It’s been a couple of weeks of intense practice, classes, informal practice sessions with sitar and sarode players and listening to some amazing music since coming to California. I’ve felt inspired, enlightened and awe struck as well as completely intimidated by this vast ocean of an art form. As well as practicing and absorbing class material, it has become very clear to me that I need to focus on developing my accompaniment style.
In tabla there are 5 main subject areas: solo work, instrumental accompaniment, vocal accompaniment, dance accompaniment and tabla tarang. In my mind, they are all equally important (as are all art forms) however based on your inclination you may gravitate towards one more than others. Right now gravity is pulling me towards instrumental accompaniment.
In instrumental accompaniment, the instrumentalist (sarode, sitar, veena etc.) calls the shots – in a nutshell. As the tabla player your first responsibility is to support the instrumentalist and create a framework that he or she can work in. Next, you need to make it interesting 😉 How? You need to make this framework beautiful by reacting to what the instrumentalist does in the way you maintain the taal (North Indian rhythmic system) as well as not clobbering a composition while they are presenting it. In performance the instrumentalist may give the tabla player a few opportunities to solo while they are playing the gaat (melodic theme) – so when those happen you need to make sure you shine in a concise and poignant way. Some of my favourite playing consists of tasteful time-keeping (much like kit drumming). Here are some examples:
Sukhvinder Singh: One of my favourite accompanists. Here is being very respectful and playing minimally but reacting so well to what Vilayat Khan is playing and really juicy baya work.
Tanmoy Bose: Playing with Anoushka Shankar and Ravi Shankar. I love his style here, because it is minimal yet poignant as he highlights the beauty of the sitar compositions (i.e. finishing the tihai or picking up the essence of a groove introduced).
Ravi Albright: I found this link on the internet last night and had never actually heard of Ravi Albright. I like his accompaniment. He has a very clean style, a bright sound, and strong chops that he uses when it’s needed.
Swapan Chaudhuri: What a majestic entrance. Arreh wah! It suits the mood of the raag introduced and it’s almost like a conversation starter. He’s catalyzing the conversation between instruments.
So, here’s the thing, I’m a looong way from those examples. I feel like my chops are strong (oh yeah I can rip it like a 20 year old dude) but to bring maturity and taste to my playing, that’s what I’m hungry for. I’ve had some discussions with some musicians in the area, and recently with Arjun Verma who teaches at the AACM. This conversation confirmed many of my suspicions for how to reach a mature and stylistic manner of playing. There is no secret formula *sigh*… but as with most things in this art form, practice is key.
There have been times while practicing something has come out of my hands and my ears are pleased. Those are the times you need to hold on to that approach or riff or whatever it is and make it your own. Other times I’ve listened to an audio recording or concert where a tabla player does something that sends shivers down my spine. *If* I can catch what they do, I’ll make a mental note and try and incorporate it into my practice. Another skill that Arjun and I discussed is being able to properly assess the speed when you are given that moment to shine. If you start playing something and notice the tempo is not quite right for what you are playing you need to either (a) change what you are doing or (b) somehow make it sound good in that speed!
Lastly we discussed about reacting to what the instrumentalist is doing on an emotional level. If they are being playful, you need to react with something that is playful. This is also true if they are playing something sombre (attn tabla players: do not start ripping on the te re ki te, thank you). Also, if they play a rhythm that reminds you of something – you can play that. It might consequently give the instrumentalist an idea of what to play next as well.
It all comes down to this “Everything you discover belongs to you…”, a quote I discovered on the University of Waterloo website, my alma mater. Except in my case it also becomes, “Everything you discover in your practice belongs to you”. I truly believe this. If you practice something enough, love it enough and add your own flavour or style to it, it becomes yours. And with that … I’m going off to practice <3 Bye!