Asian Music and Dance

Svara-Kanti – In Search of Connections

Young writer Seetal Gahir listened to the album which aims to bring together the musical modes of East and West. She is intrigued and sets out to learn more about how the musician-producer Simon Thacker, pulled off this unique collection.

Like a shape-shifting demon, Rakshasa is an album with just as much intrigue and dizzying complexity. Its riffs and rhythms weave through fourteen tracks forming a lengthy sequence united by unique textures. The brainchild of guitarist and composer, Simon Thacker, Svara-Kanti creates a world of sound that delves further into the realm of Western and Indian musical collaboration.

A thoughtful and driven musician, Simon actively trawls through all kinds of musical cultures, drawing upon what moves him in each and then combining them to create a powerful mode of self-expression. As he says, “Every style, genre or type of music is to some extent, despite the protestations of some purists, an amalgamation of elements from different cultures coming together.” With Svara-Kanti, he aims to further this alchemical process of amalgamation.

A total of seventy-three minutes and fourteen tracks, the album itself boasts an overwhelming amount of content. It does happily fall into three main sections: Nigel Osborne’s Elements series, original compositions by Terry Riley, Shirish Korde and Simon himself and finally three ‘re-imaginings’ of traditional Punjabi songs. The fiery and mystical opening Dhumaketu is certainly one of the defining pieces of the ensemble. Twists and turns of lightning guitar phrases build into crescendos that fall into slower, rumbling riffs. Accomplished violinist and leader of the Britten Sinfonia Jacqueline Shave brings in sweeping strings and despite a somewhat hollow sounding tabla solo, the melodic range is certainly filled out by such versatile musicians. 

“…I came across Girija Devi’s Songs from Varanasi in early high school…. it seemed like an aural portal to another planet”.

One of Simon’s key influences is Jimi Hendrix, who inspired him to first take up guitar. With his uninhibited composition that combined numerous styles, Simon developed Hendrix’s use of backwards recording in the title track Rakshasa, but more on that wild beast later. Among many other worldly influences, Simon was also enraptured by his first glimpse of Indian music. “I first consciously listened to Indian classical music when I came across Girija Devi’s Songs from Varanasi in early high school.” Simon says, “I didn’t totally understand it initially but it was so spectacularly different to what I had heard before it seemed like an aural portal to another planet so immediately I investigated further.” Simon has intuitively absorbed musical nuances from Indian music and these emerge in compositions such as Multani (named after an afternoon raag) and in Svaranjali, the catchiest piece on the album, with its beautiful guitar hook and bluesy groove. Both tracks feature ‘question-answer’ sections or Sawaal-jawabs and tihais or sets of three that are found in Indian classical music. 

A highlight of the group has to be the angelic voice of Japjit Kaur. “I found (Japjit) through my own research.” Simon explains, “I realised that I was going to be asking her to sing some very different material to anything she had tackled before but I could tell she had such talent that she would take it in her stride.” Japjit’s voice carries Sanskrit lyrics effortlessly across contrasting soundscapes in The Five Elements series by Nigel Osborne and punches through on Shirish Korde’s Anusvara – 6th Prism with dhrupad-inspired melodic movements. An unexpected turn at the end of the album is Svara-Kanti’s versions of Punjabi folk songs. Simon is an admirer of legendary singers Surinder Kaur and Asa Singh Mastana but has been disheartened that modern Punjabi music seems to have left behind their old greats. By tapping into Japjit’s Punjabi heritage, the group has three contrasting classics that add a subtle new sound but still keep close to the originals as if in tribute.

“…we are all going well beyond our respective traditions…in the pursuit of something new.”

This isn’t the first time Simon has combined Indian and Western classical sounds. His earlier project, The Nava Rasa Ensemble, toured in 2009 but Simon wanted to put his own vision forward with a smaller group and allow more interactivity with both classical and folk styles. Svara-Kanti literally means ‘the beauty of musical sounds’ and reflects an ancient idea applied to contemporary context, “In Svara-Kanti we are all going well beyond our respective traditions and comfort zones in the pursuit of something new.” explains Simon, and it is this journey that people love to hear through music. 

One of those comfort zones for Indian musicians, especially expert tabla player Sarvar Sabri, is being faced with sheet music. As in SwarAmant by Terry Riley, a pioneering contemporary composer highly acquainted with Indian classical music, it is an exceptional challenge for a tabla player to read such precisely notated yet simultaneously abstract rhythms. In the same way, Jacqueline Shave on violin whose practice is based around notated music, found the intuition in Indian classical music fascinating. The virtuosity of the musicians shows that they are able to so skilfully surpass these boundaries creating pieces that are astoundingly tight and together. This may come at a price, however, seeming too fixed at times and perhaps dampening the spark of spontaneity. 

The title track Rakshasa is the most experimental and ambitious on the album. Simon attempted to depict the demons of the Ramayana in his own ‘dark new raga’ representing the sound world that he delved into. “With the Rakshasas of Hindu mythology being shape-shifters and alchemists who blur reality and alter one’s perceptions, this seemed to sum up, on different levels, what I was trying to achieve with the album as a whole… I feel the album wouldn’t make sense without it.” Ethereal and haunting, Rakshasa features moth-like flutters of tabla, looming crescendos of reversed guitar strings that grow into moments of attack and subversion. Rather than an emblem, the track sounds like more of a culmination of the album’s multiple facets, ending with a curious question mark for future projects. 

So what next for the dynamic ensemble? Svara-Kanti has been successfully touring with the support of Creative Scotland and Gem Arts, surprising audiences and gaining an extensive range of global radio airplay. Simon is as inventive and ambitious as ever for the future, “Our next programmes are under wraps just now but I am developing our work in ever more unprecedented directions. I know I have not even scratched the surface of the possibilities for my work in this direction.” 

A peculiar kind of demon that shape-shifts to keep you on your toes, the album has such a wide range of styles that it’s sometimes hard to know how to approach and make sense of it. But with ears alert and an open mind, one is sure to enjoy the dazzling display of sounds and myriad of movements that Svara-Kanti’s ‘sound world’ has to offer. 

Simon Thacker’s Svara-Kanti released Rakshasa in May 2013 on Slap the Moon Records. It is available to buy on www.simonthacker.com 



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