Indian Classical Music meets the Kids of New Orleans

I don’t use the term ‘classical’ with my students. Admittedly I treat it, sometimes, like it’s a “bad word” – there’s a stigma attached. The age-range of kids I teach is wide, but there’s a good chunk of them who see classical music as ‘evil’ music full of dead white men. Who can blame them with how we teach it? With how I approach it (or don’t)?

This weekend, I introduced them to Badal Roy, an Indian classical musician (see previous post). He came in as our guest artist on Saturday since he had a short residency in town anyway. He is an amazing musician, yet I also realized he is human, and flawed – a good lesson for me, and one I keep coming across with all of these amazing people I’ve been exposed to lately.

My students enjoyed the tabla, and enjoyed Badal – but I felt as though he didn’t talk enough. I wanted more. He walks through the door – a foreign accent, a foreign instrument, sitting on a rug in front of them, playing unfamiliar rhythms. I was itching to hear him teach the kids about the traditions of tabla, about the ensemble settings, the venues for performance, how to learn tabla, the spiritual aspects of playing. He burst that bubble pretty quick. He spent a long time teaching the tabla language, the syllables, the integration of syllables, the transfer of the language to the right hand, the transfer of the language to the left hand, the integration of hands plus syllables, Bol – the way Indian musicians talk about what they’re going to play (instead of “this piece is in B”, it’s “play dha tin tin na”).

As an aside, in the past month I’ve been exposed to Brasilian, West and North African, and Indian drumming – they all have so many similarities. They’re all based on spoken language, they all consider their drums to have an identify, a self.

About 20 minutes into the program, he asked some of the kids to play with him and trade 4 bar solos on their instruments. Well, these kids have no fear. But they are still brand new instrumentalists. Needless to say, it didn’t work out too well and he wasn’t sure what to do. The kids are learning 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 – not 11, 13, and 17-beat measures. So, as a result I asked him a few questions – gave him a few lead-in things to talk about: i.e. traditions, Indian classical music, his teacher and how he learned, information about ragas…

I was so impressed with his playing, and yet not so impressed with his ability to answer questions. Then again, if his answers are full, then my stereotypes of Indian classical musicians (based on all the previous ones I’ve met, which include some pretty prominent ones) are incorrect – which is good as well as thought-provoking. He didn’t seem as disciplined. He improvised rather than learn specific ragas and rhythms (any in fact). He had a teacher, but was not part of a lineage. All surprises to me considering his impressive resume.

I did learn a bit more about the language of tabla – and appreciated that a great deal. I walked away wanting (of course) to learn more about it, to play myself. I’ve always had an innate sort-of technique for playing drums with fingers rather than palms. Perhaps its early tabla exposure…

I am so grateful to have such great musicians at my fingertips these days. I know I keep saying that but it’s true. I’m so relieved when I find out they’re human.

(***Disclaimer: All of my students in these photos have parent-signed release forms allowing me to post photos & media)

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2 comments

  1. It seems that there was a lack of communication from the organizers of this workshop. Perhaps an outline should have been provided if certain expectations were sought. This my thinking only based upon reading the article.

    Tabla and the language is very complex but that’s what makes it so beautiful. I do not know this gentleman but I am sure he does know many bols which range from Tukras, Relas, Kaidas etc etc.. Many are common and some are based upon certain Gharanas (lineages i guess you can say).

    Improvisation is one of the elements which keep the music alive and in the moment but all of this is still all played in the same framework. Tala is the rythmic and Raga is the melodic btw.

    So one can probably talk for days about all of this and only glimpse a small part of the music. Best is to listen and only then can we experience it.

    One more thing. You mentioned “– the way Indian musicians talk about what they’re going to play (instead of “this piece is in B”, it’s “play dha tin tin na”).” I would not say this is accurate. The melodic cycle (tala) is based upon what the melodic artist decides on and is usually not chosen until just before the performance or the tabla player listens and then knows what cycle to play. Each cycle has a specific bol (called theka) which is played. From there ornaments can be played etc. Your reference to playing something in “B” is more of a melodic reference which would be more raga specific but even in that it is not comparable. Ragas are not just a mode like in western music.

    anyways

    My 2 cents 😉

    Peace

  2. Let me recommend this to you. http://www.ragaunveiled.com/ I am not promoting this nor have any affiliation with the product but did love the presentation. There is a tala section in the video so please watch this and might be something you want to share with your students.

    Peace

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