A few weeks ago, just before Israel started bombing Gaza, British-born guitar virtuoso John McLaughlin played a concert in Ramallah. This was the second time that he’d performed in Palestine since 2012, reiterating his commitment to bringing the world’s attention to the oppressions of the people of the Occupied Territories. “The situation must change,” he has said, calling for the demolition of “the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank, and Palestinian families from each other ”.
But the day before he departed for Palestine, as he recovered from a high-energy concert in Mumbai organised by cultural group First Edition, McLaughlin was still mulling over the wisdom of his gesture. It isn’t as if he had doubts about the Palestinian cause. He was, characteristically, sceptical about whether putting himself in the spotlight was simply a way of puffing up his own ego.
“We have to be vigilant against this self-aggrandisement, about doing good things in a public way,” said McLaughlin. “I would like to be anonymous. But the downside of it is that no one outside of Palestine would know the concert had happened. We have to find a balance between making this public knowledge and avoiding these ego trips, which are fatal. It’s a double-edge sword.”
As McLaughlin’s fans well know, this kind of self-interrogation isn’t new. If there’s one quality that has shaped the musician’s life and his five-decade music career – which has included stints with the trumpet legend Miles Davis, the jazz-rock Mahavishnu Orchestra and Indo-jazz fusion group Shakti – it has been his capacity for relentless introspection. As his fans also know, McLaughlin doesn’t see a distinction between music and life. For McLaughlin, music is merely an instrument to help understand the mysteries of life.
“Why do we play music?” he asked. “It’s the sum of our life story coming through: how we experience our life, what kind of relationship we have with ourselves, with our comrades, by extension to the universe itself. These are all metaphysical aspects to human existence that all belong to music.”
Since the late 1960s, McLaughlin has been involved in a well-publicised dialogue with subcontinental masters, both spiritual and musical, to help him with his quest. “I gravitated towards India because you’ve been addressing these questions, especially the big one: Who Am I?” he explained. “Of course, when you begin delving into Indian philosophy, you become aware of Indian music, since they’re quite inseparable.”
Among the Indian teachers he counts as his deepest influences is the Tamil sage Ramana Maharshi and Sri Chinmoy, who had moved to the US in 1964. McLaughlin began to study the veena with Dr S Ramanathan in 1972 and the sitar with Ravi Shankar in 1975. McLaughlin was attracted by the fact that Indian music, like the jazz he loves, is based on improvisation. “To improvise is to be spontaneous and you can’t hide when you’re being spontaneous,” he said. “You can only be who you are and surrender to that moment. Which is marvelous because you can have moments of liberation through this spontaneity.”
Over the decades, McLaughlin has maintained a close association with Indian musicians. When he went to Palestine in 2012 to do a concert for the Al Mada Association for Arts Based Community Development and support music therapy programmes and health initiatives, the group he took with him was Remember Shakti, which included tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and vocalist Shankar Mahadevan. His recent show with his new band Fourth Dimension featured Indian drummer Ranjit Barot.
Music, he said, was the bridge between the personal and the political. “As a musician, I believe that it’s my beholden duty to address through my music this miracle of who I am,” he said. “Otherwise I’m playing notes, just notes. There’s a whole mystery in this pursuit of excellence: to grasp the ungraspable. We cannot grasp it, but we have to be ready when it comes. You dedicate your life to your instrument, to your music, and when you go out on the stage, you hope that this magical golden bird will fly and land on your shoulder.”