Tabla Talk: Badal Roy

Jazz Tabla Master

Shining bright white in the traditional garb of Indian music, Badal Roy hunched over his two table drums and squinted into the falling afternoon sun. At his side was bassist Frank Tusa, and the two of them were bridging East and West on an outdoor stage at the Arcosanti Festival in Arizona. Roy’s dedication to broadening the avenues of table improvisation began with a similarly unusual instrumental duet nearly seven years ago in small New York cafes. At that time, Badal’s frequent companion was a relatively unknown guitarist named John McLaughlin.After coming to this country from Pakistan in 1968, and meeting up with McLaughlin, Roy has gone on from virtual obscurity to play with some of the major figures in jazz. After achieving notoriety on McLaughlin’s breakthrough My Goal’s Beyond album, Badal garnered sessions and tours with the likes of Miles Davis, Lonnie Liston Smith, Pharoah Sanders, and most recently with Dave Liebman’s incredible Lookout Farm.I met with Badal Roy the following morning beneath the main apse…a huge, concrete half dome at the heart of the futuristic city…and talked with him about his evolution as a tabla drummer, his involvement with jazz, and the art of percussion in modern music. A personable, enthusiastic, and intelligent man, Badal proved extremely cooperative and most interesting. Born in Bangladesh, and schooled in West Pakistan, Roy was a national collegiate champion in both tennis and ping pong. He held a Master’s Degree in statistics from the state university, and was highly qualified as a computer programmer. But even more importantly, he was the son of an amateur musician who encouraged his son to take up the drums at an early age…

BR: It’s like my father would say, “Alright son, if you do well in this class, or if you get an A+ in mathematics, I’ll buy you a pair of tabla. Next day if you do well, I’ll buy a ping pong table. ” (laughs)

MD: We had that same kind of bribery over here. Did your dad have a special interest in music?

BR: He played tabla in a group with his seven brothers…sort of traditional. He never became really proficient. He went in to do a straight nine to five job. He was one of the joint secretaries of state in Pakistan. He was holding a pretty high office. He’s still living, retired, in Calcutta.

MD: Did he give you tabla lessons?

BR: I took tabla lessons from my uncle who was my mother’s brother, a Mr. Chakraborty. He gave me the first lessons and all that, and I started playing here and there…with singers. We had Tagore songs…he was the first Asian Nobel Prize winner in literature. His name was Tagore. We just played songs.

MD: What was your first exposure to Western music?

BR: Would you believe…rock’n’roll! I was a fan of Elvis Presley when I was 14-15. You name it: Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, Nat King Cole also. I knew who Louis Armstrong was, and even Duke Ellington. When I was in Pakistan, Duke with his big band went to Pakistan and I went and saw him. I was getting into it. It was there. But without knowing it, it was there.

MD: When did you first come to the U.S.?

BR: At the end of ’68 I came here to study, to do my PhD at NYU. I did some courses, and I did finish my Master’s Degree in statistics again. I never went for my PhD. I did some computer programming, and (laughs) I did bring my little tabla case along with me. I didn’t bring that much of clothes, but I did bring my tabla case. And I had a sitar also, although I don’t play sitar.

MD: Did you find work as a musician?

BR: I started playing here and there around New York. I met a sitar player; we used to play in one of the nightclubs. And here one night, nearly seven years ago, John comes in…this boy comes in with his wife. He sits in with me and plays every, almost every Friday and Saturday. This is McLaughlin. He was not that famous at that time, but he’d been around, you know, with Miles and all that. And I didn’t know who he was. He was a good musician. He played acoustic totally; it was just a small place. Just me and him mostly. There was another sitar player, but he didn’t sit in with us. Whenever John didn’t sit in, the other sat in.

So one day, he calls me up for my first album job, My Goal’s Beyond. That’s a great album. They’re putting it out again. That was great, you know. That was totally new for me, but I took the challenge anyway. Just went there and did the things straight.

MD: McLaughlin obviously gained a lot from listening to musicians such as yourself…

BR: McLaughlin is getting a lot, and he’s learning a lot also. He used to learn from a teacher in the west end, and whatever he learned there, I’m sure he applied it in his guitar, and that made him play different.

MD: How do you like McLaughlin’s new group, Shakti?

BR: Everybody’s my friend in the Shakti group. Everybody. Shakti’s drummer is Zakir Hussain who is Alla Rakha’s son, who is my teacher in America and plays with Ravi Shankar. Zakir is fantastic. I mean in his way, he’s just great. I feel everybody has his own way of saying things, and he’s just great. He’s been practicing for 20 years. He’s 24. He started playing at the age of four…like eight to ten hours a day for years and years and years. He’s just got it, that’s for sure.

MD: Alla Rakha is your teacher?

BR: Yes, but once in a year or whenever he is in New York. He does not live in New York.

MD: After My Goal’s Beyond what happened?

BR: I kept on playing with all these Indian people…a lot of Indian programs go on in New York. There’s no money, but for music, I love music, I still go and play. I also play in a club called Nirvana in New York City. They have sitar and tabla music seven nights
a week. I do three nights: Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.

MD: How did you get linked up with Miles Davis?

BR: Miles asked for a tabla player and Teo Macero, his producer, called me to come for a record date. And I did a lot of record dates with Miles. I just went there to do a couple of records with him at Columbia. After I did about ten or fifteen days with him, one day he asked me to join. It was great.

MD: How do you feel, personally, about Miles Davis?

BR: Love him, man. I mean, I’ve heard stories, but I’ve travelled with him almost three years now, and I tell you, he’s…well, I’ve seen him saying, “I don’t give a shit, man.” But never with me man. Always very, very good. When he’s in a good mood, he’s like a child, like a pure child…he’s so beautiful.

