Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Abdul at work.

A shop assistant tightening a head of a duggi.

Abdul rubs chalk on the head to prolong the life of the head; apparently, it prevents moisture from damaging it.

Kalai, myself and Abdul

From left to right: a stainless steel duggi, my copper duggi, and a brass duggi. The smaller drum in the middle is a tabla.

Chandran tunes my tabla, and that is my duggi in the background.

Wooden drum shells.

Bless this mess?

Old man crafting a sarod (or sitar, I am not sure).


At around ten in the morning, Chandran and I went to a music shop in Triplicane, a neighborhood in Eastern Chennai, just minutes from Marina Beach. The owner of the shop, Abdul Karim has been a tabla crafter his whole life. Not surprisingly, his father owned the shop before him, and his grandfather owned it before his father. For Abdul Karim, this is a familial trade: making drums is in his blood.

Interestingly enough, Abdul’s son is not going to take over the business, but rather his daughter is. To be honest, the details of why or how that decision was made were ambivalent. I was very curious to find out, but in India, questions pertinent to the structure of a family business might be deemed inappropriate. Abdul did say his son was studying to be an engineer, but again, I wonder if that disappoints Abdul or not. In hindsight, I regret not asking those specific questions, but recognize that it was a sticky situation.

Regardless, it was really amazing to hear that his daughter would eventually run the business. I think that is reflective how the rigidity of the social structure of instrument craftsmen has changed dramatically over the years. I cannot imagine that in 1908, or 1808 for that matter, a daughter would take over a family trade; then again, it might not be as uncommon as I think it is.

The shop was a standard, dusty drum shop. There were wooden drum shells stacked and scattered throughout the narrow room. On the left-hand wall, there was a very high shell overflowing with all sorts of percussion instruments. Although they specialize in tabla, mridangam and dholak drums, there were about a half-dozen sitars/sarods (stringed instruments). In the shop, they craft all of the wooden shells and heads: so everything for the tabla (right) drum is made on site. For the duggi (left) drum, they buy the metal shells from a famous drum shop in Hydrabad.

There was no religious iconography in the shop; but, that makes perfect sense, as Abdul and his family are Muslims. (I have visited larger music shops in Chennai that are owned by Hindus, and thus have various religious figures and pictures scattered throughout the shop). Abdul’s shop also serves as the family’s home: everyone lives upstairs.

Chandran has known Abdul for over fifteen years; so that worked to my benefit when negotiating the price of the drums. After spending some time in the shop, I concluded that it would be best to get a cooper duggi. The drum is absolutely beautiful, as it has been hand-hammered with an imperfectly perfect pattern of indentations to augment the sound. The tabla (right) drums are more nondescript: aside from the pitch of the drum, there is not a tremendous range of kinds of tabla, unlike the several choices of materials for the shell of a duggi (left) drum. I decided to get a tabla (right) drum tuned to C. After having played on the drums for several days, I am really happy with my decision, as they sound incredible!

These drums would cost five, maybe even ten times as much in New York City. I actually have shipped my tabla set home, and they already arrived safely thanks to DHL. I cannot wait to play them more upon my return.

In all truth, I did not realize that there was such a diversity of materials to make a tabla, and it was a real treat to have such an extensive look into the crafting of a tabla set. Learning about Abdul’s background was insightful, to say the least. I am eager to meet a Muslim tabla craftsman in Morocco: I wonder how, if at all, the making of a tabla differs in North Africa from that of in South India.

Here are a few videos; I will post pictures as soon as possible. Thanks!

Monday, January 28, 2008


After several tabla lessons with Chandran, I told him that I was interested in purchasing a tabla set. Before I tell the story of my purchasing of a tabla set, I think it is necessary to give some background information about the tabla, so you all know what exactly to look for when buying a set…

Like all instruments, the terminology of the tabla is extensive: I learned many new words while at the drum shop. A bulk of the nomenclature is specific to South India, though. A tabla set consists of two drums: the right drum is the tabla, and the left is the duggi. The tabla is the higher pitched drum: in fact, there six different kinds of tabla (right) drums, one for each note on the music scale, C, D, E, F, G, and A. I was unable to find out why there is not a tabla tuned to B; and I just figure that a B-tuned tabla probably does exist, but just wasn’t at that shop. The tabla, a wooden drum also called khumba, is made from sheesham wood, a very durable and heavy wood. There is a direct correlation between the weight and sound of the drum.

Unlike many Western drums, the tabla does not have a consistent circumference; it is widest in the middle - it almost looks like the drum has love handles. At the fattest part of the drum, there are wooden pegs, called gatta, to create tension between the head and the straps. The head of the tabla, called a pudda, is made from goatskin: the thicker the head, the fuller the sound.

The tabla has sixteen leather straps/braces, called deewal, that are made from cow skin. (Yes, I have asked many Hindu tabla players if playing an instrument made from the hide of a holy cow is sacrilege, and only have received ambivalent answers). The deewals can be tuned with a hammer.

The much larger, gumdrop-shaped left drum, called the duggi, is very different than the tabla. The chief similarity between the tabla and the duggi is that both have a pudda (goatskin heads). The duggi is not made from wood, but instead from metal, either copper, brass or stainless steel. The cooper and brass duggi drums often are plated with nickel. The cooper and brass duggi drums are the most common, although the two more expensive options for the obvious value of the metal. I was amazed with how differently the sound quality was from cooper duggi to stainless steel duggi: the projection and range of the stainless steel duggi is painfully inferior to that of the cooper or brass duggi.

