Karmana is the duo debut album of classical guitarist and composer Simon Thacker and acclaimed Polish cellist Justyna Jablonska. Also featured on this album are Masha Natanson (Romany music), Sarvar Sabri (India) and probably best known to many people in Scotland – Karine Polwart (Scots song). Simon Thacker was kind enough to meet me for a coffee recently and give me his personal and enlightening insight into this album which is an extension of his own interest and immersions in many different musical genres and styles from all over the world.
Simon not only has a love of these many diverse musical genres, but also a deep understanding of many of them, and his love of Indian, Romany, Gaelic and Scots music and traditions and the need to express that in his own personal way is the driving force behind this album. A Scottish musician, venturing into the at times esoteric realms of Indian music may seem a little strange to some people, but this is no mere vicarious adventure as Simon has a deep knowledge of this music, having toured and performed in India and Pakistan with both his own music and with local musicians. Of course when we use terms like “Indian” or “Scottish” music in reference to this review, it is as a geographical source rather than any attempt to define any one particular part of a far wider and diverse musical heritage – exactly what is “Indian”, “Scottish”, “Gaelic”, or “Roma” music? There is of course no one answer to that.
Karmana takes its name from Sanskrit and means “performing anything by means of magic” and it is an appropriate title as the very magic of sounds and their power in the creation of the universe are much at the core of this work as it traces music from India, through to Romany and Gaelic sounds. There are elements here combining music from all these divergent cultures, and the clash at times between the different compositional rules of music between East and West can at times be challenging and discordant. This album is at times an adventure into early 20th century Avante Garde classical music meeting Indian musical theory, overlaid with Gypsy Jazz sounds in parts.
At first look, you might ask what holds all of this together, but listen a little more closely, play a few times, and the story begins to unfold. You might not think that much you have ever listened to holds any relevance to your musical history, but those with a liking for the Gypsy Jazz sounds of Django Reinhardt or his great-nephew Lulo Reinhardt will find much in common with this Indian and Roma culture. At a recent concert I was at, Lulo Reinhardt was proud of his cultural and musical history as it came out of India into Roma culture and eventually into places like Morocco and Spain. Any Beatles fan will of course be familiar with their discovery of Eastern sounds too.
This is an album of almost two halves, the first half taking its musical shape over six different movements and covering a large and diverse cultural meeting of Eastern and Western music, and much of the second half exploring Gaelic and Scottish history – albeit in a very short compression of musical time. If this was an old vinyl record, these two parts could really be Side A and Side B.
There is a lot of studio work and multi-tracking in this album, and 25 guitars multi tracked may take up an awful lot of composition and studio time, but the time you hear it passes by all too quickly to really notice how much effort has gone into creating this soundscape, but for Simon this was necessary on the innovative and unique 13 minute “Ruaigidh Dorchadas/The Highland Widow’s Lament to capture in sound and song the chaos of major Scottish events including the Battle of Culloden and the Acts of Union. Karine Polwart’s vocals are hauntingly effective here on the classic “The Highland Widow’s Lament”.
Karmana raises many questions for me. As a listener it is not a listen to once and understand piece of music, and I am sure that Simon will agree with me when I say that this is an album not produced with the pound signs of albums sales foremost in mind at any stage of its development. This is an adventure into sounds, space, composition and music as an explorer, much the way that someone would explore physical unknown territories. Simon is in fact happy for this work to be one that has to be explored in greater depth with each playing of the album.
I’ve listened to Karmana a few times in the writing of this review and still feel that this is a performance piece more than a studio recording. I want to see and hear this work performed in its proper space and feel first-hand the energy of this music and the presence of the musicians. Interesting and intriguing as the album may be, it still feels like half of a puzzle at times. I think this album would be the sort that you would buy after the performance with a far clearer understanding of the unfolding stories it contains. That statement does not detract from the work as a stand alone recording, but you will probably be left thinking as I do – when are they going to perform this live?
Although Simon can understand my wanting to hear this work performed live, he does however point out that for him, this is a stand alone audio album that is the culmination of a long journey to completion...a journey that has not been fixed in the strict musical traditions of either Eastern or Western music, but something new to either culture...this is Simon’s music and his vision brought to life with the help of the musicians on this album. A large part of the final soundscape of this album of course also belongs to Simon’s main musical collaborator on this project - cellist Justyna Jablonska. Taking this musical adventure with Simon has taken Justyna far outside her normal compositional and performance space, and he has been lucky in finding in Justyna someone with not only the musical talents and abilities to interpret his musical visions, but someone willing to embrace the very spirit of his music.
Often ignored when listening to any album, but capturing a composer’s and performer’s work in the studio is not an easy task, and to keep the purity and essence of this project intact, Simon found some of the best studio production people around …Stuart Hamilton, Calum Malcolm, and Castlesound Studios, Pencaitland.
Karmana comes with a very detailed booklet giving much more information on the tracks than this review can do, and you can also get more information at
Review by Tom King