The tabla evokes and invokes. It can playfully mimic a cricket bowler’s moves or capture the sensual arc of deer’s leap. Now a familiar sound in the West thanks to lightning-fast masters like Zakir Hussain and innovators like Talvin Singh, the essential Indian classical instrument was traditionally on the sidelines, its emotional power harnessed to support other performers.
No longer. Tabla comes center stage in the hands of the young, highly trained players of Tabla Ecstasy, a quartet that revels in the tabla’s hidden potency as a rhythmic and melodic instrument capable of expressing just about anything. Touring North America in early October, the ensemble distills the age-old spirit and practice of tabla into a high-energy, highly accessible evening that reveals the instrument’s true joys. Dates include concerts in Toronto, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick.
“Our only goal is to present Indian classical music in a contemporary language that can be enjoyed by more people,” explains Rushi Vakil, performer and group leader. “The language of tabla is really graceful, full of different tempos, energies, and emotions. All the shades of music can be found in it.”
Tabla Ecstasy is the brainchild of Pandit Divyang Vakil, a tabla maestro and master teacher who gave up a successful performance career to dedicate himself to guiding students and composing music. The son of a philosopher and a Montessori-influenced teacher, Vakil, affectionately and respectfully known as “Guruji,” began playing tabla at age three and takes an unorthodox approach to his tradition and his teaching. In an unusual move, he studied with masters from three different gharana, or lineages, drawing on each in shaping his own direction.
This direction focuses on the demanding technical aspects of Indian classical performance—the precision required to evoke nuanced moods and ideas. To get to the requisite level, the group rehearses constantly, learning to feel each other’s phrasing within the precise rhythmic cycle of the classical tradition. In the world of Indian classical music, there’s no such thing as practicing too much.
Though tabla ensembles are a relatively new development, Tabla Ecstasy applies the same rigor to their performance as they would to a classical piece, insisting on split-second perfection and pitch-perfect tuning of their drums. Though they can play with the spark and passion of a rock drum solo, the accompanying harmonium and their honed rhythmic sense keeps their playing grounded in the cycle of beats their forbearers played in for millennia.
Yet within this technical excellence, Guruji also encourages each student to find a distinctive voice.This touch means the performers of Tabla Ecstasy let their personalities shine in concert. Mop-topped Sahil Patel rarely stops smiling and looks for the lighter side of the music, while the young Rahul Shrimali takes things more seriously. Rushi Vakil, Guruji’s son as well as his student, loves jazz, is a keyboardist and world music composer, while Kaumil Shah teaches djembe (and loves transferring Indian classical rhythms to the African drum). These broader horizons and varied influences keep the group’s perspective fresh and open to other musical possibilities.
The intensity and generosity of the quartet keep to the spirit of Indian classical music, which is about devotion and not entertainment, while expanding its palette and its audience. Each concert moves between rousing peaks and slower, smooth meditative passages not usually associated with percussion. It’s not uncommon to catch audience members—from teenage hipsters to cosmopolitan professionals—bopping along to the pulse, or in tears or in awe after the hour-and-a-half-long journey through different tempos and timbres.
“People don’t expect the feelings involved, perhaps because they don’t think rhythm can do the same things emotionally as melody,” explains accompanying artist Heena Patel. “As Guruji tells us, you smooth out the edges and perfect the contours, otherwise it’s just drumming. You have to make music out of the instruments.”
article submitted by:Heena Patel, Rhythm Riders