Monday, July 26, 2010

Rhythm Riders

Last night I went to a tabla concert put on by Rhythm Riders, a local troupe of musicians and dancers. The event was on Guru Poornima, which is a day where students are to show appreciation to their teachers. This group of artists have been putting on the concert for some years now, in honor of their Guruji a well-known tabla composer named Divyang Vakil.

The concert featured Heena Patel, a fellow Berkeley Alum who has been studying tabla under this Guruji for over three years. Heena's story is really remarkable and inspirational. She graduated Berkeley Engineering at the top of her class, but wasn't sure what to do next. On a lark, she followed Nipun's suggestion to go to Manav Sadhna and volunteer. Once in Ahmedabad, she started doing some impressive work with MS but one way or another discovered a deeply embedded passion for music and the tabla in particular. She immediately took it up in earnest. Fast-forward 3 years and she now has become a full-time tabla artist, practicing 8 hours (!) a day to become the first-ever pro female tabla player from Canada. To me, Heena's an awesome example of following your Inner Voice. She was going on a certain path that did not resonate, then found one that did and completely dove into it. Whenever I meet her I can't help but feel Berkeley pride. My school produced such a person!

Besides Heena, the concert featured artists from beginner to professional. It was my first tabla concert, so there was a lot to take in. I had a few observations that were unexpected and/or surprising to me about the art of tabla:
  • The tabla isn't played so much as it is evoked. When these artists play, the distinct impression is that they aren't using an inanimate instrument, but rather working with a living musician with its own temperament. The artist is co-creating music with the tabla. I got this impression based on the facial expressions as the artists played. There was a lot of squinting and cringing, like they were twisting the tabla's ear to get it to sound right. Also in between sets the artists would tune their drums with a small metal hammer that they would tap on the tabla and then listen for the sound. When they put their ear to the drum after the hammer tap, it was like the music they were trying to play was in the tabla, and they were trying to find it. The other analogy I thought of as I watched was that the artist was riding a "tabla train". Meaning the tabla's intrinsic nature is for music to flow out of it, like scent from a rose, and they were just along for the ride.
  • Tabla musicians express showmanship in creative ways. Since they are sitting and their hands are completely occupied, they have to come up with alternative means of adding flair and personal touch to the performance. Heena, for example, was all about facial expressions and head nods and a *huge* smile. Once in a while she really got into a riff and would swing her hair around wildly. Some of the dude tabla players did the same, it made me finally understand why Zakir Hussain's hair is the way it is. Also, at the end of a riff the artist would put his signature on the performance with a last bang and let his hand go flying in the air. BA DA BAAAAM!
  • Advanced tabla playing isn't about calm soothing music, it is much more aggressive and intense. They weren't performing music as much as they were putting together beats. Naturally for me, I immediately began to hear the hip hop in the rhythms that were being created. It was like a freestyle rap, only using taal instead of lyrics. Virtuosity was demonstrated through the unconventionality of the beat circles (like 5 and a half which goes, 'one two three four five one-and-half one two three four five one-and-half …' with the one-and-half spoken extra fast) and the speed of play. These guys were speed demons, their hands became blurs as they played.
After the concert, I heard more than a few people say how watching it made them feel the urge to take up musical instruments themselves, which in my book is the highest compliment to the artists. As for me, it further added to my regret that I missed the class Zakir Hussain taught at my school on the music of India few years back. Come back Zakir!


  1. Thanks for reflections Neil! I found your third reflection interesting as advanced tabla playing can actually be very soothing. Due to time (and heavy rainfall), the full composition of the ensemble performed by the advanced artists was not performed so there was not a chance to hear those compositions. Also when you put 4-5 tabla players together, you do lose some of the softness in the amplification.

    I loved your comment on how the instrument is alive and evoked, because it really is. There are countless stories to illustrate that point. The music is created with the artist joins with his instrument. It is by no means an inanimate object, but something that has its own life and mood, which as a musician you have to accept and more importantly respect.

  2. Great post Neil! I've only seen my sister perform once before but I think your description of their performance is perfect. Thank you for allowing me to catch a glimpse of what was without a doubt, a fabulous performance!

  3. One day... one day.. I want to get back to the tabla.