MD: You toured with Miles for three years, is that when you met Dave Liebman?

BR: No, I first met Dave on My Goal’s Beyond, though we were only acquaintances then. When I first went out on the road there was Mtume on congas, Al Foster on drums, Michael Henderson on bass, and the saxophone player was…Carlos Garnett. Then Lieb joined the group. We used to room together and became friends then.

MD: He seems to turn on to drums…

BR: Lieb loves percussion, man! Loves it. Drum Ode, you know?

MD: And Sweet Hands…that’s you. (Badal smiles and nods.) It’s too bad that Lookout Farm is breaking up. Is tonight really the last we’ll hear of Lookout Farm?

BR: Yes. Except that Adamo Records has bought a master tape we did in India with Lookout Farm. Name of the album is “Passing Dreams.” This is interesting. When we went to India, we went to a studio with five other Indian musicians, especially I must mention one person’s name, Sultan Khan, he plays the sarangi. He’s just great. He toured with Ravi Shankar and George Harrison when they were having this big tour all over the world. He plays the sarangi…it’s a violin-type instrument, you’ve seen it? Anyway, we just went there, Lookout Farm, and all these musicians that I contacted after I went there. I knew Sultan and a couple of other musicians, and we just went and played. Now we have this master tape on Adamo and it’s just beautiful! I produced.

Also I did an album in Japan…last year. The whole band played. It was really short notice, but we did it. It’s called “Ashirbad” which means “blessings.” It’s on Trio Records (PA-7116).

MD: So, for now you’re going to play duo with Frank Tusa. That’s a very unusual format, tabla and bass. How do you like playing in a duo?

BR: Listen, it was a big challenge for me. This is the first time like we’ve played. This is the first time we’ve really played duo. We did a couple of gigs… me, Frank, and Richie…and me, Frank, and sometimes Dave…there’s a place called Sweet Basil, a downtown jazz club in Manhattan. But we never played duo, me and Frank, and it was a big challenge for me. I really didn’t want to go after Paul Winter Consort’s big sound. Then, I did also…I said, “maybe after the big sound whatever we do will be nice and mellow.” But it was a big challenge. It was totally improvised. I was not really, really ready for it.

MD: It was totally improvised? You didn’t have any idea what you were gonna do?

BR: Very, very slightly. Very slightly.

MD: Like the last piece you did seemed
to have some structure…

BR: (delighted) Last piece was totally improvised! Had nothing to do with the last piece, (laughs) The last piece was totally improvised!

MD: While you play tabla, you also chant. What is your native language?

BR: Bengali. But I sing in tabla language. Those words are meant for table only. What we play in tabla, we can sing: Dha, Dhin, Na, Ta…and so on.

MD: It’s amazing the way you apply tabla to jazz. Like on Sweet Hands, or with Miles, you even get into a funky kind of beat…

BR: I love jazz, man. I feel it has a lot of depth in it. I’m past that age of rock and roll, and all that. I don’t say I hate rock and roll, cuz I love that too. Listen man, I’d like to play with James Brown or a group like the Jackson Five! I just have that feeling.

MD: Of the drummers you have played with over here, which one had the best feel for tabla?

BR: Al Foster…Jeff Williams.

MD: Is there anyone you’d like to play with in the future?

BR: I would like to work with Keith Jarrett someday, and Jack DeJohnette.

MD: Have you ever played other kinds of percussion, like traps, congas, bongos, anything?

BR: No. I play other Indian drums, like mridangam, dholak, khol,… there are lots of instruments in India, you know. I mean, you go to the North, they have five or six kinds. You go to the South, they have 5-6 kinds. Go to the village, they have some. Altogether different sounds! That makes India really great. They have different drums, different textures.

MD: I like to see music that spans the gap between two different cultures.

BR: I still say it, man. It’s still a big challenge. For me, tabla and bass…to go out and hold it there for an hour and a half…big challenge. I felt I could express what I wanted to.

MD: How about keeping time, jazz meters versus Indian meters? Do you have any problems playing jazz?

BR: One thing I’ve seen…when it is really bebop jazz, man, tabla doesn’t really go. When it’s really pure jazz, or bebop, I sit there and don’t do anything. When it becomes contemporary, freer, even also with funk rhythm, then I come in. And I feel that tabla is giving a lot of beautiful colors and direction.

Just to give one example, with Miles I got this experience. For instance, he’s playing really loud, right? And everybody’s burning. And I’m playing tabla…nobody’s hearing me. I have five or ten microphones…and nobody’s hearing me! Then he always used to shut everybody up like this…sshlih…and complete silence. And from that big sound into tabla right away…it was such a nice thing to come to. It was such another direction, really beautiful. And that five minutes that I used
to play, I felt like playing for all day…and Miles knew. Miles knew what to take from that. Even though I was buried for an hour, playing but not getting any sound…I mean, that was great!

MD: Can regular jazz or rock drummers do anything to “Easternize” their playing?

BR: There are ways. I don’t have any good written material on Indian rhythms, so I have started writing a book. It will be completed by the end of this year.

MD: What about American students of the tabla? How can they learn to play?

BR: They have a school for tabla masters in San Francisco, the AH Akbar Khan School of Music.

MD: You hold a Master’s Degree in statistics from NYU. You could be earning a large salary in computer programming. And yet, you seem completely dedicated to playing tabla.

BR: Well, here I am, man: trying to do, trying to give, trying to learn. Music is so beautiful, you know? I mean, I could have done my nine to five job and earned more money and be financially well off, or whatever, you know. Computers and statistics and all that, but that’s not me. Here I am. I like it. I really like it.