BASIC OVERVIEW OF THE TABLA
by David Courtney, Ph. D.
of this article previously appeared in Modern Drummer,
October 1993, Vol. 17, number 10.
music has fascinated the West for many years. The tabla
in particular has attracted the attention of a number
of American and EURpean 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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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".
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
has been just a brief overview of tabla. More information
can be found in the rest of this web page.
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