albums, before he founded the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1971. Mahavishnu liberated jazz-rock fusion from moribund 4/4 time signatures by casting new frameworks inspired by the rhythmic intricacies of Indian music — thus initiating McLaughlin’s now fifty-year career as a pioneer of hybrid world music.
When the original Mahavishnu Orchestra lineup dissolved in 1974, McLaughlin deepened his connection to Indian music with his revolutionary band, Shakti. In Shakti, McLaughlin began playing, composing, and improvising alongside percussionist Zakir Hussain. Across three LPs, Shakti awakened a cross-cultural dialogue whose implications are still being explored — both by McLaughlin and Hussain and by the generations of musicians who were inspired by their dynamic, trailblazing sonic hybrid. “John’s move into Shakti from Mahavishnu was a ground shaker for me and so many of my musical pals,” explains banjo virtuoso and fellow global fusion pathfinder Béla Fleck. “It beckoned us to experience a brand-new world. The long and beautiful relationship between John and Zakir has yielded some of the most potent, creative, and inspiring music I have experienced.”
While their collaboration now spans more than four decades, McLaughlin and Hussain continue to discover fertile new terrain. Hussain is one of India’s foremost musical alchemists, with a legacy of bringing his virtuosity on the tabla into bold new contexts. He was the recipient of the first-ever Grammy Award for Best World Music Album in 1992 for the album Planet Drum, a collaboration with the drummer Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead — a feat the pair repeated in 2009 when their Global Drum Project album won that year’s award for Best Contemporary World Music Album. Hussain and McLaughlin’s deep musical connection is made vivid in the “Sakhi” video, as they exchange phrases that uncannily amplify one another, creating an ever-surging momentum as the piece escalates towards ecstasy.
The third element in the “Sakhi” performance (and the Is That So? album) is the rapturous voice of Shankar Mahadevan. An artist of immense prominence and popularity in India, Shankar is renowned as both a vocalist and a composer of songs for India’s thriving film industry. He began working with McLaughlin as part of the Remember Shakti project, which sought to continue to develop ideas first posed by the original incarnation of the Shakti ensemble. Is That So? was born from an experiment where McLaughlin tried accompanying Mahadevan’s Indian vocal improvisations with Western harmonies. “The whole texture, color, feeling, and the canvas of the music excited us, as harmonic content does not exist in Indian classical music,” Mahadevan recalls. “In the beginning, it was just a fun experiment, but it soon became larger than life and we knew we had to record it.” Adding Hussain brought intensity and depth to a sound that exists beyond genre.
The richness and potential of this meeting of innovators is perfectly embodied in the new “Sakhi” video. Coloring the performances with washes of orchestral guitar synth, McLaughlin is a subtle, adept accompanist to Mahadevan’s passionate vocals. As Hussain’s tablas begin to simmer, McLaughlin moves into soloist mode, answering and conversing with his collaborators with astonishing alacrity. A three-way conversation conducted safely across the globe, the performance is a moving, humbling, and profound demonstration of how music and technology can stoke the soul’s fire and elevate the spirit in a perilous, uncertain moment.
“I have been working and playing with tabla maestro Zakir Hussain for almost 50 years, and with Shankar Mahadevan for 20 years,” McLaughlin concludes. “I can say categorically, that their influence on me as a musician and human being is without equal, and our recording Is That So?, is one of the greatest milestones in my musical life.”