An Indian sarangiya walks into the dressing room of a Scottish folk singer... It's not the start of a bad joke, but that of Yorkston/Thorne/Khan. Under that name, James Yorkston, Jon Thorne and Suhail Khan make melancholic music in an unlikely borderland. Their recent album Navarassa is a – excusez le mot – unique tour of nine emotions. “Our music is an extension of our friendship.”
Written by: Dirk Baart
Photo: Jon Pountney
Yorkston, Thorne and Khan haven't seen each other in weeks. The trio had just left on tour in mid-March. It sounded great, but the virus turned out not to care about that. When the British government failed to make any decisions, the musicians themselves canceled the last ten shows of their run. Yorkston, Thorne and Khan returned home. James Yorkston to the Scottish coastal East Neuk of Fife, Jon Thorne to the Isle of Wight in southern England. Suhail Khan will stay in Manchester until he can return to the United States, where he studies ethnomusicology (the study of music in its cultural context) at Wesleyan University.
Sure, there's an app group, but really staying in touch is hard. “We're a trio because we play together,” explains the jovial Yorkston. “Therein lies the magic.” “The current situation has made that even clearer,” adds Thorne, the more serious type. “What we do relies on spontaneity and proximity. We respond to each other using our voices and instruments. Now there are all kinds of screens between us. People keep asking: can't you film yourself playing? Don't you want to do an online concert? But that doesn't work, especially not with this band. Even when we're in the studio, it's so much about the moment. For us, recordings have always been an extension of the live shows in which we can play together.”
It is immediately clear that the Yorkston/Thorne/Khan alliance is not only musical, but human. While they are waiting for Khan, Yorkston and Thorne catch up on their lives. Thorne has been swimming a lot and has lost over ten pounds. He teaches his sons at home and has set up the label Two Trees Music to release music that was gathering dust on a hard drive. He complains about politicians who violate the corona rules and right-wing extremists who bring the Hitler salute at the statue of Winston Churchill. Yorkston describes the new nyckelharpa (key harp) he has acquired, a traditional Swedish string instrument that he likes to use. He talks about walks on the beach with the neighbour's dog. About emails he should have answered a year ago, and about the way in which music has offered some comfort in recent months. Oh, and about the remix that techno producer Max Cooper made of Yorkston/Thorne/Khans 'Sukhe Pool'. “He even made a single edit of it,” he chuckles. “It's not like we suddenly sound like the Pussycat Dolls and get into the charts, but it's really cool. I'll send it to you in a minute, Jon!" He continues: “With Yorkston/Thorne/Khan, we've been sending some ideas back and forth. I write a lot of songs, but they quickly sound like my solo material, so I also try to think of things that leave a little more space for the other two guys. I have one idea that I think would work well if Jon were singing. He's got a good voice, you know. We’re also working on a version of a song called 'Arthur McBride'. I got to know that song through the Irish band Planxty, but it's actually Paul Brady's version. And then we also started working with old Sufi poems by Hafez.”
Yorkston/Thorne/Khan is a fusion of three worlds. That of the Scottish folk singer James Yorkston, who started his career as a punk, but has been releasing his own folk music for about twenty years now and likes to venture into traditional Celtic music. That of the British jazz bassist Jon Thorne, who mainly made a name for himself as (double) bassist for trip-hop band Lamb, but also played with Badly Drawn Boy, King Creosote and King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. And that of Suhail Yusuf Khan from New Delhi, singer with an enormous range and player of the 43-string sarangi, an instrument from the Indian subcontinent that is mainly used in classical Indian music.
Over the past four years, Yorkston, Thorne and Khan have made three albums together, alternating their own material with interpretations of Celtic classics and poems from Khan's native country. Already on debut Everything Sacred, a version of 'Little Black Buzzer' by the Scottish poet Ivor Cutler is alternated with a rendition of the Carnatic raga 'Vachaspati'. Neuk Wight Delhi All-Stars and the recent Navarassa: Nine Emotions are also full of surprising finds in which Yorkston's voice - with a heavy Scottish accent - and Khan's sarangi intertwine, just like English and Hindi. Thorne's basslines are the stable element. On paper it is an unlikely collaboration, on record it suddenly sounds like it has always existed.
