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Spotlight On The Sarangi

Delhi experimental rock band Advaita’s Suhail Yusuf Khan has a host of international collaborations and gigs lined up this year

Lalitha Suhasini Aug 21, 2013
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Suhail Yusuf Khan Photo: Khushali Shah

Suhail Yusuf Khan Photo: Khushali Shah

In 2003, when the rest of the world was going all kinds of crazy over the launch of a new Harry Potter novel,  15-year-old Suhail Yusuf Khan was in the thick of it all in Birmingham in the UK. On holiday to meet his uncle and well-known tabla player Sarvar Sabri, little did Suhail know that he’d have his own gig to celebrate during this trip. By now, Suhail, who belongs to the third generation of sarangi players led by the renowned Sabri Khan, was accustomed to being on stage. He played his first show when he was just 11 and joined Advaita when he was 16, but this show would go on to become a career highlight for him. Suhail elaborates, “A student of my grandfather’s (Sabri Khan) was to perform with Steve Vai at Queen Elizabeth Hall, but he had to cancel, so my uncle asked me to fill in. I had no idea who Steve Vai was. I didn’t know whether he was a guitarist or a singer or an actor. Suhail recalls the audition: “I think I may have played for some two-and-a-half minutes.” On the day of the show, Vai arrived in a snazzy black limousine, looking every bit the rockstar, Suhail remembers. “Once he stepped out, I saw all his gear ”“ numerous guitars and amps,” he adds. How was the show? “It was really nice,” says Suhail, downplaying the show completely and sounding every bit the rockstar himself.

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This year, Suhail, who has already traveled to the UK twice ”“ once to perform at the Alchemy Festival held in April at the prestigious London venue, the Southbank Centre and in June to perform at the Scottish Album Of The Year Awards held in Glasgow ”“ will fly back in October to tour as part of the Yorkston Thorne and Khan trio, which comprises Scottish singer James Yorkston and jazz double bassist Jon Thorne. Suhail, who met Yorkston at a TEDx afterparty in Edinburgh 2011, is not exaggerating when he says, “I’ve been going to Scotland for the past three years now and yes, there are a hell of a lot of collaborations coming up.” In November, the 25-year-old Suhail will perform with Dan Walsh, an equally young musician, who is being touted as one of the finest clawhammer banjo players in the UK. Suhail met Walsh in February this year during an artists residency organized by British Council of India to promote their collaborative folk music project, Folk Nations. There are also collaborations lined up with Scottish violinist Patsy Reid, Brit accordion player Hannah James and Scottish singer-songwriter King Creosote later this year. Says Suhail, “Kenny (Anderson adopted the stage name King Creosote) and I plan to record an album together and will get together to jam in some nice cottage in Scotland soon.” Suhail will also embark on a Europe tour, starting with Germany with the Hum Ensemble fronted by Grammy-nominated tabla player Sandeep Das.

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Suhail’s lineage has a lot to do with why these collaborations come naturally to him and how he easily fits into a band like Advaita that draws from several genres including rock and jazz. Says Suhail, “When I was 11, I toured with my uncle Kamal Sabri and I remember him performing in Helsinki. He was playing with an experimental band that included a saxophone and a piano player. That was the first time I saw a sarangi being played without a tabla or vocals or a tanpura.” When the young sarangi player heard a bass chord playing alongside a sarangi line, he recalls his perception of music shifting. “It was different people and different cultures performing together effortlessly,” he says. Suhail carries forward his legacy to stretch and expand the scope of the sarangi. “All these musicians are pushing my capabilities as well and I think it’s been a blessed journey,” says the sarangi player.  

The article originally appeared in the August 2013 edition of ROLLING STONE India. Violinist Patsy Reid was erroneously referred to as a vocalist. The error is regretted.  

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