Some do it for money. Some do it for fame. But on their latest and greatest album, the Toronto Tabla Ensemble do it all for love.
For The Love Of Tabla, the groundbreaking, Juno-nominated collective’s eighth and most appealing studio release, truly is a labour of love — and an album that lives up to its name by putting the North Indian Tabla right where it belongs: Front and centre.
“Normally the tabla gets lost or buried under all the other instruments in a song” explains TTE’s charismatic Founder and Artistic Director Ritesh Das. “For this album I mixed each track to bring the tabla up so you can hear it prominently within all the other sounds. Exploring the theme of love is a new concept for the TTE, so we collaborated with guest artists from Canada and around the world to create songs that embody the feeling of love and devotion. For The Love Of Tabla is about love for the instrument, the music, for another human being, for the earth and nature. With this album we hope to spread a little love all around.”
As usual, Das and TTE are sharing the love (and the spotlight) with a world-class cast of collaborators, including Canadian rock goddess Bif Naked, longtime friend Miamon Miller’s Free Range Organic Ensemble, Taiko master Kyoshi Nagata, drummer Dale Anne Brendon, flute player Alysha Addetia, violinist Raaginder Singh Momi, singer Labonee Mohanta, sarod virtuoso Sougata Roy Chowdhury, sitarist George Koller and more — all working and playing remotely from around the country and around the world.
“This is one of the most unique albums I have produced, during this strange time in the world,” Das admits. “But I think the members and the performers took advantage of the situation and turned it into something positive.”
He’s got that right. And in more ways than one. Despite the uncertainty of the times and the technical challenges they presented, For The Love Of Tabla delivers some of Das and TTE’s strongest work: Sometimes playful and lighthearted, sometimes deep and rich, but always creatively inspired, sharply focused and flawlessly executed with the passion, panache and propulsive power that are the percussive ensemble’s sonic signature.
For a prime example, look no further than the showstopping Prayer For The Mother, a head-nodding, hip-swivelling groove-rocker featuring haunting, hypnotic vocals from Indian-born Canadian icon Bif Naked — along with a jaw-dropping, tongue-twisting vocal recitation from Das. “Because of my history with rock ’n’ roll, I always wanted to compose a piece where tabla plays a main role,” say Das, who previously teamed with Tea Party frontman Jeff Martin for the 2007 DVD Live At The Enmore Theatre. “Prayer for the Mother had a strong sense of female power and the theme of ‘mother’ for me. And when Bif Naked came up with those powerful lyrics, I wanted to add Taiko drums, to add that deep sound of the earth. That’s when my longtime friend and collaborator for over 30 years Kiyoshi Nagata came in.”
Nagata — who also lends his talents to the spacious percussive jam Taiko Crush — isn’t the only old friend on board. “For Jovano Jovanke, a traditional Eastern European love song, I reached out to musician and composer Miamon Miller, who I toured with in Aman Folk Ensemble throughout North America in the 1970s,” Das says. “His Free Range Organic Ensemble recorded from their home studios all over the U.S.A. … It’s a very interesting piece. The rhythm is very simple, but it’s very challenging because it keeps shifting. You think it’s going to be one thing, but it turns out to be something else.”
For more surprises, check out album opener Encore 21, where another nimble polyrhythmic vocal from Das that dances in unison with TTE’s fast-paced percolating percussion. Then there’s the album closer — a majestically Eastern-flavoured take on O Canada that augments the TTE with sitar, flute, the dulcimer-like yang qin and piano. Between them, there’s the colourful Spellcheck, a bouncy collaboration inspired by the frustrating foible of modern technology.
“If you try to type out tabla on your phone, spellcheck changes it to table,” Das says. “I get messages all the time from people asking: ‘Where can I buy a new table?’ I tell them to go to a furniture store. One time we were even nominated for a Juno, and when they announced our name at the ceremony, they called us the Toronto Table Ensemble.” So he turned the tables. “I wrote a piece that starts with me playing on a table, like I used to do when I was in school. Then a drum kit comes in to really kick in the groove, and then the tabla add sophistication based on that groove. So there are really three elements to the piece: The birth of the rhythm, the groove itself and then the expansion of the rhythm to the highest level.”
If none of this is what you expect from Indian music, that’s no accident. “I don’t do traditional Indian music,” Das stresses. “What I do is take the essence of it — the songs and sounds of North Indian classical music — and I blend it with other styles. To me, there’s no such thing as world music. Music is music. And when I started the ensemble in 1991, I had three goals: First, I always wanted to bring the tabla into all kinds of music. Second, I wanted to use the tabla as an orchestra to create the same effect as a symphony. And third, I wanted to collaborate and make a statement that tabla could be played with any kind of instrument or any kind of form. Over the years, I’ve done everything from jazz to rock ’n’ roll.”
In those three decades, Das and TTE have not only crossed styles; they’ve crossed Canada multiple times, and mesmerized audiences in India and Australia with their intricate grooves and modern, high-energy approach. Their compositions have been licensed for commercials, films, and as the theme music for CBC Radio’s Metro Morning. Their 2018 album Bhumika earned a Global Music Award for Outstanding Achievement in composition, while TTE nabbed an Independent Music Award for Best World Traditional Song. TTE have grown to include a Youth Ensemble and film/video division in addition to the performing ensemble and tabla school, which recently expanded to London, Ont.
Throughout it all, their collaborative approach has allowed members and audiences to learn about other cultures, uniting people at a time when our world has never been more divided. “I want to make this music accessible to people who don’t even know what a tabla is,” he says. “If you can educate people about the culture, I think you can eliminate a lot of racism.” And despite the accomplishments and accolades, he has never lost sight of the simple pleasure that drew him to tabla half a century ago and continues to give him joy: The instrument’s enigmatic, wondrous sound.
What is not to love about that?