Given prominence the world over, with bands like the Grateful Dead and artists like George Harrison and jazz guitarist, John McLaughlin, the tabla is the famous percussion instrument of North India, made popular from the Americas to Tanzania. Artists like Zakir Hussain have learned how to play the tabla like the fine instrument they are, giving an almost god-like quality to their rich but evanescent tones. Traditionally used in classical Indian music, the sophistication and nuance of such a set of drums allows them to speak eloquently in almost any genre of music. The tabla sets a standard for an over 5000 year-old tradition of rhythm in India. As one of the oldest traditions in the world, tabla offers a sense of rhythm and melody which is unmatched by almost any other percussion instrument, particularly those found in the West.
Both the ragas (melodies) and talas (rhythms) are given eternal qualities of sacred music in these ancient texts. Some songs of the tabla are of such precision and elegance that only a very realized soul could manage to play them. Tabla players, are in fact, musicians of the highest order. The tabla was meant to bridge the sacred and mundane, in fact, and much of the music played by master tabla players does just that.
The art of playing tabla was passed down from guru to student much like yogic teachings, orally and only upon students who showed eager and earnest interest in learning the complexities of the instrument. Primarily, the tabla are two drums, most closely related to bongos. One is called the Bayan. It is the larger of the two drums and in the past was made of clay, but now is more often found made of steel, copper or brass. The smaller drum is called the Dahina (the Hindi word for right hand). It is carved from seasoned wood. Both are usually covered with two thin layers of goatskin.
A virtuoso player will use his whole hand, and even the forearm and wrist to evoke different tones from the drums. Different regions of India would develop their own stylistic ways to play tabla, and these style were very guarded by the gurus who represented a particular way of playing indicative of their geographic location. A well seasoned tabla player can tell if someone was taught in the North or South of India, and sometimes, even by which teacher.
To learn tabla a student will often start at the age of seven or eight and work with a master player for up to three hours a day for over a decade. It is not a small undertaking. In many cases, a student was kept in a dark room so that they could not distinguish the difference between day and night and they were not allowed to stop playing unless they were going to eat or relieve themselves. This kind of discipline matches that of a sadhak, or spiritual seeker, and it is rare that a modern musician will have this quality of absolute adherence and passion for their art. Students begin by learning the ‘alphabet’ of the instrument which are seven letters, seven ta, tee, tin, ga, dha, dhee and dhin. Unmistakably, these letters correspond to the seven chakras, or energy centers, which most Indians are well versed in. Practicing bols, means practicing the different letters of the tabla. The subtleties start even with the very first attempts to hit the drum. The tee, for example, can be played in varying places on the drum to make a very different sounding tone, dependent upon where it lands.
As a student becomes more familiar with the language of tabla, she begins to arrange the letters into words, paragraphs and then entire epic poems. A traditional raga is only notated in a notebook with minimal ‘words’ or with a call and response or theme and variation type of arrangement, which is more familiar to western musicians. Nonetheless, tabla players have an enormous capacity to memorize the music, which is played on the instrument. Due to the improvisatory nature of the tabla, a good player can render a complete score or play as a great jazz artist might. This is perhaps, why the two genres of Indian classical music and American jazz blend so captivatingly well.
“One day my teacher would teach me something, and then the next day he would expect me to play similar sounds in response. So if he taught me a musical phrase one day, I would come up with three or four similar phrases for the next day. I learned by listening and repeating and experimenting, not by reading notes.” Sandeep Das
While many percussion instruments are tuned to a melodic pitch; bass, snare and kick drums are either tuned with a drum key or by adjusting either the batter head or their bases for a more pleasing tone, the tabla are especially sensitive to melodic pitch. This is due, primarily to the black paste made from iron and rice, which is used to season the drums and placed in a circle on the top drumhead. This paste, called Shyahi, is what allows such expressive variance when the drums are played. In fact, this unorthodox construction is what makes the tabla different than any other drum in the world. With one drum, the Dahina, tuned to the tonic of a composition, and the Bayan, left untuned, modulations and intricacies are available to an almost infinite scope.
In traditional Indian music, the tablas most often accompany the sitar and a six-hole bamboo flute called a Bansuri. They can also be played with hardly any accompaniment, as Sunayana Gosh displays with absolutely virtuosic agility in this video, standing alone as the primary voice of both rhythm and melody combined.
Other famous Indian tabla players include (Pandit means expert):
- Pandit Shankar Ghosh
- Pandit Samta Prasad
- Pandit Nayan Ghosh
- Pandit Suresh Talwalker
- Pandit Anindo Chatterjee
- Pandit Chatur Lai
- Dr. David Courtney
- Pandit Swapan
- Pandit Kishen
- Pandit Surech Talwalker
- Ustad Tari Khan
- Trilok Gurtu
- Vijay Ghate
- Ustad Zakir Hussain
- Vidushi Anuadha Pal
- Ustad Shaik Dawood Khan
- Pandit Sharda Sahai
Western tabla players of good repute include:
- Peter Szalai
- Anthony Dass
- Ty Burhoe (often plays with Krishna Das and Manorma)
Neither of these lists is exhaustive, but if you want to familiarize yourself with tabla before traveling to India to hear some live players on their home turf, this is a great place to start.