From left: Giovanni Hidalgo, Eric Harland, Zakir Hussain, and Steve Smith work out some high-level cross-cultural music on stage at the SFJazz Center, March 2013.
From left: Giovanni Hidalgo, Eric Harland, Zakir Hussain, and Steve Smith work out some high-level cross-cultural music on stage at the SFJazz Center, March 2013.


Understand Indian Rhythmic Concepts

Let’s get it straight from the start: There’s no dabbling when it comes to incorporating Indian musical influences into your playing. It’s all just too deep. But for decades, Western drummers who’ve fallen under Indian music’s spell have gladly dedicated the hours, weeks, and years required to truly absorb its wonders, because the journey can be life-changing, and the effects it can have on your playing are profound.

by Ken Micallef

The barriers preventing a meeting of Western popular music and Indian classical music were insurmountable for centuries. The turbulent ’60s changed that. In 1966 jazz guitarist/sitarist Gabor Szabo recorded the groundbreaking Impulse! album Jazz Raga, accompanied by a rhythm section that included the legendary R&B drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie. In 1967 the Beatles opened side two of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with George Harrison’s “Within You Without You,” a swirling orchestral piece that was inspired by the guitarist’s friendship with sitar master Ravi Shankar, and that, for many Westerners, represented the first brush with Indian instruments such as tabla and tamboura. A year later, Buddy Rich and tabla maestro Alla Rakha recorded the surprising duets album Rich à la Rakha, which saw the big band drummer adapting burning kit solos to the classic Indian repertoire.

The ’70s brought further experiments in East/West fusion: 1971 saw the release of the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Inner Mounting Flame, fueled by the white-hot Indian-inspired jazz-rock of guitarist John McLaughlin, and in 1975 sitar player Collin Walcott recorded the swirling Cloud Dance with the Gateway trio of John Abercrombie, Dave Holland, and
Jack DeJohnette.

The following decades brought continuing musical meldings, such as filmi, bhangra, and Asian Underground, which mirrored happenings within Western culture at large. And today renowned Indian musicians such as Zakir Hussain (tabla), Anindo Chatterjee (tabla), Anoushka Shankar (sitar), and V. Selvaganesh (kanjira) work frequently with U.S. players, including the drummers we speak with in this piece: Sameer Gupta, Eric Harland, Steve Smith, and Dan Weiss.

“Indian culture celebrates rhythm,” says Harland, who performs regularly with Hussain in a variety of settings; check out the recently released DVD The SFJazz Sessions. “Zakir has invited me to India four times to perform; the people know Indian classical music like we know pop tunes. When a musician plays a long cycle of a raga [melody] and he returns to the 1, the audience is almost ecstatic. The drummers of Indian classical music are like scientists dissecting rhythms. The knowledge required to play the music is amazing.”

“The teachings of rhythm in the Indian tradition can help one gain a deeper connection to beat cycles and time in general,” says Weiss, whose albums Tintal Drumset Solo and Jhaptal Drumset Solo present unique applications of tabla patterns to the drumset. “Along with rhythmic aspects, this music really is about sound and vibration. My teacher Pandit Samir Chatterjee taught me about tonal clarity, precision, and consistency of tone. The tabla player has to be aware of the mood, the nature of the raga, the artist’s intentions and background, and issues that go beyond the music. This manifests in my accompaniment in jazz or improvised settings. Also, this music has taught me about discipline. Practicing now is like sleeping, eating, or any other activity that we don’t think about.”

“This meeting between East and West has been happening for a while now, as the world is becoming a smaller place,” says Smith, whose rigorous study of Konnakol (South Indian vocal percussion), bols (rhythmic syllables), and talas (rhythm patterns), as well as tabla and mridangam drumming, has resulted in the Indian-scented albums Raga Bop Trio and Vital Information’s Vitalization, as well as touring and instructional work as the first Western drummer to tour with Hussain in the group Masters of Percussion. (Steve also appears on the SFJazz Sessions DVD.) By making Indian music funky, Smith has created a path to the country’s styles that continues to extend.

