Oddly enough, it was “Black Mountain Side,” an acoustic guitar piece from Led Zepellin’s first album, which turned me on to the exquisite sound of the tabla. “Tabla drum?” I asked myself. “What in the world is a tabla drum?” I ignorantly imagined some sort of table which the player beat on—until I checked a Beatles’s anthology book which depicted brightly clad George Harrison sitting placidly in the midst of sitar master Ravi Shankar and an unidentified tabla player. (“Love You To,” from the Beatles’s 1966 Revolver album, was Harrison’s first recorded attempt at Indian music. Before Revolver, most Westerners knew nothing at all of East Indian music or culture.) Instead of tables, the drums looked like small kettles. But the picture did little to quench my curiosity about the queer-sounding foreign instrument. This urge eventually moved me to San Francisco where I studied with table master Zakir Hussain. Since then I’ve read several inquiries about tabla drumming in MD and other music publications. There are obviously many players out there who nurture a keen interest in the ancient Eastern rhythms. This article will serve to introduce the physical aspects of the drums, along with some basic techniques, information, and East/West comparisons.
In India, because the technology of communications has progressed less rapidly than in the West, styles and instruments change considerably from North (Hindusthani style) to South (Karnatic style). A drummer from Bombay will develop patterns and combinations of licks which a Calcutta drummer may be unfamiliar with—and probably on a modified instrument. There is a certain beauty to this arrangement, and it is in one sense unfortunate that Western technologies have spoiled the likelihood of a similar situation in America. For instance, a drumset bought in New York is practically the same as a set bought in Florida or California. Not so in India; there, because instruments are handmade and traditions localized, the assortment is endless. Other popular Indian drums include the dholak, khol, pakawaj, and mridangam (a double-ended drum). It has been suggested that the tabla, which did not actually evolve until the 1400s, were first formulated when an experimenting drummer cut his mridangam in half. But this is a little more than speculation. However they were created, the tabla are fascinating instruments around which an infinitely rich and complex rhythm system has been molded.
The drums themselves occur in a pair: the baya (the wider, deep sounding drum) and the tabla (also called dayan or daina). Together they are referred to as simply the tabla. A player sits cross-legged on the floor (with clean, bare feet), the baya to his left, the higher-pitched tabla drum to his right. Since Indian customs maintain that the head is the highest part of the body, the feet the lowest, a respectful student will not point the feet towards the teacher, nor step over the instruments or touch them with the feet.
The drums rest on two separate and colorful rings which keep them from tipping over. They are tuned with a small, metal hammer. With this tool the player knocks the cylindrical wooden inserts up or down beneath the leather straps. Placement of These pegs determines the overall tensioning of the head. To fine tune, the player taps on the braided leather outer-rim of the head, being careful not to hit and damage the straps. The drum is in tune when the tensioning is even at all points around the head (this is not as crucial for the baya), and the subsequent tone matches the “sa” or keytone of the song or raga. Because Indian music is free from chord changes, the tabla drum must be in tune with only this one note.
Here is an interesting point: a serious Indian musician refuses to play an instrument out of tune. If I’m playing a topforty gig at Harry’s Bar and the guitarist goes out of tune during a disco number, because the dance floor is full (and because we Westerners are conditioned to finish things), that guitarist will play right on through the song, out of tune or not. The crowd—and the band—would be shocked if the guitarist suddenly stopped playing just to tune the guitar. But during an Indian concert, this is exactly what one can expect. If the sitar goes out of tune, the tabla player will go to a “vamp” while the sitarist gets right with the instrument. This is masterfully done, of course, and many listeners will never know the difference. If the tabla goes out of tune—which is common—a really good player will continue the beat while using the hammer to correct the tonal imbalance. The player will cleverly shape the sharp blows of the hammer into the music! Being in tune at all times, musically and spiritually, is vital to the philosophy of Indian music. In the words of Maestro Ali Akbar Khan, Indian sarod master of this century, “Any kind of music, in rhythm, in tune, gives you food for your soul.”
