Unbound 2017: Stornoway to India

When virtuoso artists from Indian and Scottish folk traditions combine, the results are rich and rewarding. We speak to musicians Dalbir Singh Rattan and James Yorkston to find what they will bring to two sides of the same night at Unbound

Article by Galen O'Hanlon | 04 Jul 2017

In addition to pioneering Asian Blues with Aziz Ibrahim and working with musicians such as The Stone Roses and Paul Weller, Dalbir Singh Rattan is now one of the composers of Yatra. This musical performance piece is inspired by a historical journey from the Isle of Lewis to India – made up of Gaelic vocal traditions through to the Indian Raga and folk that Stornoway-man and collector extraordinaire Colin Mckenzie would have encountered during his travels from the late 1700s onwards. Dal introduces us to his music and what we can expect on the night.

“We’re not interested in that fusion confusion crap,” says Leeds-born Dalbir Singh Rattan, who plays the Indian drum so well that some know him as the Tabla Jedi. He’s worked with guitarist Aziz Ibrahim for nearly 20 years, and they’ve arrived at a sound that’s entirely their own.

“Indian music is so rich and deep, and then all we get is a fusion piece or a Bollywood piece. I don’t want my tabla to be the token instrument, just because a guy says ‘let’s get a bit of an Indian vibe on this track’. We sell our stuff so cheaply sometimes, it’s like a cheap Indian curry. It’s the same with ‘world music’ – what the fuck does that mean? Nothing to me.

“Our uniqueness comes from the style of playing. It’s not the point to fuse anything. We write a new form of music using two traditions. It’s an embodiment of being British Asian musicians.”

This passion – apparent from the very first moments of our phone call – has led Dal to explore the richness of Indian music through collaborations with musicians across the world, from international rock stars to the finest sitar players. For his latest project though, Dal, through the Stornoway arts centre An Lanntair, collaborated with Gaelic musicians on Lewis to compose Yatra, which means journey or pilgrimage. 

It’s a new musical about the 18th century journey from Stornoway to India of Colin Mackenzie – later to be the first Surveyor General of India – and Dal’s own journeys to the Outer Hebrides (Lewis is a long way from Leeds). Mackenzie fell in love with India, and produced some of the first British maps of the country, as well as collecting priceless items and documents from his career there.

This new musical celebrates Mackenzie’s life as a collector extraordinaire. The score brings together Gaelic vocal traditions and classical Indian Raga in innovative and progressive ways. It premieres this summer at the Purvai festival on Lewis as part of the New Passages project, which marks the 70th anniversary of Indian independence by exploring past, present and future connections between Scotland and India.

You’ll get a taste of the musical at Dal and Aziz’s Unbound performance. They’ll play elements of it along with a good helping of the Asian Blues they’ve pioneered. And as so much of their work is based on improvisation, there’s rarely more than a few suggestions on the set list. “No show is the same,” says Dal. “I’ve been working with my sparring partner Aziz a long time, and we have the confidence and skill to improvise.”

Did he take a similar approach to working with Gaelic musicians on Lewis? Absolutely. Dal set out a few pieces and sent them ahead to give everyone a starting point. “Then we got the musicians together, and we were just banging ideas at each other. The piece isn’t really dictated by anybody. I didn’t go up there with a firm idea of what I wanted everyone to do. I’m just looking for help."

“The Gaelic traditions are so strong and embedded, and I didn’t want to change that. I just went in there and said ‘can you help me?’, and they’re the kinds of musicians and artists who will carry you.”  

James Yorkston has now worked with fellow musicians Jon Thorne and Suhail Yusuf Khan on two acclaimed albums, blending Anglo-Celtic folk and classical Indian musical traditions.  He explains the power and freedom the trio's collaboration brings to the music we will experience on their second half of the night at Unbound. 

It seems that improvisation and skill, respect and understanding are the secrets to making unexpected collaborations pay off. At least it works for James Yorkston, Jon Thorne, and Suhail Yusuf Khan, whose blend of western folk and Indian classicism produces remarkable results. Khan accidentally walked into Yorkston’s dressing room backstage in Edinburgh in 2013; Yorkston was playing guitar, Khan joined in on the sarangi, and a few moments later they went on stage.

We put it to Yorkston that this kind of thing takes balls, no? “But what’s the worst that can happen?” he retorts, “OK, you make a mistake on stage and no one cares. Early on I was supporting David Gray on a tour, facing an audience of 12,000 people. And I was nervous. Gray said to me, ‘the audience don’t really care if you’re good or bad, they just want to see a one-off event.’  And that’s stayed with me. They don’t want to see you run through something average, and do it well. We did a thing for Mark Riley recently, and it was the same. I said to the guys, don’t hold back. I don’t want to do it well just because we all played in time. We have to do something extraordinary. No sitting back. No B game.”

In print that makes him sound like a maniacal Hollywood movie sports coach, but he’s not. “All I’m doing is singing songs. I’m not a nurse or a doctor or running an aid programme. But at the same time, I really value music. It’s one of the only things that makes sense to me. I treat what I do with respect, but I also don’t take it too seriously.”

So how does his collaboration with Khan and Thorne work? “I was playing with Suhail as often as I could, and I chose Jon [on double bass] for his background in jazz. I knew he’d have the chops to improvise.

“It’s the power of the trio. You have two other instruments to hang on to. It dilutes the main two voices, but it supports and strengthens the whole. It means you’re not always the leader or supporter, but can be a… midfielder, and kind of float around.”

Finding the right path between Indian and folk traditions has taken a few tries. “When we first tried the more Indian stuff, I would learn the parts and play the chorus but it sounded so obvious and guff, so bad, just like awful diluted Indian tourist music. One song on our first tour was utter cringe – all the time changes were as precise as Bollywood. It was all ‘oh look at this, we can all play in time’.”

You’ll find none of that on the new album, Neuk Wight Delhi All Stars. He’s found a better way to play alongside Khan: “Rather than follow the complicated rhythmic patterns, I try and embellish the song in a way that suits me and suits the way that I’ve learned to play the guitar. There’s a very experimental aspect to it.”

And what’s he got planned for Unbound? “We’ll do what we normally do: sit down and see what happens,” he says. And his response to anyone who bristles at this kind of genre-busting? “Musically, we’re just flying, and loving what we do – and if they don’t like it, I don’t care. Why waste our time being constipated? It’s so stupid to hide within a genre. You have to spread your wings a bit, you know?”

Beating New Passages, Unbound on Mon 21 Aug, from 9pm, free https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/themes/unbound