“When Western musicians approach odd meters, they often think of them as groupings of four and three,” explains Gupta, who has also worked with Hussain, leads Brooklyn Raga Massive, and recorded Namaskar, a beautiful, atmospheric album that allies Indian instruments with his pulsating kit drumming. “When Indian musicians approach odd meters at a fundamental level, they’re thinking in groups of three and four. When you give yourself over to Indian music, it will redefine the way you make music.”

Tearing Down the Wall by Building a Vocabulary

Indian classical music is centuries old, and it once appeared impenetrable to Western ears attuned to 4/4 rhythms and European-based melodic forms. With its deep complexity and extended improvisations, Indian music practically dwarves its U.S. counterpart. But this hasn’t stopped American musicians intent on learning its concepts and applying its rhythms, beginning with Konnakol, the common denominator of all South Indian classical music; this syllabic singing is applied to, among other instruments, the mridangam, kanjira, and ghatam drums. Bols are the North Indian equivalent, related to the tabla.

“Konnakol is the South Indian classical term for spoken recitation of the rhythms,” Gupta explains. “In North Indian classical music they call it ‘reciting bols.’ Bols are the syllables or phrases. You can also capture the phrases by reciting numbers. You can count out groups of phrases like 123-12345-1234-123 in succession. Those number phrases can be a type of Konnakol. I’ve translated North Indian bols to the drums using numbers. If a mridangam player recites a composition to me, it’s easier to think of it as numbers than as literal Konnakol. Then I can translate it into a phrase to play on the drumset.”

Everyone finds his or her own way into this music. Smith’s method was typically methodical for this seasoned student. “I started learning Indian rhythms at a drum camp in Germany in 2002,” Steve says. “Richie Garcia, Chad Wackerman, and I taught during the day and went to the Indian rhythm class in the evening. The teacher, Karuna Murthy, taught the basics of the South Indian Carnatic style.

“First we learned the hand-clapping patterns, called ‘keeping the tala,’” Smith continues, counting using his fingers and palm-up and palm-down motions on his other hand for the numbers. “For instance, the basic eight-beat cycle—basically two bars of 4/4—is clap [beat 1], little finger [2], ring finger [3], middle finger [4], clap [5], wave [6], clap [7], wave [8]. Then we learned the basic Konnakol syllables for a group of four notes—‘ta-ka-di-mi’—reciting one syllable for each beat.

“Then we recited in double time, half time, and eventually in triplets, all the while keeping the same tala with our hands. We did the same with talas in five, seven, and nine. We also learned well-known South Indian drum compositions called korvais, so we could all play them together on various percussion instruments, including drumsets, congas, djembe, or whatever we wanted. You’re building a vocabulary that you can turn into very long sequences.”

For Gupta, because he was trained in jazz, he had to work to move past Western concepts of time and feel, even though India is part of his ethnic heritage. His kit rhythms on Namaskar create flowing, subtle support to the Indian instrumentation, his drumming merging with tabla, sarangi, and Carnatic saxophone. “Coming from a jazz sensibility, one of the challenges was learning to play with Indian classical musicians and still preserve Western timekeeping,” Gupta says. “It’s that idea of the metronome being the final authority. Indian music is about relative time. It’s always in motion; it breathes along with the people who are playing it. In Indian music you have to bend. The time is a little more loose and round. For instance, Indian musicians don’t have 4/4; they have 16/4, which is called tintal. That is the cornerstone for the time cycle they use. There are other time cycles in seven and five, and each has its own name, but tintal is the main tala. There are sixteen beats before you repeat a phrase. That’s a fundamental difference.”

Where’s the 1?

Does Indian music have a downbeat in the classic Western sense? “The beginning of the cycle is called sam,” Gupta says. “That is the 1. But it’s also the beginning of the form. The difference from 1 to 16 and back to 1 is like a circle or a time clock. The downbeat is in the hands of the improviser as far as when you deliver the downbeat explicitly. The sixteen-beat cycle can go from 30 bpm to 300 or 400 bpm over an hour-long concert.”

