Music World Music


“Music, a myriad of styles and tastes, but it’s all branches on the same tree. One music, no prejudice.” 

James Yorkston – Guitar, Nyckelharpa, Vocals

Jon Thorne – Double Bass, Backing Vocals

Suhail Yusuf Khan – Sarangi, Vocals

This is how Jon Thorne, a member of the trio Yorkston/Thorne/Khan, describes the band’s fusion of musical traditions. On their first record, Everything Sacred, the trio perfectly embodies this spirit of open-minded, diverse, and organic sound. James Yorkston (guitar, nyckelharpa, vocals), Jon Thorne (double bass, backing vocals), and Suhail Yusuf Khan (sarangi, vocals) came together as if by chance when really, it was their open and experimental mindsets that let it happen. James Yorkston, a Scottish folk singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, was playing at a music festival when met Suhail Yusuf Khan. Born in Delhi, Khan comes from a long line of sarangi virtuosos and is also steeped in Sufi writings and tradition. The two struck up a conversation about instruments which led to informal jamming followed by Yorkston inviting Khan to accompany him onstage.

Soon after, Yorkston invited Jon Thorne to join them in the studio to record. As a British bass player well-versed in jazz improv, Thorne rounded out the trio’s musical and cultural texture. The idea was to capture their sound on record in a free, fluid, and collaborative way. The resulting album, Everything Sacred, was indeed a cultural masterpiece and solidified the brotherhood. They have now released their second record Neuk Wight Delhi Allstars. (They hail from Neuk, Scotland; The Isle of Wight, England; and New Delhi, India respectively.)

We caught up with the band of brothers as they are getting ready for summer gigs to promote the new record. They took time out to answer some questions for us.

What special qualities or perspectives do each of you bring to the musical mix?

Suhail Yusuf Khan (SYK) – Well, I am a sarangi player and a Hindustani music vocalist. The repertoire I carry is pretty diverse. Being a sarangi player, one ends up getting exposed to varied sub-genres of Indian music—folk, devotional, regional, aesthetic, and film music too. Hence, I bring all those influences and share it YTK.

Jon Thorne – (JT)  – From my perspective, I am trying to provide supple support through outlining harmony, playing with sonorous depth and rhythmic propulsion and providing counter melodies and textures that integrate and enhance the others’ performances. Much of this for me comes from a mixture of playing a lot of improvised jazz in my career and also from having performed across a wide musical spectrum, being open, and responding spontaneously.

James has a unique blend of literary skill in his lyrics and punky energy and drive in his songs. He’s capable of great intricacy in his guitar playing also. He writes wonderful ballads too. An arch storyteller. Suhail’s skills as a devotional singer and improviser are extraordinary, as is his ability to take traditional Indian music and blend it seamlessly with anything contemporary that he hears.

James Yorkston – ( JY) – That’s kind of you, Jon. For me, both Suhail and Jon have a vast, studied knowledge of music that I happily lack. I enjoy them talking about scales and modes and such, but I just try to use my ears. Suhail and Jon are both masterful musicians and I feel as though I am exploring a vast, colourful world of unexpected musical delights when I am playing with them.

How do you describe the music you create, this fusion of Scottish/Indian/British, lyrical/mystical traditions?  Jon once referred to it as ‘indojazzspangle’.  Do you have a name for it?

SYK – Well, you could label it with anything really. Although, for me, it is our signature YTK sound.

JT – “Indojazzspangle” was meant partly in jest, though it does illustrate how difficult it is to label the music that we make in a sound bite. I’m happy to help make the music together and let people call it whatever they want to.

JY – It’s a funny thing, music. Sometimes it’s better just to let people hear it and come to their own conclusions. I think Jon’s description is accurate in that it also suggests the fun we have whilst making it. Plus, I like the idea that Suhail supplies the Indo, Jon supplies the Jazz and me, well, I supply the Spangle…

In what ways are intuition and improvisation integral to your approach?

SYK – Surprisingly they are both interconnected with each other in many ways. If musicians are not able to recognize or judge their intuitions, it becomes extremely difficult for them to take risks while improvising in order to make the improvisation sound creative.

