On June 23, two much-awaited Indo-fusion albums were released. One was by Shakti, the pioneering group celebrating 50 years. The other was the debut album by violinist sisters Ragini and Nandini Shankar, under the name Taraana.
Shakti’s album This Moment came 46 years after its last studio release Natural Elements, with only two original members now in guitarist John McLaughlin and tabla maestro Zakir Hussain. The current line-up, which played in Bengaluru, Mumbai, Kolkata and New Delhi earlier this year, also consists of vocalist Shankar Mahadevan, kanjira exponent V. Selvaganesh and violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan.
As evident in its live shows, there has been a huge change in the Shakti sound over the years. The initial line-up also had violinist L. Shankar and ghatam genius Vikku Vinayakram. After L. Shankar quit in the mid-1980s, the group took a break, returning as Remembering Shakti with flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia in 1997, and later with mandolin wizard U. Srinivas, till he passed away in 2014.
Unlike in the past, today’s Shakti is dominated by vocals, mostly through Mahadevan’s nuanced passages combined with konnakol (spoken rhythm syllables) recited by the percussionists. Also, McLaughlin uses a guitar-synthesiser on some tracks, besides his regular guitar. Fans of the older, instrumental sound may find these new additions a bit odd.
Ragini and Nandini Shankar |
But why compare at all? Musical tastes and trends have obviously changed remarkably in 40 years, and the new Shakti is just keeping with the times, simultaneously maintaining its core strengths. There are some marvellous tracks on the new album released by Abstract Logix. Shrini’s Dream, dedicated to U. Srinivas, sets the tone with Mahadevan’s sargams, Ganesh’s dazzling violinwork and Zakir’s deft playing. Other gems include the soothing, McLaughlin-penned Karuna, the flamenco-inspired and melody-filled Las Palmas, Zakir’s composition Changay Naino, sung soulfully by Mahadevan, and Mohanam, a marvellous team effort.
There are bumps too. The use of konnakol could have been cut down, as it sounds forced at times. Despite all the technical virtuosity and brilliant solos, Bending The Rules gets gimmicky and predictable. Also, one wonders why they used Giriraj Sudha, part of the live act for over 22 years, and already used in the live album Saturday Night In Bombay.
Yet, This Moment is testimony to the group’s creative endurance, and sheer musical virtuosity. At 81, McLaughlin is bursting with melodic energy, proving yet again why he’s one of the greatest musicians ever. In the new scheme of things, Ganesh shines.
In contrast to the wild mastery of L. Shankar, his playing relies more on soul and depth. His portion on the concluding track Sono Mama, preceding the McLaughlin solo, takes you to another zone.
Interestingly, the opening track of the Taraana album, The Land Of Spice, seems to flow out of the Shakti sound. Here, violinists Ragini and Nandini Shankar are joined by konnakol, mridangam and flamenco guitar, in a piece that brims with energy.
The grand-daughters of the great violinist N. Rajam and daughters of Sangeeta Shankar, Ragini and Nandini were naturally exposed to music at an early age. Though trained in the Hindustani tradition, they grasped other forms like Carnatic, jazz, western classical and world music easily.
The album is filled with variety. Valley Of Flowers is inspired by the Himalayas, and Indian Rivers is a breathtaking melody adorned by an Irish lilt, Lalit Talluri’s flute, and smooth solos. Dancing Peacocks, composed in raag Hansadhwani, and Caravan, which blends Indian and Spanish music, continue the mood. Your Sweet Smile, co-written with Amy Wadge, has tarana lines sung by Nandini, and Royal Elephant has a foot-tapping briskness.
Taraana has 11 tracks, spread over 35 minutes. From the orchestral ambience of Fairytale In Five to the retro film meets electronic style of Haseena, featuring Mahesh Raghvan, to the folk charm of Sparkle Of Diwali, the tunes vary in style. The final track Beyond has rich violins, subtle handpan and soothing backing vocals. Released on Decca Records, part of the Universal Group, Taraana has been co-produced by the prolific Nick Patrick. It’s a sparkling debut, which by coincidence, was released on the same day as the veteran Shakti. The legacy continues.