On the trio recording Sangam with Charles Lloyd and Zakir Hussain, Eric Harland plays drumset and piano, and his interpretations of and improvisations with Hussain’s tabla are as cosmically metaphorical as his more solo-centric work on The SFJazz Sessions. The drummer takes an intuitive approach to Indian rhythms, often studying with local Indian street drummers to literally learn from the ground up. “Zakir didn’t want to teach me; he wanted me to stay natural,” Harland says. “He felt that what I had was organic. But I wanted to know what it is and adapt it to my playing.

“I’m a bad transcriber,” adds Harland, whose studies are reflected in his new album, Vipassana, the title meaning “a meditation.” “I’d rather adapt the philosophy of the music. It goes deeper than what they’re playing—it’s the message behind it. I’ve adapted the rhythmic concepts, but I’m not a student of exactly what the rhythms are. I instinctively feel when they go between sections. I didn’t want to put it in a different category and show off Indian rhythms. I don’t do that with jazz either—I don’t play literal Max Roach solos.”

From Tabla to Drumset in 4,100 Easy Steps

A dedicated and exacting musician, whether studying and performing jazz or Indian classical, Dan Weiss is an American scientist of deconstructing and applying Indian rhythms. “I’ve developed a loose system of transferring the specific tabla repertoire I’ve learned to the drumset,” Weiss explains. “Whatever kind of composition I adapt—there are many different types—I try to adhere to its rhythmic and tonal integrity. For instance, I might transfer a resonant stroke to the ride cymbal and a nonresonant stroke to the hi-hat foot. A low sound on the tabla transfers to the bass drum or floor tom, usually. If there’s a passage in the tabla composition that’s played on the right index finger—‘dha-tu-na, dha-tu-na, dha-tu-na’—I keep the integrity of that by playing the drums with only the right hand in the same motion [left to right] from snare to ride cymbal. Also, a lot of phrases reoccur in the different compositions. For instance, I’ll play ‘dhatre-dhetete-kataga-dighene’ in the exact same way every time on the drumset. The rest is left up to experimentation and the physicality of the kit.”

Over the years Weiss has slightly adjusted the angles of his drumset to enable faster, more intricate patterns. “Often I will choose counterintuitive combinations of drums/cymbals or movements for the compositions, in order to broaden my vocabulary on the drumset,” he says.

Listening to Steve Smith reciting Konnakol as he plays the drumset (using his own Tala Wands instead of sticks) with Hussain, Vital Information, or the Raga Bop Trio, you’re engrossed in the magic of the moment—you get it. Smith sings Konnakol over deep-pocket rhythms with at times exaggerated accents to highlight an odd-meter phrase or repeated rhythms known as tihais. The Skyline Sessions, Vital Information’s scheduled 2015 release, will take Smith’s explorations even further.

“It can be difficult to find a way to learn Indian rhythms,” Smith allows. “It’s still basically an oral tradition, and it’s best learned from a master. Solo tabla can be very inspiring but difficult to understand, unless someone helps you decode the rhythms. I’ve found that South Indian rhythms, because they are less melodic than the North Indian tabla, are easier to translate to the drumset.

“I created my own method of notation so I can catalog all the compositions that I’ve learned,” Smith continues. “Most of the compositions have rhythms going over the barline that create interesting displacements. If you write them in Western notation, you can’t see the logic of the rhythms, which led me to my hybrid notation. My version uses Western note values but no barlines. I place the rhythms on a page in a way that visually represents the concept of the piece. Sometime I recite Konnakol over a groove, and sometimes I play the rhythms note for note on the kit.”

Broadening References to Points Unknown

As the world perpetually grows smaller, and differences in time, space, and cultures become increasingly transparent, we may see fusions like Pygmy water music crossed with electronic dubstep, grindcore rhythms Pro Tooled together with Bulgarian women’s choirs, or jazz trumpet bred with Tuvan throat singing. But the crossroads of American beat makers and Indian percussion masters remains an incredibly busy intersection for the foreseeable future.

“I love playing with the Indian musicians, so I’m learning their language to communicate with them,” Smith says. “I’m learning the exact rhythms and compositions so
I can have the communication like I’m having with Zakir. And this gives me a lot of ideas that I can use on the drums, whether the other musicians I’m playing with, such as Mike Stern and Hiromi, know it or not. It’s helped me to play long, involved phrases while accompanying people, and it helps with soloing and playing odd times, because I’ve learned
all these rhythmic devices.”