The fact that the partnership feels so natural has everything to do with the way Yorkston/Thorne/Khan came into being: not on purpose, but by accident. “I was playing a show at Celtic Connections, a festival in Glasgow, when Suhail suddenly walked into my dressing room,” Yorkston recalled. “I asked him who he played with and he replied that he was alone. Then I saw his instrument.” Between Yorkston and the sarangi, it's love at first sight. A few hours after their meeting, Khan accompanies Yorkston as he performs his folk songs on the Celtic Connections stage. Not much later, a second appointment follows, in which the duo experiments for hours. “We were just making strange, atonal noises, but we loved it. We decided to start a trio and started looking for a third member. Suhail suggested some tabla players and I did know an accordionist, but in the end we came up with Jon. I knew that with his jazz background he would be able to improvise in a similar way to what often happens in Indian classical music. But perhaps more importantly, I knew from experience that Jon would go with us to the crazy musical places Suhail and I had gone to. Sometimes when I play with other musicians they get scared. Then they stop playing because they don't understand what is happening. I knew Jon wouldn't. I knew he would have faith.”
Hundreds of colors
With Suhail Khan now joining his bandmates, Yorkston/Thorne/Khan doesn't have the next best sarangiya in the ranks. Khan is the grandson of Ustad Sabri Khan, the sarangi master who passed away in 2015. Khan junior belongs to the eighth generation of his family who have mastered the ancient instrument. “The sarangi is very similar to the human voice,” Khan explains the appeal of the instrument, which in many cases is only passed on from father to son. “It can cover a huge spectrum. It is not without reason that the word sarangi can be translated as 'the instrument of hundreds of colours'. The sarangi is often used in Indian classical music to accompany singers. In fact, you are only a good sarangi player if you understand how to do that. If you understand the nuances of the voice.”
Understanding such subtleties now allows Suhail Khan to experiment with different styles of music, as Sabri Khan did before him, playing with American violin master Yehudi Menuhin and sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, among others. Sabri Khan even was in the Beatles' entourage by the late 1960s, when the Fab Four became addicted to Indian music. “He was one of the first people to bring the sarangi to the West,” says Suhail Khan, who in turn introduced the sarangi to the Indian pop world as a member of fusion band Advaita and helped ensure that sarangiyas are no longer dependent on singers.
It is a movement that is not always appreciated in India, especially among the elderly. In 2005, Sarangi master Ram Narayan criticized modern applications of the instrument. “Fusion is confusion,” he said in an interview. Yorkston/Thorne/Khan has played twice in Khan's native country so far and has mostly garnered praise. “But I remember the first time we got there and a group of old men sat in the front row,” said Yorkston. “They sat right in front of Suhail. It was obvious they were there because of his famous grandfather. I saw that they thought it was going to be terrible, but along the way we managed to change their mind.”
“I think it's very brave how Suhail introduces the sarangi into modern music,” Thorne adds. “I don't think he cares, but being part of a long line of sarangiyas puts a certain amount of pressure on his shoulders, which is not on mine or James’s. But I think Suhail knows he doesn't have to live up to expectations with James and me. I never feel in this lineup that the other two want me to play this or that, we're simply looking for ways to glue our worlds together. And oh man, I could listen to James and Suhail all night. I consider myself very fortunate to be able to stand among them. When I started making music 30 years ago, I never would have dreamed to be part of a band like this, to have the opportunity to explore so much musical territory.”
“When I started making music 30 years ago, I never could have dreamed of being part of a band like this.”
Khan continues: “It also doesn't feel like I'm simply adding a traditional instrument to Western music and making it modern, like is done so often in 'world music'. That's so overrated. We're actually a very traditional trio, we play almost completely acoustically and don't even have a drummer. And we are probably the first group to combine the classical music of India with British folk. Of course we think carefully about the way we handle the material, but you also have to be brave. My father always taught me that knowledge grows when you share it.”
