Simon Thacker to celebrate the spirit of India at Celtic Connections

Punjabi folk song, flamenco and Sephardic music from the Mediterranean, Sanskrit alchemy and Gaelic folklore… they all seem grist to the mill for Simon Thacker, the East Lothian-based classical guitarist whose musical re-imaginings range between continents and draw from a bewildering well of inspiration ranging from Native American chants to medieval cosmology.
Simon Thacker PIC: Nitesh AnandSimon Thacker PIC: Nitesh Anand
Simon Thacker PIC: Nitesh Anand

Thacker appears with his Indo-Western group Svara-Kanti at Celtic Connections on 1 February, and has recently released a new album with Ritmata, his collaboration with three Scots jazz players.

When we speak on the phone, he is in Goa, working on material for the Svara-Kanti concert, following a solo Indian tour. Asked whether he was picking up material that might re-emerge at the concert, he points out that while he is constantly absorbing potentially inspiring material, it can take years for it to re-emerge.

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As it is, Svara-Kanti’s Celtic Connections gig is likely to be quite inspiring enough. Thacker will be joined by the group’s regular violinist, Jacqueline Shave, leader of the renowned Britten Sinfonia, who slips easily into the group’s microtonalities: “Whatever I write for her, I know she’s going to play it beautifully,” says Thacker.

He has also enlisted the virtuosic, Grammy-winning tabla player Sukhvinder Singh “Pinky”, with whom he claims a near-telepathic rapport – “especially in our improvisations, like four hands on one instrument”.

Adding a beguiling vocal strand to the group is Afsana Khan, a young Sufi-Punjabi folk singer and Bollywood star. “This is a very special line-up which offers so many possibilities for me as a composer,” says Thacker, “as well as a distinctive improvisational sound world developed through playing and exploring together.”

Support on the night will come from a new Indo-Scottish project, Nad-Haara, featuring Lewis singer Mischa Macpherson and Indian mezzo soprano Ankna Arockiam, a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, exploring their respective traditions.

For Thacker, the concert follows the release of his latest album with perhaps the most muscular of his collaborations, Ritmata, in which he is joined by three well-respected names from Scottish jazz, pianist Paul Harrison, drummer Stu Brown and bassist Andrew Robb.

The album’s Gaelic title, Tàradh, with its overtones of psychic travelling, may reflect Thacker’s wide-ranging interest in folklore, but its music journeys even further, inspired by flamenco and Sephardic music in particular, as well as Native American traditions and medieval liturgy.

“The concept of tàradh,” the guitarist explains, “is that if someone is travelling and they imagine themselves back at home or somewhere else, their sounds are heard there, even though they’re not there yet. It’s a sort of symbolism for my imagination in creating sound worlds – I have visions of where I want to be musically and that’s the first stage of me getting there.”

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Ritmata he describes as his “musical laboratory” and it is certainly a potent one, as the album’s opening track, Asuramaya, demonstrates, with its smouldering flamenco guitar flickering against vigorously responding piano and drums.

Another track, Quadriga in 5, Thacker describes as the biggest work he’s written for the band so far, with tumultuous sparring between instruments, while, as ever seeking out notable guests, he enlisted a young flamenco cantaora, Ángeles Toledano, for Muero Yo de Amor, a Sephardic song which he heard years ago on a Turkish recording from early in the 20th century. Toledano gives an impassioned account, her voice bursting out of the explosive opening chord.

Sephardic music – associated with the Jews expelled from Spain at the end of the 15th century – has always fascinated Thacker, and while Toledano is a flamenco artist, he reckoned that a Sephardic song would be a powerful symbol for her, given that the flamenco-bearing gypsies were equally persecuted in Spain.

“We had just one rehearsal before recording. I wrote it in a very short time,” he says. “It was as if the song had been waiting to be discovered.” Jim Gilchrist

Simon Thacker’s Svara-Kanti is at Tramway, Glasgow on 1 February. For details, see