“It’s given me more of a rhythmic language,” Harland adds. “I can suggest more ideas, and it’s given me more control. When you open your mind to different rhythmic values as with Indian music, you can cover more territory. If I’m playing a groove in four, I can think of different note permutations, but Zakir thinks of the pulse and transfers a seven or a five within each quarter-note pulse. Listening to him gave me a different way to practice. It broadened my vocabulary, so I can suggest certain things now due to my broader points of reference.”


Pete Lockett

An Englishman in Chennai

British percussionist Pete Lockett is perhaps the foremost authority on playing Indian drums in a Western setting. His vast discography includes many solo recordings, as well as film soundtracks (Moulin Rouge!, The Bone Collector, Snatch) and touring/recording work with Björk, Peter Gabriel, Robert Plant, the Verve, and Amy Winehouse, among many others. Lockett performs on an unusual hybrid system of Mapex drums, Zildjian cymbals, and Indian drums and percussion.

“In Indian music, rhythmic modulation, subdivisions, phrase development, rhythmic illusion, improvisational structures, and beat displacement are dissected in unbelievable depth, giving the performer a much deeper understanding and control of time,” Lockett says. “Take, for example, the North Indian quaida system, where the percussionist has to perform variations on a basic theme but is only allowed to use the stroke patterns and formative structure found in the basic theme. A skilled performer can create dozens and dozens of variations on the spot. The other restriction on the improvisation is that each variation has to be in two identical halves, the second of which has all the open strokes on the bass tabla [bayan] replaced with closed strokes. This is a system called thali/khali and gives rhythms and rhythmic patterns portions of time which are stressed and unstressed or empty and full.”

Lockett suggests drummers begin simply when pursuing Indian music. “Start by playing a two-bar phrase on the snare drum,” he says. “Then repeat it exactly on a second drum. Repeat this over and over with different phrases. It’s a bit like exchanging fours with yourself but having to replicate exactly. Over time this gives you a real mental understanding of what exactly you’re doing rhythmically within any improvisation. When you add this to how they subdivide and manipulate time, it can become a very serious challenge. Even in straight 4/4 this can be taken through many levels, such as quintuplets, septuplets, etc. Here they would be just as likely to use syncopation and rhythmic trickery to create suspense and release.”

As with many Western drummers, Lockett found that Zakir Hussain made a great impression. Pete sought out a local tabla teacher and never looked back. “Initially the structures and techniques made it very hard to come up with any cross-fertilization,” he says. “It’s very hard digging into a music when you’ve never heard anything like it before. You have to work to hear the nuances and methods behind the performance. But it’s entirely rewarding when you do.”

Listener’s Guide

Any exploration of Indian music should include traditional classical recordings from both the northern and southern regions of the country, which often feature duets between a melody player and a drummer. Here are a few titles you can check out to hear how Indian and Western music have been fused beyond the strictly classical setting.

Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar West Meets East/// Shakti A Handful of Beauty /// Remember Shakti The Believer /// Charles Lloyd Sangam /// Talvin Singh OK /// Dan Weiss Tintal Drumset Solo, Jhaptal Drumset Solo /// R.D. Burman A Bollywood Legend /// Vital Information Vitalization /// Pete Lockett and Amit Chatterjee Talisman, Network of Sparks One, Network of Sparks Two /// Béla Fleck, Zakir Hussain, and Edgar Meyer The Melody of Rhythm /// Trilok Gurtu and Simon Phillips 21 Spices /// V. Selvaganesh Soukha /// Steve Smith, George Brooks, and Prasanna Raga Bop Trio /// Sameer Gupta Namaskar /// Cornershop Woman’s Gotta Have It /// Karsh Kale Broken English /// Tabla Beat Science Tala Matrix /// John McLaughlin and V. Selvaganesh The Gateway to Rhythm (DVD) /// Zakir Hussain The SFJazz Sessions (DVD )