You need not know anything in advance to enjoy a classical tabla recital. After all, rhythm is a primal, physical satisfaction, derived from our basic need to appreciate sequence and regularity in the world around us. But listening out for a few core features is only likely to enhance your experience. So, how do you get the most out of it? What is really going on at a solo tabla recital?
Firstly, prepare to enjoy being perplexed. Jagged, impossibly detailed rhythmic sequences will pull your mind in many directions at once, bubbling with ambiguous, interlocking tensions. You don’t need to follow the exact detail, just enjoy the overall energy of the movements. Phrases can flow easy, or come with serrated edges, but will always remain tied to the underlying groove cycle, known as the tala.
Listen to how the tabla’s strokes are broadly divided into ‘open’ and ‘closed’ sounds. Each drum can be played in a resonant or non-resonant fashion – artists may first play a composition in a clipped, staccato fashion using closed strokes, then turn the same basic sequence into a heavy drop by hitting hard with the open tones. You can only really experience the tabla’s power live and close-up – its frequency range runs from sub-bassy booms to whispering high overtones. It isn’t so far from drum’n’bass or jungle sometimes (…see my website, Raga Junglism, for more on this).
As the concert progresses you may start to notice a few specific methods of rhythmic trickery. The tihai is foremost among them – during the recital you will frequently hear a pattern be repeated three times, arranged to end emphatically on the one-beat of the underlying cycle. An experienced crowd can ‘feel’ where a tihai is heading, and may clap on the final beat (…sometimes you can even hear the communal release of breath). Read more in my full tihai article if you like, with sound clips to help demonstrate.
Hip-hop heads (or, for that matter, anyone else) will marvel at another distinctive feature of tabla performance – the practice of bol, based around ‘speaking the sounds’ of the drum composition. Tabla players are expected to be able to ‘say what they play’ using a set of syllables designed to match each drum sound.
They often recite the composition verbally before playing it on the tabla, then using it as the point of departure for long improvisations (e.g. from 2:50 in the video below). The building blocks of the original pattern are expanded into long solo segments using the kayda system, a detailed set of rules designed to squeeze the very most out of these initial patterns. Each solo should be constructed as a self-referential whole, economical as well as dense.
Young people around the world go clubbing each weekend, losing themselves in looped rhythms and deep bass drops. Lovers of house, techno, and other DJing traditions may find similar ecstasies in the sounds of a classical tabla recital. Admittedly, the Hindustani hand drums tend to inspire a more internal dance, but the resulting experience is no less fascinating for it.
● Read next: Versatile vibrations: how the tabla can mimic anything – horses, trains, hunted deer, colonial cannonfire, and much more