by David Courtney working tools

Portions of this article previously appeared in Modern Drummer, October 1993, Vol. 17, number 10.


Indian music has fascinated the West for many years. The tabla in particular has attracted the attention of a number of American and European percussionists. It has been used in popular music as early as the 60's and is heard in the popular media even today. However, many percussionists shy away from this instrument. The reasons for not "getting into it" are varied. Sometimes it is the lack of instruments; sometimes lack of teachers; sometimes it is the belief that tabla is just too difficult. These are legitimate concerns but they are not insurmountable obstacles. This article will address the concerns of a musician just wishing to get started in tabla. We will discuss the theory of Indian music, how to purchase tabla, the basic technique, and compositional theory. All of this information should make the job of getting started much easier. We should first familiarize ourselves with the extensive theory of Indian music. Indian music is one of the oldest musical traditions in the world. It has its roots in theVedic chants of the first few millennia BC. Although the mechanics of the music have undergone tremendous changes in the last few thousand years, the essential characteristics of awe, respect and devotion have remained unchanged.

A strong remnant of the Vedic tradition is seen in the method of learning. One does not learn tabla from books but from a guru (teacher). The strong bond between teacher and disciple is considered essential for the continuation of the musical tradition. Indeed the tradition of teacher and disciple is considered to be at the very core of Indian classical music.

We use the expression "Indian music" rather loosely. In reality this consists of numerous different styles. There are two systems of classical music; one of Northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and another which is found in southern India and Sri Lanka (Ceylon). There is also the popular medium of the film industry, which is comparable to American "Top 40". Finally there are innumerable folk traditions.

The tabla is found in all these traditions except for south Indian classical. Most people in the West think of tabla from the standpoint of the North Indian tradition. This is from exposure to great artists such as Zakir Hussain, Mahapurush Misra, Alla Rakha (Ravi Shankar's accompanist during the 60's) and a host of others. Although this is not the only genre to which tabla is important, it is a reasonable starting place. It is reasonable because this is the genre which created tabla, and provides the most systematic theoretical base for its performance practice. We will follow this viewpoint through the rest of this article.

The north Indian system is based upon two major concepts; "rag" and "tal". Rag may briefly be considered the melodic or modal aspect of the music while tal is the rhythmic. Both rag and tal occupy an equal and inseparable position in this system.

 Tabla has a position in both rag and tal. When numerous tabla are tuned to the notes of the scale, entire melodies may be played. This is called "Tabla Tarang". However, the most important use of tabla is to provide the tal. It is in this capacity that most people think of the instrument.

The word "tal" literally means "clap". The clapping of hands may be the oldest form of rhythmic accompaniment. Today, a system of claps and waves forms a conceptual common ground. It is common to the way instrumentalists, dancers and vocalists think of rhythm.

There are similarities between Western and Indian rhythm. Western rhythm may function at the level of beats, measures or even longer cycles. The same is true of Indian rhythm. We may now look more closely at these different levels

The most fundamental unit is the "matra". This translates to "beat". In many cases the matra is just a single stroke. However, just as sixteenth, or eighth-notes may be strung together to make a single beat, so too may several strokes of tabla be strung together to have the value of one matra.

The next higher level of structure is the "vibhag". This translates to "measure" or "bar". These measures may be as little as one beat or more than five; usually they are two, three, or four matras (beats) in length. These vibhags are described in terms of claps and waves. A vibhag, which is signified by a clap of the hands, is said to be "bhari" or "tali". Conversely, a vibhag which is signified by a waving of the hand, is said to be "khali".

Let us use a common tal called "tintal" as an illustration. It has 16 beats divided into four vibhag (measures) of four matras (beats) each. Its clapping arrangement is:

  Clap, 2, 3, 4, Clap 2, 3, 4, Wave, 2, 3, 4, Clap, 2, 3, 4,

This brings us to the concept of the overall cycle. This cycle, called "avartan" dominates the highest level of looking at the rhythm. Unfortunately it does not really have a Western equivalent. Although the cycle is found in Western music there is a flexibility that is not allowed in Indian music. If one is playing a 16 beat structure, one must maintain that structure throughout.

The importance of the cycle gives special significance to the first beat. This beat, called "sam" (pronounced like 'sum'), is a point of convergence between the tabla player and the other musicians. Whenever a cadence is indicated it will usually end on this sam. This means that the sam may be thought of as both the beginning of some structures as well as the ending of others.

The mnemonic syllable, called "bol", is a very important concept for the tabla player. It represents the various strokes of the tabla. It is important for two reasons. First, the bol allows the musician to remember complicated fixed compositions. Second; the musician uses the bol to perform the mental permutations to know if an improvised passage or "lick" will work. Although these bols are supposed to represent the strokes there is not a one-to-one correlation. This variation is often attributed to differences in gharana.

Gharana may be thought of as a school, approach or dialect of tabla. Many years ago transportation and communication were not good in India. In this environment, different places developed their own regional variations in technique, bol, and overall philosophy. There are six acknowledged gharanas of tabla: Dilli (Delhi), Farukhabad, Benares, Lucknow, Ajrada, and Punjab. Most of the artists today trace their lineage to one or more of these established schools.

Although each of the gharanas have their own minor variations, there are two major approaches; Dilli and Purbi. The Dilli style derives its name from Delhi. It is characterized by a strong emphasis on rim strokes and use of the middle finger. The Purbi style derives its name from the Hindi word "purab". Purab means "Eastern" and reflects the fact that this style was popular in Lucknow, Benares, and other eastern parts of the country. The Purbi style is characterized by open hand strokes and a strong emphasis on material from pakhawaj (an ancient barrel shaped drum from which tabla was derived).

This has been just a brief overview of tabla. More information can be found in the rest of this web page.



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