The Economic Times: How a Kolkata cassette shop played a part in Shakti’s Grammy win

Orko Basu writes:

Just a little before 7 this morning, my phone pings. The message from a friend reads “We did it”, followed by a celebratory emoji. I’m somewhere in upcountry Assam, out on a walk to the banks of the nearby Brahmaputra, and with the morning chill and my still uncaffeinated brain, it takes me a while before I get it.

Of course. The GrammyShakti. They did it! And in this particular moment, I am taken from the Brahmaputra to a small cassette shop in Kolkata’s Rashbehari Avenue in the very early 90s. In those pre-Internet, pre-liberalisation days, one discovered new music mainly through pirated tapes available cheap (four for ?100, if I remember correctly) on Free School Street.

Seeing a shop in Rashbehari was unusual. So I stopped to browse. I had returned home that day with a 1977 album, Natural Elements, by a band intriguingly called Shakti with John McLaughlin. 

Shakti? Was this an Indian band? Who is John McLaughlin? I had so many questions. From the opening notes of the first track Mind Ecology, my ears and mind, raised as they were on a diet of rock’n’roll, were prised wide open and filled up with sounds I’d never heard before. It was my first encounter with world music, and I’ve not been the same since.

I wanted more, but Shakti had disbanded after just three astonishing albums. So Natural Elements took me hurtling down a journey of discovery into the infinite riches of Hindustani classical and Carnatic music, and the mysterious – to me almost forbidding – world of jazz. 

So far, so normal. But then two things happened. One, Shakti returned to the stage in the 90s, playing first with the incomparable Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia, and then settling into a steady lineup that included John and Zakir, U Shrinivas, V Selvaganesh and Shankar Mahadevan. It was a band that I saw multiple times over the next few years. 

And two, my dear friend, Souvik Dutta, who had messaged me today morning, launched a music label, AbstractLogix. And that’s how I came to design merchandise, posters and album covers for a number of musicians – and finally for John McLaughlin himself, one of the most wonderful spirits with whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working. 

In early 2022, after starting a new design and communications company, Togetherly, I was working on a design for an album cover for another musician when Souvik called. He said Shakti was planning a 50th anniversary tour in 2023. Wow. 

Even better, they would be releasing their first studio album with all-new tunes since Natural Elements. This was amazing news. And then he said, John-ji had seen the cover design in progress, and wanted to use that for the new Shakti album. I think I fainted. 

Over the next few months, a team of extraordinarily talented people at Togetherly shared countless versions with John-ji, Zakir-bhai and the band, and painstakingly shaped the artwork that became the cover of ‘This Moment’, the album that has won the Grammy today for Best Global Music Album. 

As I look out over the Brahmaputra, I am struck by one thing. This Moment’s illustrator Mrinalini is in Goa, designer Urmi is in Kolkata, Souvik lives in North Carolina, and I live in Bengaluru. The album was recorded in Monaco, Covington, Mumbai and Chennai. It was mixed and mastered in London. The LPs were pressed in Poland.

Fifty years after Shakti first launched the genre-bending world music revolution that brought cultures together and championed borderless partnerships, they are still, incredibly enough, pulling it off. How beautiful is that. 

(The writer is founder, Togetherly, which designed the album cover of Shakti’s Grammy-winning ‘This Moment’)

Read the full article in The Economic Times.