As a Tabla player for more than eight years and as of a few years now, a player of several other drums stemming from Africa to Asia, South America to Australia, I feel that the label multi-percussionist has been used on me by many, rather than just a Tabla player and so I want to explore more and find out exactly what percussion is to me.
Percussion is a huge, unwieldy topic; looking at every type of drumming in every culture on Earth at once is an impossible undertaking. However, the wonderful thing about our chosen instrument family is, everything rhythmic is relevant to what we do.
The world of percussion is truly amazing. Drum kit players can learn from congueros, Bodhran enthusiasts from Dumbek dance accompanists, rudimental drummers from the rhythms of African tribes. It can go on and on. Just take the amount of dances we can learn with our fingers on the Tabla and the variety of beats that come through.
Today we have an unprecedented opportunity to explore the instruments, rhythms and concepts of a variety of cultures and incorporate those ideas into our own playing, regardless of genre. As an Asian multi-percussionist, I believe in learning from all the generations of drummers who applied stick, hand, or other implements to skin, stone, wood, metal or plastic before me.
Personally, it has been the Tabla that has driven all my other percussions. Learning both classical and folk Tabla and consistently listening to music all the time, has allowed me to master dozens of beats and rhythms from all around the world mentally before getting out the drums and experimenting on them for the purest sounds.
The real secret to being a great drummer, and something I’ve learnt and have been working on for a long while is essentially really simple. And, I’m not going to say PRACTICE, because that’s pretty obvious anyway. The secret is to listen to music. Listen to all genres of music, be it heavy metal, rock, soft sounds, pan pipes, R&B, hip hop, jazz, soul, funk, folk, classical, etc. By doing this, you develop a rhythmical ear that can adjust to all music and pick up on anything.
Let me share with you a recent example. Back in July 2005, I was recording as a percussionist in the studios for a Latin band called Puro Mambo. I took all the percussion instruments I had; both big and small, however they seemed to only want the Latin instruments. I disagreed and took out my Tabla. Although they first seemed rather sceptical, the final output with the bouncing sounds I produced from the Tabla were much more sweeter and jelled perfectly.
This for me proves that the Tabla is my king of the percussion. I think here I pay tribute to the most important legend that has made music the most important thing in my life and that is Pandit Sharda Sahai, my guru-jee. From the Tabla, I went to other teachers of different instruments and mastered other drums. All other drums have simple beats and rhythms, but with the skills I have from the Tabla, I am able to improvise drastically on simple drums to create juxtaposing sounds.
For those who learn the Tabla, I wish you well and urge you to continue with that before touching upon any other instruments. For those who want to learn the Tabla, I urge you to make your decision quick and advice not to think about other instruments yet. The Tabla will be your guidance into other instruments. Master the Tabla and you can play any instrument just by picking it up. It really is true.
Coming to a close, I’d like to share a great, quick exercise. Find a quiet room, sit quietly and relaxed, and just listen. Listen out for your heartbeat. Place a hand on your chest and feel the rhythm. The heartbeat is the mega-rhythm that connects us all, yet no two heartbeats are exactly alike. Live in that rhythm for a minute or two, and then play it on your knee. Play it, and then play variations on it. Use both hands. Feel the music of your body.
Exciting, isn’t it? A constantly playing percussion instrument right inside you, accessible any time you can be quiet and concentrate on it. Add in the rhythms of your circulatory and respiratory systems, and you have a percussion ensemble playing to the tempo of your life.
Until next time, focus on the rhythms in your body and all around you are traffic, machinery, other people, the sounds of nature. Rhythms are everywhere, and everything is informed by rhythm. Tap into that, and your playing will benefit.