The high-pitched drum, the tabla, is made of wood, usually rosewood, tun, or shisham. It is 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 inches in diameter, preferably fitted to the player’s right hand. The baya, about nine inches in diameter at the playing surface, is made of clay, rosewood, or, more often, a chrome-coated nickel alloy. Both drums stand about eleven inches from the floor. The heads and straps are made from goat hide. On both drums the heads are divided into three sections. On the tabla they are named as follows: kinar (outer ring), sur (middle ring), and gab (inner black dot, pronounced gob). The gab, which accounts for the drum’s unique overtones, is a peculiar fixation on the playing surface. Concocted of iron filings, ash, and rice paste, it looks like the dry skin of a reptile. Though many right-handed strokes land on the gab, the baya’s gab is never directly struck. The actual playing area on the baya is small. Like some styles for conga, there are no cross-hand patterns in tabla playing. But unlike the conga, the tabla are never forcefully struck. They are quiet drums; the strokes come from the fingers and wrists, not the arms and the shoulders.
One enthralling aspect of tabla art is the drum language—the words or bols. Each stroke has a name, thus any pattern which can be played by the hands can be spoken by the mouth. In fact, it is good common practice to recite a pattern before applying it to the drums. (This seemed strange to me at first—until I realized that I have similar “words” in my head for drumset licks: doon-doon-chickun-tss-doon-doonchick, etc. These mental sounds are of great value in memorizing beats, songs, and fills.) A tabla player’s tongue is often as fast as the player’s hands. During a solo—which may last a half-hour!—one might hear the drummer chanting bols while executing a difficult passage. The player may even stop playing entirely, letting the recitation alone express solo ideas. (Hear Zakir Hussain on Shakti’s Natural Elements album—”Get Down and Sruti.”)
There are said to be twenty-one strokes on the tabla drum alone, but there are definitely seven basic and distinctly different-sounding strokes: na, tin, tu, te, tre, tete, and tere. The first four are played with the index finger; the others use all four fingers. Na (or ta) is the rimshot sound. Tin comes from an overtone on the sur. Both these strokes are dependent on the ring finger lying correctly dormant on the sur, close to the gab. When the drum is really in tune, the tin sound rings out like a wind chime. Tu is a quick bounce off the gab; te is a flat slap on the gab. Tre is a flam, tete and tere are double-strokes. The name reflects the sound of the stroke.
The baya has two basic strokes, kat and ghe (closed and open), the last of which can involve modulations, or changes in pitch. These modulations, which are effected by pressure and placement changes of the lower left wrist, can cover a full octave. In this sense the baya often serves—at least to the Western ear—as the bass guitar. An accomplished drummer can play incredible melodic lines on this instrument alone. Finally, there are the endless combinations of strokes: na + ghe = dha, tin + ghe = dhin, etc.
Since both hands can play doubles (the left plays gege on the baya), there are actually four parts which strike the drums. If these are likened to the four limbs of a trap player, it is clear that a tabla drummer can play as many notes as a trap player. In addition, tones can also be changed on the baya during a lightening-fast roll, a capability not inherent in the trap set. However, the tabla, while agreeable with most music, cannot play all styles. Zakir Hussain suggests experimenting with the table in any style of music except bebop and hardcore country.
Another fruitful feature of the classical Indian music is the well-rounded manner in which it is taught. The drummers learn the scales and ragas, and the melodic instrumentalists learn the bols and rhythm cycles. In this way, the musicians are knowledgeable of each other’s parts. Too often in the West the drummers learn rhythms and the other players learn scales and chord progressions—period! But to become a proficient musician within the vast Indian boundaries (which takes usually 20 years), one must know what the other musician is doing. Odd-time signatures are common to the music. A composition may call for Tintal, (a 16-beat cycle), Ektal (12- beat), Jhaptal (10-beat), or Rupak (7-beat)—and the mature player knows what to do. And what if someone wants to play one of the Upa tals (such as 6 1/2, 8 1/2, or ll 1/2-beat cycle)? Because Indian tradition calls for a musically complete “education, everyone develops good ears and good rhythm. This all-inclusive approach is parallel to the Yogic concepts of balance and union: the Indian music path (called Nada-Brahma—”the language of God”) offers not only joy and entertainment, but also devotion and self-realization. Accord ing to Ali Akbar Khansahib, “The music works like a breath of fresh air to help get rid of craziness and unhappiness. It is one kind of yoga. Real music is not for wealth, not for honors, nor even for the joys of the mind, but is a path for realization and salvation; which pure your soul, mind, and give you longevity; and this is the way which can reach to mukti (liberation) and peace.