This is my two cents on how to understand the endlessly fascinating rhythms of Shakti – jazz guitar legend John McLaughlin’s collaboration with the musicians of India. Their music provides landscapes you can get lost in and keep on exploring, and what I can see and describe here is just a fraction of what is there. That being said, the ideas in this article are readily translatable, and understanding them requires no prior knowledge of music theory.
The original Shakti group was one of the first East-West musical fusions, and the dual-lead combination of McLaughlin’s rapid acoustic guitar and Lakshminaryana (henceforth ‘L.’) Shankar’s sliding violin broke new musical ground. They also experimented with instrument construction – McLaughlin wields a heavily modified acoustic with sitar-like sympathetic strings and scalloped frets, L. Shankar went on to pioneer the 10-string doubleneck violin, and Vikku Vinayakram is credited with popularising the use of ghatam clay pot in music (what an excellent one-line biography).
Along with their successor band Remember Shakti, they have a real mastery of keeping a strong groove in irregular time signatures, and not allowing high degrees of rhythmic complexity to make patterns too difficult to follow. There is one particular trick they use to achieve this – centered around accenting the ‘oddness’ of the final bar in each cycle.
Essentially, they will take a long rhythm cycle (often with an odd number of beats), divide it into regular length bars (often 4s), and play through these, until they reach a final bar of a shorter length. It’s all about the remainder – they play through the cycle using a familiar groove until there aren’t enough beats left to play it again in full, leaving a final remainder bar which breaks with this groove and is heavily accented:
This emphasised final bar is often the key to how Shakti’s unfamiliar time signatures can flow even to uninitiated Western ears, as it provides a marker for when the cycle will finish and repeat over again, and so anchors us to the overall groove. Making the very end of a cycle prominent is found throughout the world of music (for example the turnaround in a 12-bar blues), but Shakti break new ground by putting this particular odd-time spin on it.
A large part of Shakti’s unique rhythm sound comes from their powerful two-part percussion section. Both Zakir Hussain and the Vinayakrams have a propensity for full and sonically dense playing, and their prominence is increased by the lack of a melodic bass instrument, meaning resonant tabla and kanjira strokes occupy an otherwise empty part of the frequency spectrum. Zakir and Selvaganesh even mimic western basslines at times:
This busy combination provides the speed and textural density to readily power a groove all the way up to 11, even when using a complex 11-beat cycle – as with 5 in the Morning, 6 in the Afternoon from the clip earlier. This McLaughlin composition is a perennial feature of Remember Shakti’s live set, and perfectly demonstrates the accented remainder bar idea in action. The 11 beats are broken up into a 4-4-3 structure: two 4-beat bars, and then a prominent 3-beat turnaround – listen again:
Hear how the last bar of 3 beats is louder and fuller than the cycle before it, and how this quickly locks your mind into the overall rhythmic structure. Here is the same groove with added intensity:
The song’s title gives a clue to decoding its cycle – as well as describing the timezone difference between John and Zakir’s homes in California and India, 5 and 6 sum up to 11. The syllable groupings either side of the comma also reference the title’s own structure – ‘Five in the Morning’ has 5 syllables, and ‘Six in the Afternoon’ has 6. This, intentional or not, is dope (even though the cycle is not in fact subdivided as 5 and 6).
5 in 6’s remainder bar rhythm structure is one of many in evidence. A similar 4-4-3 cycle is used in Bridge of Sighs by the original Shakti group, and the band’s whole catalogue is full of this idea being applied to a whole host of different rhythm cycles. Ma No Pa, a Zakir composition, is a work of true genius which explores many interlocking rhythmic ideas, including a 10-beat cycle broken down roughly into a 4-4-2 (this is a beautiful game after all).
If you zoom in further, the piece can be seen as a 20-beat cycle, divided with more nuance as 8-9-3 rather than 8-8-4 as above:
The entirety of the piece showcases the electrifying three-way interaction between McLaughlin’s Western jazz guitar, Zakir’s North Indian tabla, and Selvaganesh’s South Indian kanjira, and is something special to witness.
Isis uses a more dense and complex set of groupings, but the complexity is more evident on paper than in the flow of the music itself. An initial 9-beat cycle (divided as 4-5) is ‘tripled’ – and broken down into more detailed subdivisions when it comes to backing McLaughlin’s solo. The original 9 can now be seen as a fast-counted 9*3=27-beat cycle, broken down as 8-8-8-3 with an accented final bar:
The Wish also evidences the concept in action, turning the relatively common cycle length of 9 beats into something new by subdividing it into 4-4-1 instead of the usual 3-3-3:
In Anna, the idea is used more subtly, and the later stages include Zakir turning the familiarity of the final bar on its head, by introducing new rhythms into the space it brings. The long composed melody of the piece establishes several distinct 9-beat patterns, before settling into a swung 3-bar pattern, with a subtler final bar emphasis. The influence of jazz can be seen more clearly here. Zakir swings over a groove familiar to Western ears and which does not contain an odd remainder, and even imitates jazz brush-kit drumming by sliding across the right-hand dayan tabla.
