The Australian Open is clearly on John McLaughlin's mind even as he looks forward to entertaining Mumbai audiences next week. Over lunch, the famed English jazz guitarist is animatedly discussing tennis with tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and his brother, percussionist Taufiq Qureshi, following a press conference at The Orchid hotel on January 24.
"In those days," he says, munching on a papad, "there was John McEnroe whom I used to know. Someone once took a picture of McEnroe and me -- it made me look like a celebrity!"
McLaughlin is no stranger to celebrity, however, and this time round the spotlight is on him. When the 60-year-old guitarist, with his silvery shoulder-length hair, takes the stage along with Hussain, mandolin vidwan U Shrinivas and V Selvaganesh on the kanjira, he will recreate the magic of the 1970s that music lovers continue to cherish. The group, dubbed Remember Shakti, will play a series of concerts across the country, ending in a daylong event at Mumbai's Shanmukhananda Auditorium on February 3 called 'Homage to Abbaji', a tribute to Hussain's father, tabla legend Ustad Allarakha Khan, on his third death anniversary.
In the mid-1970s, McLaughlin, together with Hussain, Carnatic violinist Lakshminarayana Shankar, R Raghavan on the mridangam and ghatam player V H 'Vikku' Vinayakram, put their hands together to create the music of Shakti, spawning a unique musical genre that came to be known as fusion, which made global audiences sit up and listen. The sleeve notes of the group's first album, Shakti With John McLaughlin, defined its music as 'creative intelligence, beauty and power'.
Shakti went on to release three albums that decade before sponsors CBS Records backed out. In 1997, the group attempted a comeback tour of India, with flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia replacing Shankar, and joined by two other musicians -- Shriniwas and Selvaganesh. Raghavan performed with the group only on Shakti's first album.
"Fusion is not a word invented by musicians, but by record companies," McLaughlin told rediff.com "When Zakir and I get together to play, we play music, not Eastern or Western music."
Ask him if fusion will still find favour with audiences, and he winces with distaste, the red tilak on his forehead buried in the furrows of his frown.
"Leave Shakti alone, what does fusion mean to you?" he asks. "To my mind fusion is an amalgamation of cultural elements through music -- it may be good or bad, depending on who is playing it. Unfortunately, it has become an overused word, and it has been marketed around the world as if it were a hamburger or cheeseburger."
He looks you in the eye as he says, "Then there is the media. A music critic from The New York Times once wrote that the 'pestilence known as fusion' is finally dead. That was a foolish thing to say -- he was only running down something his own people had created."
Zakir Hussain is not worried about the crowds their performance will draw. He is confident the audiences of the 1970s are eager to welcome them back.
"My fans will grow with me, John's fans will grow with him," he says. "Those who listened to Shakti in the 1970s are still listening to it. In fact, the numbers have grown. A lot of young people are listening to it now.
"After Shakti, John, Shankar, Vikku and I have played together in various combinations. I have played with John, Shankar and John have played together, Vikku and I have played classical music together -- all of us have never stopped connecting."
Of the 150 concerts he plays at every year, Hussain says about 130 are Indian classical performances. "At any given time, Indian classical music is being played in at least 10 major cities around the world," says the stylish tabalchi, still boyish at 52. "When you take elements of traditional music into rock, jazz, fusion or techno, you draw global attention to that tradition -- that has always been the objective," he adds, referring to his collaborations with artistes of various genres, including the group Tabla Beat Science, which also featured US-based deejay and percussionist Karsh Kale and Ustad Sultan Khan on the sarangi, whose music is described as Asian Massive.
But isn't music today more about labels and using established icons to drive them?
"Every kind of music has a force that drives it," the ustad argues. "There will always be a magnetic personality to promote it, someone to inspire listeners and other musicians."
McLaughlin is eager to return to his lunch, and his unfinished conversation on tennis. But he can sense what is on your mind as you ask him if Remember Shakti can handle the competition from New Age and World Music.
"Shakti was making world music before world music was invented," he says smugly.
Game, set, and match, John McLaughlin.
Pictures Courtesy: Milky Way Communications