With Professor James Feist

Welcome to the Musicking Project Blog. These pages correspond to and are supplemented by the audio content published on "The Musicking Podcast," so I highly suggest checking out this episode after you read!

A Brief Overview and History

The Tabla is the main percussive instrument played in Hindustani Music, a style of classical music practiced in India typically associated with the Northern region. In the south, a different, related style of music called Carnatic music is practiced. These two traditions began to diverge around the start of the 13th century, as Muslim cultural and musical influences were disseminated through the north via trade and conquest.

The tabla is considered the most complex percussion instrument in the world due to its wide sonic capabilities, rich repertoire, and a nuanced, deep improvisational thought. It is said to be a descendant of a drum called the Pakhawaj, a double sided barrel drum that is practiced in Dhrupad, an ancestor to modern-day North Indian Classical Music. Here is a recording of the Pakhawaj played in accompaniment alongside a few of the Dagar brothers, descendants of a line of great Dhrupad singers that extend back about 22 generations.

Legend goes that during a play-off between two Pakhawaj Maestros, the loser cast his Pakhawaj aside and broke it in two. Those two pieces became the tabla, and the language, technique, and repertoire of the Pakhawaj still exerts great influence on the art of tabla today.

As described by the story, the tabla is comprised of two seperate drums: a right-hand, smaller, pitched drum make of wood, and a left hand larger, unpitched bass drum made of brass or metal. Although the left handed drum isn't tuned to a specific frequency, it is notable for its ability to bend pitch, which can be controlled by applying pressure on the drumhead with the lower palm and wrist. Many compositions require a specific application of Bayan pitch bending, and sometimes, tabla artists will even imitate melodic phrases with this technique.

Here is Zakir Hussain performing the incredible "Red Fort Kaida," a composition that requires the player to bend the pitch of the bayan in such a way that imitates the sound of a flock of pigeons taking off.

This video was taken from the documentary, "The Speaking Hand," which focuses on the life and journey of a young Zakir Hussain. 

Bols

Like most musical traditions in India, the Tabla is an oral tradition, meaning it was passed down from person to person through word of mouth without writting. The different sounds of the tabla are expressed through different syllables, also called bols, and by stringing together these syllables, tabla maestros create, communicate, and memorize tabla compositions. Here is an example of the great Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar and Ustad Allah Rakha demonstrating the spoken aspect of the tabla:

As demonstrated, tabla bols are strung together to create lines of rhythmic poetry. In the West, a vague concept of "Indian Rhythms" is popular in music discourse, but as you will see in future notated examples, the rhythms of tabla aren't inherently complex or difficult. Most compositions actually have a very simple, static rhythm. The essence and beauty of "Indian Rhythms" is in the poetic language and the rules that guide its usage.

The oral nature of the art form is also an important part of the learning process, and some tabla teachers will require their students to be able to recite a tabla composition before they lay hands on the instrument. The process of internalizing the phrases through speech allows the student to become familiar with the poetry in a way which would never happen through just playing the instrument. The theme of internalization is a cornerstone of Indian Classical Music, and even the construction of the instruments reflects this characteristic. There isn't an emphasis on projection like there is in Western Classical, rather, most instruments are made of closed gourds and sympathetic strings, making internalized resonance of the highest importance.

Gharanas

Just like how different styles of Western Classical composition appeared in Germany, Italy, France, and other parts of Europe, Tabla also has many different schools of tabla that developed around India with different regional music influences that distinguish themselves in interesting ways. Although there are disagreements on how many official tabla schools, or gharanas exist, the six most agreed upon gharanas are Dilli, Lucknow, Benares, Punjab, Ajrara, and Farrukhabad. Here is a video of Ustak Zakir Hussain detailing a nuanced difference between the different styles through their usage of a single bol.

This is only a surface-level example of the differences between the gharanas, and everything including the compositional forms, improvisational thought, playing technique, and language all contrast to each other between schools. Members of different Gharanas used to be very secretive with their musical ideas, but now that recording technology and musical notation are commonplace, the distinctions between them have become less concrete. Tabla players will frequently study compositions from a variety of different schools, and this variety will be reflected in their playing.

Basic Theory of North Indian Classical

Raag and Taal

Melody and Rhythm, or raag and taal, are the two components that form the basic structure of Indian Classical music. Understanding of a tabla solo only requires an understanding of taal, so I will focus on that concept for now.

Rhythmic cycles, or Taals form the scaffolding of Indian Classical music, and both melodic and rhythmic artists must achieve mastery in their understanding. Taals are not comparable to the idea of a meter or time signature like 3/4 or 4/4: they are more similar to the idea of a musical phrase, with one key difference. The most common musical phrase in popular music today is a 4 bar, 16 beat phrase: lets compare this to the most common time cycle in Indian Classical music, the 16 beat time cycle, also called Teentaal.  

Here is the 16 beat melody heard in "Over the Rainbow." Notice how the phrase comes to a rest on beat 15?

Here is a typical melody that will be played in the background of a tabla solo, also called a lehra. Notice how it behaves differently than the example above it?