He then uses this familiarity to introduces more complex ideas, with more angular shapes and cross-rhythms entering into the mix:
Compositions like Face to Face take these ideas a step further, and open up new musical landscapes by constructing subtly linked structures out of rhythmic subdivision. After a free-time alap section, the piece opens with a 15-beat cycle divided initially as 4-4-4-3. This is almost a regular 4*4=16-beat cycle, and the length of the 4-beat section (4-4-4) makes it particularly easy to settle into and feel intuitively – try it:
The composition then switches to a different way of subdividing the same 15 beats – splitting them into 5 bars divided equally into 3 beats each, to give a 3-3-3-3-3 pattern which is essentially a Western 12/8 but with an extra bar added onto the end:
The later stages include a third rhythm, maintaining the familiarity of a 5-part split, but now counting the 5 as single beats rather than 3s:
Finally, the piece concludes by revisiting the 3-3-3-3-3 pattern, and then resolving back to the original 4-4-4-3, having constructed a symmetrical set of interdependent rhythms which allow for soaring solo phrasing from L. Shankar’s perennially breathtaking violin.
This remainder-based approach is similar to thinking in modulo arithmetic, where the modulo is the remainder when dividing numbers into each other. The clearest example of counting this way is in how we read a clock face – we use a basic cycle of 12, and calculate time differences (remember them?) from the remainder. If adding 13 hours to a given time, we realise that 13 is 1 more than 12, and so use this remainder to keep time, rather than the original number itself.
We may or may not notice these links and patterns consciously, but our subconscious mind will always absorb them, and these details will colour the way we hear the music even if we don’t know why.
Looking at rhythm this way is underpinned by the system of konnakol – a method of breaking rhythms down into vocalised syllable patterns which comes from the ancient Carnatic classical tradition of South India.
The Vinayakram family provide Shakti’s direct link to the world of konnakol – Vikku plays kanjira tambourine and ghatam clay pot in the original band, and his son Selvaganesh brings several instruments to the stage in Remember Shakti. They, along with Vikku’s father T.R. Harihara Sarma, run the Sri Jaya Ganesh Tala Vadya Vidyalaya school of rhythm in Chennai, and are probably the leading exponents of konnakol today.
McLaughlin’s introduction to konnakol was however earlier than this – he studied it way back in the 70s, under the instruction of Ravi Shankar. Apart from being a tantalising ‘what-if’ recording collaboration, this partnership is also interesting in that it highlights a seldom-noticed dimension to Pandit Shankar’s already illustrious legacy – he is from North India’s Hindustani tradition, which uses the tabla-based bol system rather than the South Indian konnakol.
The two approaches are markedly different – although they are both syllable-based, konnakol places more emphasis on the numeric subdivisions (compared to bol’s focus on the drum timbres themselves. North and South Indian classical music are distinct traditions which, despite a common source, have been relatively separate for at least the last four centuries, with North Indian music having absorbed more influence from Persian and Islamic colonisers than its Southern counterpart. Pandit Shankar was one of the first to bridge this ancient gap, along with his tabla player – the legendary Ustad Alla Rahka, whose son, Zakir Hussain, continues to explore new territory inside and outside both Shakti’s incarnations.
Konnakol assigns a particular set of syllables to each number from 1 to 8, and uses combinations of these groups to break any rhythm cycle into manageable blocks. As well as being highly addictive, this approach introduces a more nuanced understanding of how rhythms and melodies are structured, and insight into where their emphasis lies. The basic syllabic groupings are as follows, with usual accents underlined:
Konnakol deserves an article to itself, but the concepts which underlie it are not difficult to understand, and can be followed easily once the syllables are intuitive (in McLaughlin’s words: ‘it’s incredibly easy, but it goes to the most sophisticated heights’). The approach’s strong emphasis on subdivision aids in composing or decoding any complex rhythm including those detailed above. Konnakol patterns are also explicitly vocalised in several Shakti compositions, including the introduction to La Danse de Bonheur, and the percussion breakdown in Get Down and Sruti (sampled by Chinese Man). For anyone who is interested I recommend McLaughlin’s and Selvaganesh’s excellent instructional video series, The Gateway to Rhythm.
Shakti’s world of rhythm is a unique fusion of three complex traditions – Hindustani, Carnatic, and jazz, and the patterns I have noticed will only be a glimpse into all that is there. Nevertheless, I hope I have introduced some new ideas into your world of listening – Shakti have many to offer.
Update (June 2015): thanks John! https://twitter.com/jmcl_gtr/status/613306739195297792
- Shakti & Remember Shakti discography
- John McLaughlin 2005 Jazz in Japan interview
- The Gateway to Rhythm konnakol instruction series, McLaughlin & Selvaganesh
- The Reinvention of a Tradition: Nationalism, Carnatic Music & the Madras Music Academy 1900-1947 (1999). Subramanian L., Indian Economic & Social History Review, 36(1), p.131-163.
- David Courtney’s tabla bols introduction