JT – For me intuition and improvisation are essential and part of the foundations of what we do. All of us are listening intently to one another and reacting in the moment, we have the bones of each song/instrumental, but how they are fleshed out is different every night and can change in a moment.

JY – It is important not to care what happens and just to let loose with our playing and see where it goes. We’re not a pop band with people wanting accurate replications of our most recent 3-minute hit. We just get on stage and start exploring. Sometimes we try to trip each other up, but mostly we encourage each other forwards.

You seem to fall within certain contemplative, oral traditions.  What role does indigenous storytelling play in the music you make together?

SYK – Certainly. As I mentioned earlier, I am a trained Hindustani musician. In our tradition, musical knowledge is passed on from one generation to the other as an oral language. This age-old methodology of transferring knowledge is called guru-shishya parampara (teacher-student tradition). Hence, stories and thoughts behind tunes play a crucial part in our music making process.

JT – Both James and Suhail draw from and adapt Scottish and Indian traditional music respectively. All three of us bring in original material and we often blend all these elements within a song or instrumental. We never write within intentional parameters though. Literally anything could happen if someone has an idea that works.

JY – I guess my songs normally tell little stories, and the traditional tales I bring in also have strong narratives that have ensured they have been passed through the centuries. The stories provide narrative hooks for us to base the songs around; they suggest emotions and energies. But I don’t consider the stories indigenous, particularly. More so, they reflect the shared human experience.

What draws you to the songs that you cover?  How do you choose them?  Is it the artist that wrote them, the stories they tell, or is it something else?

SYK – It is a combination of everything that you mentioned. We try a tune during our practice sessions and try playing it at gigs too. If something is working or has potential, we keep trying it and then let the music do its magic.

JT – Each of us brings the sum of our influences with us when we write. James and Suhail usually suggest the cover versions. It may be the artist or the story, often the mood of the lyrics of one cover version will be matched by the mood of another seemingly unrelated song. Suhail has to translate his lyrics for us. It can be like assembling a new picture from entirely separate puzzle pieces. They both constantly introduce me to new things. That’s the fun.

JY – I take influence from everywhere, no strict genre, country or area of music. Anything that interests me, I follow, and sometimes I bring that interest to YTK. If it seems good to me, the guys are kind enough to at least give it a listen or two and usually we attempt the songs or tunes. Mostly the experiments work, but on occasion they don’t.

Can you reflect on your spiritual journey or path as individuals and as a group? Where is the edge for you in your practice?

SYK – I grew up in Delhi, a city where so many different cultures and traditions exist together. Delhi is also known for the Sufi legacy it holds. My mother used to take me to various Sufi shrines in Delhi when I was a kid. The shrines have the divine Sufi music being practiced there, the energy, the faith, the aura and charisma of these places is heavy even today. Hence, those visits and hours of Sufi music sessions at the shrines holds a huge impact on my life as an individual and as a musician too.

JY – I do believe there’s a Something Else—but I don’t believe for one moment any of usand this includes any holy-man in flashy breeksknow what that Something Else is. Religion just seems to be about ego, power, and control.

JT – My personal spiritual path has ultimately been one of finding my true place among, and seeking connection to, everyone and everything without adhering to any particular belief system. I chose music as it is the best vehicle for this for me. I’m still trying to come to terms with mortality, an ongoing struggle.

I distrust organised religions, especially where money and superstition are involved. I trust my instincts, and I don’t need other people to validate my beliefs. My feeling is that being loving and kind is as religious as I ever really need to get.

We all have our own subjective beliefs in the band, but the music unifies us regardless. There are certainly moments when we are playing together when I feel genuine elevation, a sense of ecstasy, and a deep feeling of connectivity. That’s magical and it’s a joy to experience. That’s the edge, not found in practice, but always sought in performance. Sometimes it happens, but you can’t force it. You just have to stay open to the possibility.

About Kari Auerbach

Kari Auerbach is Music Editor at Kosmos Quarterly. She grew up all over the world learning about music and working as a jewelry designer. Currently living in New York City, she is social media director for several recording artists and a jewelry instructor for the New York Institute of Art and Design. She enjoys her many roles as a teacher, artist, mother, mentor, as well as advocating for artists, children, and a better, cleaner world.

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