In Indian Classical music, the end of a phrase and the beginning of a phrase will always land on the 1st beat of a time cycle, which is why it is called a cycle in the first place. This melody does not come to a rest at any point, and if anything, creates a pull back towards the one. This is a common theme across all Indian classical concerts, and the process of creating energy towards the 1, or we call it the sam, can be one of the most exciting things to experience in a performance.

It is important for the audience and the performers to always know where they are in the time cycle. Towards this end, there will always be a musician on stage marking time during a concert, just like how a conductor marks time with different strokes of the baton. In a tabla solo, someone will be keeping time by playing a repeated melody, or Lehra, whos length corresponds to the time cycle that they are playing in. Comparatively, in a vocal or instrumental solo, the tabla will be given the role of time keeper, and they will play a certain rhythm that will indicate the different beats of a time cycle.

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Teentaal
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Each beat of a taal is marked by characteristic notes called Theka. For example, in Teentaal (16 beats,) here is the Theka:

Dha Dhin Dhin Dha Dha Dhin Dhin Dha Dha Tin Tin Ta Ta Dhin Dhin Dhin Dha

Each taal is further divided into subdivision. Teentaal, the 16 beat cycle previously notated, is divided into 4 sections of 4:

Dha Dhin Dhin Dha

Dha Dhin Dhin Dha

Dha Tin Tin Ta

Ta Dhin Dhin Dha

A final defining characteristic of a taal is the location and duration of Khali, a phrase in a rhythmic cycle which is always played without any bass drum. In Teentaal, Khali is located halfway through the cycle for 4 beats, which are highlighted in grey:

Dha Dhin Dhin Dha

Dha Dhin Dhin Dha

Dha Tin Tin Ta

Ta Dhin Dhin Dha

As you can see, the language changes to become lighter, implying the dropping of the bass drum (a good of identifying khali is by listening for groupings of "T" syllables, like Ta or Tin.) The location of Khali is different for each time cycle, and it is also necessary for the overall feel and identity of the time cycle. The theka for the 16 beat time cycle is very repetitive, and the khali is a point of contrast which not only indicates where you are, but it also creates this wonderful rolling cyclicle feeling that is important in this style of music.

During performances, you might see learned audience members, or even performs, clapping and waving to the music. They are actually keeping time by clapping at the start of each subdivision, and waving at the start of the khali subdivision. The pattern for Teentaal is: Clap---Clap---Wave---Clap--- The fact that even audience members will participate in keeping time speaks to the importance of metric awareness in a performance.

Let's go through a similar process for a few different taals.

In Rupak, a 7 beat taal, this is the Theka:

Tin Tin Na Dhin Na Dhin Na

It has 3 subdivisions of 3 beats, 2 beats, and 2 beats:

Tin Tin Na

Dhin Na

Dhin Na

Finally, Khali is observed on the first three beats.

Tin Tin Na

Dhin Na

Dhin Na

Again, people wave on khali, then clap on the first beat of every other subdivision, so the pattern you will see people clapping is:

Wave--Clap-Clap-

In Japtaal, a 10 beat taal, this is the Theka:

Dhin Na Dhin Dhin Na Tin Na Dhin Dhin Na

 It has 4 subdivisions of 2 beats, 3 beats, 2 beats, 3 beats:

Dhin Na

Dhin Dhin Na

Tin Na

Dhin Dhin Na

Khali is located, as expected, where we have a "T" syllable: 

Dhin Na

Dhin Dhin Na

Tin Na

Dhin Dhin Na

Try to figure out the clapping pattern yourself: I'll give you the answer at the bottom of the page.

The examples I have provided above feature, again, the Theka, which are a series of characteristic notes that are played on a tabla to mark time. The theka will mostly be played when a tabla player is accompanying another musician, such as a vocalist or sitar player. Different taals are employed in different performance settings, but all professional musicians should be able to sit down and perform in any taal at any given moment.

Here is an example of a Tabla player accompanying a Sarode player in Teentaal. Here is the theka again, and see if you can follow along by clapping and waving:

Dha Dhin Dhin Dha

Dha Dhin Dhin Dha

Dha Tin Tin Ta

Ta Dhin Dhin Dha

For an example of teentaal by itself, here is our podcast guest, Professor Jim Feist, performing teentaal:

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Teentaal
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As you can hear, when Professor Feist begins to play, he isn't playing exactly these notes. The Theka is used as a foothold, and performers will frequently add their own improvisation in between the different syllables. However, the character of the Theka should never be lost in the added improvisations.

Again, the Theka of a taal is performed mostly during tabla accompaniment where a melodic instrumentalist or vocalist is the main soloist, but the only time the theka is played during a tabla solo is in between compositions. Here is a video of Ustad Zakir Hussain moving quickly through the different parts of a tabla solo, and in between each section, he returns to the theka to increase speed.

As shown in this video, during Tabla solos, tabla players play compositions that fit within a specific time cycle. While the notes will vary depending on the composition, the location of khali will always remain the same. Zakir Ji has given us a taste of the different kinds of tabla compositions that are played in a tabla solo, and in the following lessons, we will take a close look at the structure, theory, and improvisational rules that characterize each section.