One of the things that I have been paying particular attention to as we travel to different countries are the different instruments and musical styles that we hear. In Thailand, I got to try a salaw, which is very similar to a mandolin, and in Cambodia we saw bands of people who had been hurt by land mines playing clarinet-like instruments called khloy, cymbals, drums, and cello-like instruments that you perch on your lap called tro. A tro is a lot like a cello except that it has two strings, frets, and the bow was entwined in the strings. It was sad to see that some of the mine victims were missing limbs, and they had to find ways to make money that they could do despite their injuries.
In India, Jonah and I took a tabla lesson at a Kathakali school. Kathakali is a traditional form of drama and dance in which actors wear full facepaint, extravagant headdresses, and perform different stories from the Ramayana and Mahabarata and other traditional Indian texts. They dance to music played on traditional Indian instruments including the tabla and sitar. To be honest, the kathakali dances were quite loud and after a while seemed pretty repetitive, but it was fun to watch the dancers do funny movements with their eyes, cheeks, tongues and ears: we learned that they study for six years to learn all the different motions. Also, we were interested in learning more about the music played, and so the next day my dad suggested that if we wanted to, we could take a lesson in the tabla. Jonah and I both thought this was a cool idea.
Tabla consists of two drums called the tabla and the dugga (which is also called a bayan). For every different time signature there is a different basic pattern of notes which the person playing the tabla will then improvise off of. Tabla is very interesting because each of the drums has pitches and needs to be tuned. Each sound or pitch has to be played a certain way and has its own name. After just a couple of minutes in the lesson, we understood and respected how hard tabla is to play. When you hear it, is hard to comprehend just exactly what the tabla player is doing, but in the lesson our teacher broke it down slowly so we understood just how much coordination and concentration it took to play a simple piece. The piece we learned was called Teentaal, a series of 16 beats which goes like this.
Daa Dhin Dhin Daa
Daa Dhin Dhin Daa
Daa Tin Tin Ta
Ta Dhin Dhin Daa
While this sounds easy to play, each sound other than “Ta” requires at least one very precise hit on each drum, and we soon learned that it is not as easy as it looks. When you are a professional tabla player, you must play the music very fast. So fast that to us, it was hard to tell what he was playing, instead all the notes blended together to form a highly complex rhythm in which you could not make out each precise note. Our teacher, Ravish, had been playing tabla for about twenty years . He told us that if you learn tabla the traditional way, you do not even touch the instrument for the first two years! I think it would take me a very long time to master and I am also mystified by how you tune it; to me it looked like the tuning consisted of hitting the instrument with a metal hammer and tightening different straps. But what most amazed me was Ravish’s ability to say a very long phrase and then without hesitating, play it out on the tabla even faster than he had said it.
Overall, our class was really fun. Even though I can’t say I learned how to play tabla in a single afternoon, I feel like I got valuable experience and I hope that I will get to play it again.