Groundbreaking band Shakti returns to Bay Area with new lineup

Groundbreaking band Shakti returns to Bay Area with new lineup

If the cheers for vocalist Shankar Mahadevan sound particularly enthusiastic when SFJAZZ presents the pioneering Indo-jazz ensemble Shakti Saturday at Davies Symphony Hall, it’s probably because his life’s path could have easily led him to a seat in the audience.

While he was born and raised in Mumbai and has never lived in California, Mahadevan has an extensive network of friends and former colleagues who’ve been drawn to the Bay Area, Shatki fans intending to catch the show, he said.

“All my classmates are going to be there,” said Mahadevan, 56,  who grew up immersed in Indian classical music but ended up working in Mumbai’s hi-tech industry after earning a degree in computer science and software engineering.

Instead of hewing to the safe route, he decided to quit his job as a programmer take a shot at music, thriving at first as a jingle singer who could nail an ad in 10 different languages, from Hindi and Marathi to Gujarati, Tamil, and Bengali. His first album, 1998’s “Breathless,” was a huge hit, launching his career as one of Bollywood’s most successful playback singers.

“If I hadn’t taken that decision I would have been working in the Bay Area, and no doubt looking for Shakti tickets,” Mahadevan said. “As luck would have it I gave up engineering, and here I am sitting with some of the world’s greatest musicians.”

A supergroup founded in the mid-1970s by English guitar star and jazz fusion pioneer John McLaughlin and Indian tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, Shakti has reconstituted several times over the decades with next-generation Indian masters. Joining the band at the turn of the century fulfilled a dream that first took shape during Mahadevan’s student years in the early ‘80s.

“I used to live in the Mumbai suburbs and there was a small cassette shop where I’d buy these Shakti tapes and listen to them like I was studying for an examination,” Mahadevan recalled. “My aim in life was to meet these people, and maybe take a lesson.”

Now he’s the one giving a master class with every Shakti performance. In addition to the two founders, the band features violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan and percussionist Selvaganesh Vinayakram (son of original Shakti ghatam player T.H. “Vikku” Vinayakram).

Following the June release of “This Moment” (Abstract Logix), which is either the fourth album by Shakti or ninth if you include albums by Hussain’s and McLaughlin’s overlapping ensemble Remember Shakti, the group is in the midst of its first tour in 16 years, which also includes a stop at UC Davis’s Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts Sept. 8 (with guitarist Bill Frisell playing an opening set).

Much as the contours of the (Remember) Shakti discography are hazy, the band’s timeline can be tricky to pin down. Billed as marking the group’s 50th anniversary, though it’s widely cited as starting in 1975, the tour coincides with McLaughlin’s decision to pursue an untrod musical path with Hussain after disbanding his incendiary Mahavishnu Orchestra (a contentious group that had several incarnations).

But Shakti’s roots date back a couple years earlier to the Bay Area, when Hussain first met McLaughlin in 1971 at the Fairfax house of sarod master Ali Akbar Khan. Hussain recalls that maiden musical voyage as “close to perfect as could be. There was the feeling that this had happened many times in the past.”

When Shakti took flight Western jazz fans marveled at the high velocity improvisation over extended Indian rhythmic cycles, but the group’s most radical innovation was bringing together the greatest figures in South and North Indian classical music, with violinist and vocalist L. Shankar and percussionist T. H. Vinayakram, both masters of the Carnatic tradition, joining Hindustani-steeped Hussain.

At the time, “it was not considered possible to bring North and South Indian music together,” Hussain said. “It was like Romeo and Juliet. The clans were up in arms against each other. We were criticized. For John, he dropped the highly lucrative Mahavishnu Orchestra for this little thing that nobody knew what it was.”

Long before Mahadevan joined Shakti, Hussain spotted his potential and hired him to sing on the soundtrack for the 1993 Merchant Ivory film “In Custody.” Mahadevan went on to become one of India’s most prolific and awarded film composers, usually working with his two musical partners in an outfit called Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy.

All his cinematic experiences and influences come into play in Shakti, where “we’ve seen and heard so much, and interacted with so many varieties of musical thought,” Hussain said. “All that eclectic information has poured into what Shakti is and enriched the music beyond any of our imagination.”

Contact Andrew Gilbert at jazzscribe@aol.com.


When & where: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 8 at Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center, UC Davis; $29-$95; www.mondaviarts.org; 8 p.m. Sept. 9 at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco (presented by SFJAZZ); $50-$175; www.sfjazz.org