I am certain I lived in India in another life:John McLaughlin

By Soumya Vajpayee Tiwari

First Published in Hindustan Times on 31 October 2015.

John Mc Laughlin performs during the 29th edition of Sous les pommiers (under the apple trees) jazz festival in Coutances western France. (AFP)

Veteran British guitarist-composer John McLaughlin is, inarguably, one of the biggest names in the world of jazz. The 73-year-old is also known for popularising Indian classical music across the globe. In a recent interview with us, prominent sitar player Niladri Kumar attested to this fact, saying that McLaughlin is “one of the biggest ambassadors of Indian music in the world.” Ahead of his performance in Mumbai, we spoke to John over email about his love for India, its music, the changes jazz has undergone over the years, the bond he shares with tabla player Zakir Hussain, and more.

Do you feel connected to India?

I feel at home in India. I am certain I lived in the country in another life. Zakir is also convinced about this. I felt that long before I arrived here. But when I did come to India in December 1975, I could have kissed the ground. My love for India, its culture, music and people continues to this day.

What do you like the most about the country?

I have lost count of how many times I have visited India. There is a timelessness in the country that exists nowhere else. The temples that you see in India are unique. The country has given treasures to the world in the forms of yoga, meditation and the ways to becoming enlightened.

You have propagated Indian classical music across the world. How did you develop an interest in this genre?

I spiritually entered jazz music only in the ’60s. It was a result of my fascination with Indian philosophy. Indian music and jazz also have an important common ground — improvisation. Both these forms also employ rhythm and melody. It became clear to me a long time ago that Indian music integrated every aspect of a human being, from the most capricious to the most sublime. We, jazz musicians of the west, have much to learn from our eastern brothers and sisters when it comes to improvisation.

What does the guitar mean to you?

The guitar is my voice in this life. I have lived with the guitar for 60 years, and the affair is not over.

Watch McLaughlin perform here:

You have also played the veena for several years. How were you introduced to the instrument?

I was very influenced by Bahauddin Dagar when I saw him play the rudra veena at a private concert. Then I watched south Indian veena master Dr S Ramanathan perform. He was wonderful. I studied under him for several years.

As a senior jazz musician, do you think the genre has evolved over the years?

It has changed, but I wouldn’t say that it has evolved, because, to me, a lot of what’s called jazz today is superficial and shallow. It has nothing to do with what I call jazz. Like great classical music, jazz has an immediacy and gravity that cannot be ignored. The ‘smooth’ jazz and ‘funky’ jazz that people talk about in cafés is not jazz.

Music lovers across the world admire your quintet, Remember Shakti (a project that combines traditional Indian music with jazz). How have things changed after U Srinivas’s (late mandolin player) demise?

There’s been a dramatic change. Frankly, we are still lost because of the disappearance of Srinivas. It will take time to come to terms with our loss, and to look forward to the integration of another musician, capable of maintaining the standard that he established. We miss him deeply.

It’s believed that the group might not travel anymore because of Srinivas’s absence. Is that true?

I can’t say whether it’s true or not, because nothing can be said at this time. Nobody knows what will happen in the future.

Zakir Hussain calls you one of the greatest musicians of our time.

He is being overly generous. On the contrary, in my opinion, Zakir is ‘the’ tabla player of our era. He and I go back to our first meeting in the summer of 1969. We had both arrived in the US. That year, I was already looking for some Indian masters who could teach me music theories from north and south India. My first encounter with Zakir was in a music shop in Greenwich Village, New York City (USA), and he gave me a north Indian vocal lesson. He quickly found out that I sang no better than my dog, and we laughed a lot about the lesson. After that, we stayed in touch, though he had no idea of how I played, and I had no idea of how he played. This changed about a year or so later, when the Mahavishnu Orchestra (a jazz-rock fusion group led by McLaughlin) at played a concert in Los Angeles (USA), and he came to see us. The following day, we flew to San Francisco (USA) to visit Ali Akbar Khan (legendary sarod player), and Zakir and I jammed in front of him. I knew from that moment that I wanted to work and play with Zakir more often.

Watch McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain perform together here:

Have any Indian classical musicians inspired you?

Yes, many. TN Rajarathnam Pillai (Carnatic musician), Valayapatti AR Subramaniam (thavil maestro), Ustad Bismillah Khan (shehnai player), the great late Pt Ravi Shankarji (sitar player), S Balachander (veena player) and Ustad Vilayat Khan (sitar player), among many others. The list is really long.

How is your latest band, 4th Dimension, different from your earlier groups? Ranjit Barot is also part of it.

This band is the end result of my life’s work, with so many musicians and so many bands. It is unique, but at the same time, it integrates all the elements that made up my previous bands. The fact that Ranjit is in it is a true blessing. We became friends years ago, and have played at concerts and recorded together before he joined us. He is one of the greatest drummers of our era, and it’s a thrill for me and the other musicians to have him. Ranjit is the only drummer in the world who has successfully integrated the rhythms of north and south India with the drumming traditions of jazz.

Why did you name your new album, Black Light?

The words ‘black’ and ‘light’ oppose each other. While everything inside my head is black, I still see images [when I close my eyes], and hear sounds that I’ve never heard before. I think that’s the place where all my music is born. It is the only place in the universe where black and light co-exist.

What have you planned for your concert in Mumbai?

My fans can look forward to a great show. The 4th Dimension is the greatest band in the world. There may be people who disagree with me, but that doesn’t bother me at all.