It was the same with Navarassa, the recent Yorkston/Thorne/Khan album. The album is built entirely around a Sanskrit (the sacred language of Hinduism) notion of nine central emotions, which originally dates back to the fifth or sixth century. Every emotion – from joy to sadness and from romance to disgust – ties into one of the nine tracks on the record. It makes for an album that covers a wide spectrum with relatively limited resources, with a lot of dynamics. “Many Indian dance and theater forms are built around those emotions,” Khan explains. “I think I already discussed it with James and Jon in 2017, because for my PhD in ethnomusicology I did a lot of research on the philosophical context of Indian classical music. In fact, when we were making this album, it turned out that the concept of navarassa was a natural fit for the songs. We didn't have to force it at all."
A new palette
Actually, for Yorkston/Thorne/Khan it only turned out to be an advantage that the band members were not so familiar with each other's musical background. Khan got to know some western music (Led Zeppelin, Rage Against the Machine) when he was at an international school, but British folk didn't ring a bell with him until a few years ago. Yorkston praises the album het album A Meeting by the River by the Hindustani instrumentalist Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and the American songwriter Ry Cooder. “But otherwise I had little experience with Indian music before this project. I couldn't have told you how to spell sarangi."
“As far as I'm concerned, drones are what connects our styles”, Thorne adds. “They are of course essential in the way Suhail makes music, but also in the krautrock that James is a fan of. When we play live, sometimes we really sound like Can. I myself am a big fan of In a Silent Way by Miles Davis, an album on which he uses a lot of drone-like effects. A jazz band I played in played a lot of Charles Mingus music. There's some of his music in ours too, I think."
“All in all, Yorkston/Thorne/Khan offers me such a new palette,” Yorkston explains, harking back to the version of 'Arthur McBride' the trio is working on. “That song is about the British Army. Of course, when you sing it in combination with an Indian instrument, it takes on a completely different meaning, given the horrific deeds of the British army in India. It offers a new take on an old song. I find that very exciting.”
“Our music is an extension of the friendship we've built over the years.”.“
Another example is "Westlin Winds," one of the most poignant songs on Navarassa. It is an adaptation of a text by the eighteenth-century writer Robert Burns. Or at least, part of the song is taken from the most famous Scottish poet ever. “I tried to translate part of the text,” Khan says. “But I find that very difficult, especially with folk songs that have such a long history behind them. After many attempts, I took refuge in the work of a fourteenth-century Sufist poet, a spiritual philosopher who dealt with the same subjects as Burns. Those two texts fused together in a very organic way. It's a perfect summary of this band for me.”
The most emotional reinterpretation Yorkston/Thorne/Khan has made to date is without a doubt the version of 'The Blues You Sang' on Neuk Wight Delhi All-Stars. The tearjerker originally appeared on Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society (2014), a solo record by James Yorkston. The Scot wrote it after the death of his bassist Doogie Paul and watched the tribute become one of his most beloved songs. “I wouldn't have played it with these guys if I wasn't sure they could handle it,” Yorkston says of the cover, which is even more heartbreaking than the original due to Khan's moving playing. “In a way, the song now reminds me of the music of Ali Farka Touré. There is so much space between the instruments, but we are not afraid of that fragility. We hear the beauty in the silence, so we dare to let the silences be there. It's been fantastic for me to play 'The Blues You Sang' with Suhail and Jon, and Doogie would have loved it too. The special thing about this band is that it is based on nothing more than listening to and answering each other. The project started as a coincidence and in a way it still is.”
After a short silence, Jon Thorne concludes the conversation: “Our music is an extension of the friendship we've built over the years. I think that's why I miss playing together so much. I used to think Yorkston/Thorne/Khan was a bit of an odd name, but now I've found it to be the perfect name. It captures in a very simple way the democracy that underlies our music.”
Navarasa: Nine Emotions is out now on Domino Records. Listen to the album on Bandcamp. Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.