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Tabla for Two

TABLA_DRUMS_COPPER_SAJID_PRO.jpgEver since hearing world music artists Niyaz perform last year, I've become infatuated with the sound and technique of tabla. Their tabla virtuoso, Satnam Ramgotra from fusion band Alien Chatter, rocked so very much that I became inspired instantly to release my inner child by banging drums.

(Buy Alien Chatter's new EP here. Right now!)

The tabla is a traditional Indian instrument comprised of two drums, commonly known as the dayaan (little) and bayaan (big), played with the hands like bongos. Unlike bongos, however, tabla drums have a voice. In other words, tabla allow their players many different note and sound options from each drum all from one drum head.

The variation in notes and sound is accomplished in three ways. First, the heads of each drum itself have different thicknesses. The thicker outer ring has a different note than the thinner inner one.

Second, at the center of each drum is a pad known as the "siyahi". The siyahi is a thick, black pad of material built up to deaden the ring of the drum. When tapped directly, instead of a note you hear a clipped thud. At the core of the siyahi's material is an iron compound, however tradition has it that the recipe of each tabla-maker's material is a closely guarded secret. What I can report is that proper creation of this pad is considered one of the finest points in the art of tabla making.

Third, drum tones can be controlled by the manner of strike, as well as the hand's position on the drum. Herein lies the art of tabla playing! The most notable impact of hand position comes on the bayaan of the set, where the heel of the hand can be used to compress and release the skin to create a vibrato effect.

While playing the tabla requires talent, it more fundamentally requires actually having tabla to play. To fulfill at least this base requisite, this morning we went in search of tabla. To be more precise, we went in search of one of Mumbai's most revered tabla makers: Anand. Instead of shopping in an established music store, we decided to see how far upstream we could swim in the supply chain. With the help of our driver, his boss and several other friends at the end of cell phone calls, we located Anand in Dadar, a suburb of Mumbai.

The visit to Anand was a powerful experience. We now know how and in what conditions some of the best craft products from India are produced. Anand's shop consisted of a shack to store materials and the dirt patch in front of it where one sits to craft instruments. That's it.

After a brief series of questions from Anand and an unfortunate series of completely inadequate responses from me, my credentials were established: I was a complete idiot that had no business buying a tabla from Anand. Despite the realities of the situation, however, Anand and his staff took pity on me. Perhaps my genuine interest in their art was communicated or I'd earned brownie points just for approaching them: either way, they proceeded with patience to explain to me what I wanted and why. They also took time to fit the drums to my hand.

Regarding those brownie points: the walk to Anand's shop did create some pause. Their shop, we were told, was in a "quiet place" so he could better hear the tone of the drums. Well, it turns out "quiet place" is code for "down a secluded alley". Had it not been for the trust developed with our driver over the week, the opportunity to see Anand at work would likely never have materialized!

In the end, the exact dayaan he selected for me was not yet finished, so Anand asked us to return tomorrow to pick up the finished product. As he promised to make it "just right" for me, I was pleased to wait the extra day. Tangentially, I also suspect those in the hotel rooms adjacent to mine are equally pleased with his perfectionism.

Reader Comments (2)

Sounds like a very merry Christmas for you :) Readers please note, the verb "obsessed" comes to mind when I think of the author and these instruments!
December 13, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterjenni
I think we can all agree drums beat a crack habit! (drums beat... get it?)
December 13, 2007 | Registered CommenterScott

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