Karmana – album review
The debut album by Edinburgh guitarist and composer Simon Thacker, in duo with the highly regarded Polish cellist Justyna Jablonska, is a multifaceted exposition into a staggering range of musical styles and traditions. Thacker’s passion for discovery has led to him immersing himself in the Roma gypsy culture, Indian classical music and his native Scotland’s folk scene, to name but a few. This is not just repetition of existing art however; instead Thacker’s compositions are complex concoctions of every musical pathway he has walked. Fused together with zeal and beauty, Karmana reimagines these ancient traditions to fit a future tense.
In order to fully explore the myriad practices on the record, Thacker and Jablonska have enlisted the help of four-times winner of the BBC Folk Award and singer-songwriter Karine Polwart, violinist/singer and champion of the Romany music tradition, Masha Natanson and Indian tabla guru, Sarvar Sabri.
The cynosure of the album is, as the title suggests, the Karmana suite. Written for guitar and cello, the two instruments’ initial differences are surpassed by the spirit stringed instruments are able to achieve using harmonics, varying rhythms and experimentation with pitch and cyclical patterns. Of course, a lot comes down to the player too. On Initiation, Thacker adopts a purist, aggressive Flamenco style throughout; particularly in the swift runs across the fret board and use of the Alzapua technique. The low tuning of the guitar casts a hand down to gather the depths of the cello and the two meet in relative closeness of pitch as Jablonska journeys to the higher elevations of her instrument.
The Karmana suite incidentally had a hugely successful run at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe but now it is possible to revisit the majesty of each of the six parts as many times as you wish. The Finale returns to the fizzing dynamism of the Initiation but in the four movements in between, we are taken by the hand along a journey of impossibly beautiful melody directly juxtaposed to the grittiest sounding classical guitar. The meaning of the fourth movement, Ouroboros, comes from an ancient symbol depicting a snake eating its tail thereby implying a cycle or recreation, a theme which perfectly encapsulates the duo’s approach to reworking traditional techniques.
The rest of the album post-suite involves Natanson, Polwart and Sabri who all bring their verse and song from their native traditions into play. La Cārciuma de la Drum, translated as ‘at the pub down the road’, sees the group rework a traditional Roma gypsy song to incorporate dark and often discordant guitar with the traditional jaunty singing style and rhythm still present so as not to lose the piece’s folk origins.
This album marks the first time Thacker has delved into his native Scottish traditions. Inspired by the tumultuous state of Scotland’s identity, An t-larla Diùrach and Ruaigidh Dorchadas/The Highland Widow’s Lament both reflect the whimsy of Scottish song and how poetry and music have always been an outlet for small communities not just in the folk traditions of Scotland, but all over the world.
The latter piece mentioned above takes Robert Burns’ own reinvention of a song he picked up whilst abroad and rewrote in 1794. Written about the perils of a widow mourning the death of her husband at Culloden, Thacker has taken this morose scene and injected a spikiness that is truly unnerving. Before Karine Polwart sings the lament, a deafening fracas of intense rhythm and bleak discord builds to a crescendo using the backwards recording technique championed by Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles. As Polwart’s angelic voice comes through, still the darkness remains as the huge soundscape beneath this simple tune only occasionally resolves to the ‘correct’ chord and instead, for the most part, keeps the listener begging for a resolution.
The final piece on the album champion’s the duo’s exploration into traditional Indian techniques with Sarvar Sabri’s tabla inducing infectious rhythm. The broodiness of the cello is almost middle-eastern in this movement with an unusual approach to tonal shift and scales adding yet more intrigue. Thacker’s guitar returns to the Flamenco style heard earlier in the record. Although it is obvious some of the group’s imaginative reworkings are improvised, the tightness of the rhythm in this final piece points to it being, it if not fully, at least partially composed with precision to the beat. A truly remarkable feat.
Not only is this music completely futuristic in conception and imagination, it is hugely accessible and achieves as high a stand-alone status as the traditions it pulls on already enjoy. The prowess of each musical praxis used to create this often rugged soundscape is in itself enough to wonder at. However, the way in which Thacker and Jablonska have enabled each discipline to compliment the other is awe-inspiring.
Review: Jamie McDonald