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Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2001

Lords of the underground

Asian Underground -- as spurious a genre as there's ever been -- has been hot for a while now, but most people would be hard-pressed to name any pioneers of this sound other than Talvin Singh. For those looking to dig deeper, though, August provides a good opportunity to catch two of the more interesting strands in East-West fusion.

Nitin Sawhney

If one were to locate ground zero in this movement, it would have to be the Indo-jazz fusion of Shakti. Formed in 1975, when jazz-rock wunderkind John McLaughlin (of Return to Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra) put aside the electric guitar and picked up a specially designed acoustic guitar, one with scalloped frets and extra resonating drone strings that allowed him to emulate the style of the Indian vina. Along with tabla wizard Zakir Hussain, violinist L. Shankar, and ghatam (clay pot) percussionist Vikku Vinayakram, Shakti electrified audiences with live sets of blazing virtuosity, blending the free- form exploration of modal jazz with the more structured improv of the raga.

Zakir Hussain
U. Shrinivas
V. Selvaganesh
and John McLaughlin of Remember Shakti

Shakti only released three albums, but they remain legendary ones. After a two-decade hiatus, the band is back as Remember Shakti, with slightly different members. The new unit features the liquid mandolin of U. Shrinivas and explosive ghatam of V. Selvaganesh, along with the core duo of McLaughlin and Hussain, who seem to have lost none of the electrifying speed of their youth. (Anyone who thinks Talvin's fast on the skins had better strap on their seat belt for Zakir.) As their recent CD release, "The Believer," shows, the performers have an almost telepathic ability to follow and develop any strand that arises, taking the music to ecstatic highs.

For a more contemporary take on Indo-jazz, there's Nitin Sawhney, whose new album on Virgin, "Prophesy," is raising waves. A "new" artist in the same way that Ichiro is a "rookie," Sawhney has released four stylistically eclectic (and melodic) albums on Outcaste and other indie labels over the past decade, but is only now -- sigh -- getting attention with a major-label release.

After starting as a guitarist in the popular U.K. acid-jazz group The James Taylor Quartet, Sawhney has moved closer to his Asian roots, while bringing in any number of strands along the way. He's as comfortable mixing nasty funk with a rolling Punjabi rhythm on dholaks as he is arranging some smoky Arabic vocals by Natasha Atlas over a soft flamenco guitar. His best single yet was "Nadia," which paired a supple Hindi vocal over a sparse and smooth drum 'n' bass groove, dazzling in its simplicity. While Sawhney's heavily hyped latest veers a bit too close to Sting's jazz-lite territory, word has it that his live sets still have the spark.

Remember Shakti: Aug. 4, 6 p.m., at Sumida Triphony Hall, Tokyo, (03) 5608-1212, 5,000 yen in advance, 6,000 yen on the day at Lawson's Ticket and Ticket Pia; Aug. 5, 6 p.m., at Matsudo Mori no Hall, Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, (047) 384-3331, 5,000 yen; Aug. 3, 6 p.m., at Miyazaki Kenritsu Geijutsu Gekijo, Engeki Hall, Miyazaki, (0985) 28-7766, 2,000 yen in advance, 3,000 yen on the day. Nitin Sawhney: Aug. 10 and 11, 7 and 9:30 p.m., at the Blue Note Tokyo, 6,000 yen.

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