Review of Shades of Shakti

Shades of Shakti

26th October 2023
ToiToi, Hastings, New Zealand.

Review by Rob Harbers, (originally published via Ambient Light) photography by Andrew Caldwell.

Rudyard Kipling once famously wrote “East is East and West is west, and never the twain shall meet”. Clearly that memo didn’t get to the Hawkes Bay Arts Festival, as tonight a quintet of masterful musicians repeatedly bridged the gap, wowing the audience with their dynamic interplay and pure skill.

Drawing their inspiration from two main sources, namely Ravi Shankar’s “East meets West” album and the works of John McLaughlin’s Shakti project, this group feature some very fine musicians, working in harmony to produce a sound that truly merges these disparate musical traditions, while also providing a little education (in a non-boring way) on the history of Indian music. All came together to hold an attentive audience spellbound throughout.

The performance began with a raga played on the veena (the ‘mother of the sitar’) by Saketh Vishnubhotla, accompanied by Basant Madhur on tabla. The history of the raga form was briefly explained, being rooted in Hindu spiritual practice, then taken in to royal courts, and eventually emerging as a form of general entertainment in its own right. The structure of raga involves the creation of a basic musical framework, which is then embellished and fleshed out by a surprisingly high degree of improvisation, on a scale at least comparable to that of accomplished jazz players. This piece of around 20 minutes duration showed off the skills of the two players, while providing a solid base on which the rest of the show could rest.

Following this powerful introduction, the rest of the ensemble filed on to the stage: drummer Thomas Friggens, violinist Monique Lapins and guitarist Justin Firefly Clarke. This cast of players then proceeded to amaze for the next 90-odd minutes, with a truly astounding masterclass in the art of musical fusion – one that left me without a lot of notes taken, so mesmerising was it! So from here on in this writing, it’s far more about memories and impressions than actual compiled notes and prompts – carrying the improvisational spirit from stage to page! (Hope I can improvise even a tenth as well as they could, but.)

Pulling on these threads of memory, among the recollections is the merging of the percussion forms of northern and southern India being, respectively the tabla and the ghatam (an earthenware pot, but with metal filings baked in). These formed the basis of one of the night’s percussion battles, another one being between the tabla and the drums, Thomas having adapted (for this bit) to playing them in the pace and feel of the tabla. One of the pieces played, “Joy”, was introduced as being the one that sparked this project in to life, and in its melding of the diverse elements it perfectly demonstrated this origin story.

Monique Lapins is standing in on violin while the regular player is off doing new-dad stuff, but she fitted in like she’s been there all along! Her musical interactions with the other players were such that the grafting seams were invisible. Guitarist Justin Firefly Clarke displayed astounding range and speed of playing. In fact the speed of the playing of all of the stringed instruments seemed at least equivalent to that of some of the faster genres of Metal – so you don’t have to be loud to be proud, indeed!

The unfortunate reality that is now occurring, though, is that I have deadlines to meet, and haven’t come close to giving the night, and the players, the respect that are truly deserved. Let me then finish with this final reflection: Music is music, wherever it comes from, and has the power to bring souls together, and to heal, a quality surely needed in this region after recent events-and this group, in its melding and mixing of diverse styles are valuable pointers to the unity that the world could use a lot more of. Another great addition to Festival history, and a credit to all involved!

Join Us