IN 1974, WHILE on a West Coast tour with his thunderous psychedelic jazz band Mahavishnu Orchestra, English guitarist John McLaughlin called on Indian composer and percussionist Ali Akbar Khan at his San Francisco home. Khan asked him to play a little something, and McLaughlin obliged, inviting another visitor to Khan's home to join in.
"Something wonderful happened," recalls tabla player Zakir Hussain of that day. "John and I started to play, and it was as if we had been playing for years together, as if we had had the same teacher and had the same heart. We played for Khan for a long time, and when we were finished, we agreed that we had to do something together."
The result was Shakti, a quartet featuring McLaughlin on acoustic guitar, Hussain on tabla and L. Shankar on violin. The group played together for the next four years, releasing three albums of rapid-fire raga that were both critically lauded and highly influential, especially the 1975 debut disc, Shakti.
"That first album turned the switch, I think," says Hussain. "You had Ravi Shankar, and the little bits and hints of Indian music that you heard in The Beatles, but after Shakti it seems that Indian music found more and more listeners in the West. It was an accident, but we helped show the way to world music."
Shakti disbanded in 1979, when McLaughlin formed another jazz group, The One Truth Band. Hussain went on to perform with Phil Hart, George Harrison, Van Morrison, Tito Puente and Ravi Shankar, among others, and to compose scores for the movies Little Buddha and In Custody (as well as the opening sequence for the 1996 Olympic Games). He stayed in touch with McLaughlin all the while, sitting in on sessions from time to time. In the meanwhile, ethnic music of all kinds had gone on to find ever larger audiences in North America and Europe, and Hussain gladly agreed when McLaughlin suggested last year that Shakti reunite for a tour.
Some of their former bandmates were not so quick to come along, however. "We tried to find Shankar," Hussain says, "and it seems that we searched all over the planet for him. Finally, we learned that he was in Africa playing with Peter Gabriel and didn't want to leave. Then we asked our original percussion player to join us, but he was too old to enjoy the hectic life of the road. He suggested that his son play in his place, and it was a very good choice."
Joined by electric mandolin player U. Shrinivas and drummer V. Selvaganesh, Shakti went out on a tour of Europe in 1999, commemorated on the group's new album The Believer. The band, Hussain believes, has benefited from the addition of its new, young members.
"The spirit of the original Shakti is alive and well, but the players are more dynamic, and a little bolder," Hussain says. "You'll hear that on some of the old songs, like 'Lotus Feet' and 'The Wish.' We love to play jazz and Indian music, both of which rely on improvisation," Hussain says. "In the beginning we had to think about it a lot, but we've learned to anticipate what the others are going to do. Sometimes I think we're going the Grateful Dead way--we're supposed to play for 90 minutes, but instead we play for two and a half hours. I think all this has caught on with our audiences. Our energy, our interaction, our comfortableness playing together--it's really quite a lot of fun. We're having a wonderful time."
Shakti, featuring John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain, will appear at Centennial Hall, on the University of Arizona campus, for one performance only on Wednesday, November 15 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range in price from $22 to $34. For more information, call 621-3341.