There is something to be said of the craftsmanship among a selection of cooper, brass and stainless steel duggi drums. The stainless steel ones are manufactured to be mass-produced, so they are mostly machine-made. Any musician will declare that a machine-made instrument has no character. To give the stainless steel duggi drums a further element of “soullessness,” it does not have deewal (leather straps), but uses metal lugs and bolts. It is quite the eyesore, although in all fairness, I am sure it is easier to tune…

Both the tabla and the duggi never touch the ground directly, and always are placed on a ring-shaped pillow, called a langot. The use of the langot is twofold: primarily, the drums simply sound better when they are not touching the group. Although each drum only has one head, the bottoms of the tabla are closed – unlike the djembe, which also has one head, but is open-ended to project the sound of the drum. Without a doubt, the acoustics of the tabla are much clearer when the drum is rested on the langot

Secondly, as I have written about before, as the tabla is employed in various religious rituals and prayers, the langot serves as a sign of respect for the instrument, specifically for devout Hindus that believe the instrument is Sarasvati, the Goddess of Music. While this explanation might not translate to why a Muslim or Christian tabla player uses a langot, almost all musicians regards their instrument with some degree of reverence. Think of your friends that play guitar or drums that do not like when you touch or play their instrument; being overprotective is a sign of respect. (Yes, the most notable exception of an absence of respect for the instrument is Jimi Hendrix, as he was famous for lighting his guitar on fire on stage…hence, why Ravi Shankar was appalled by Hendrix). The drums always are stored in a box or protective bag. Furthermore, a cushion, called a gaddian, cover the head of the drums. Clearly, great care is given to the tabla set.

With all that in mind, let me tell you my story…I will post some pictures shortly....


Hi all. I am very sorry for the lack of posts as of late; I have relocated from Chennai, and living in a technologically-challenged environment. The internet here is painfully slow; so uploading pictures and videos is almost impossible. To compound this problem, most of the computers are so outdated that they do not even have a functioning USB drive – so I cannot write on my laptop and then just post the text! I have been writing a bunch, and have a TON of really cool stories, videos, et cetera, that I will publish as soon as possible. Until then, let’s go Giants!

Saturday, January 12, 2008


Although the annual December music festival in Chennai has come to a conclusion, in the first two weeks of January, there is a dance festival at the Music Academy Madras. Last night, I attended a traditional dance performance. While I respect the tremendous level of discipline it takes to perform South India dances, to be completely honest, dance does not do it for me.

Of course, in South India, dance without music is like a Q without a U. The music ensemble included a vocalist, violinist, flutist and a mridangam player. Most of my attention was focused on the musicians; after attending so many music performances last week, I have been able to differentiate between a “good” musician and an “excellent” one. (Being invited to perform at the Music Academy Madras is a privilege reserved for South India’s finest musicians; thus, every show is guaranteed to be enjoyable). Tonight’s musicians were very good; I really appreciated the fact that they had to cater their performance to the dancer. To clarify, the music must be synchronized with the dance; and, due to the length of the performances, it is quite impressive to see such consistent and precise coordination.

Not surprisingly, on the right-hand side of the stage, there was a large statue of Shiva in his famous dancing pose, which is referred to as Nataraja, Lord of Dance. The statue was garlanded with flowers; there also were several candles surrounding the statue.

It is so strange to conduct research on “religious studies” in India: surely, there is not a shortage of information, but because “religion” is so embedded in the culture, it is difficult to separate “religion” from any part of the daily life. In fact, it is interesting to note that prior to the introduction of English to the Subcontinent, throughout the various Indian languages (Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, Urdu, et cetera…there are twenty-two official languages today), the word “religion” did not exist. So something like placing a dancing deity on the stage to inspire the performer is not necessary an act of “religious” ritual, but instead, it just is. There does not need to be an academic explanation of why the statue would be there, because it is there because it is there – and that is that. Perhaps my biggest qualm with Western academia is the desire to label and justify everything. So, in short, the statue was on the stage, because…well…just because.


December 29, 2007

In the late afternoon, I arrived at the Music Academy only to find a queue that stretched out of the venue and well into the parking lot. As I positioned myself to be the last person in the line, I immediately realized that there was no way I would be able to get a ticket, as this was the longest line I had seen to date. I began talking with the person behind me, a fellow named Ajay, who was around my age, and he said that there was no way we would be able to get tickets. Sure enough, within a matter of seconds, a staff member of the Music Academy informed everyone that no more tickets were available.

Ajay was raised in Chennai, but now works for Dell in Bangalore. After a brief conversation, Ajay and I walked over to the Sathguru Gnanada Hall, another venue on TTK Road.

Ajay told me about his experiences growing up in Chennai and attending the annual music festival. For the people of Chennai, he asserted, “The festival is like a religion.” I learned that there are there are thirty-four venues throughout the city. According to Ajay, “In December, in a twenty kilometer radius, there are 5,000 performances.” (The math checks out; each venue has about five performances per day).

Without a doubt, the Music Academy Madras, as it is formally known, is the top venue in Chennai. Ajay referred to the Music Academy as the “Mecca” of concert halls in Chennai; he said all artists strive to perform there, as it is the most storied venue, this being its 81st year of hosting concerts.

Although we were unable to see a performance at the Music Academy, it was very refreshing to see a performance in a new venue. I must admit that aside from attending one concert at the Mylapore Fine Arts Club, I have limited myself solely to the Music Academy.

The Sathguru Gnanada Hall itself is much older than the Music Academy; it almost felt like a high school auditorium – it opened in 1958, and probably hasn’t changed much since then. (The Music Academy is an older institution, but has been renovated recently). Although the Sathguru Gnanada Hall is much more basic than the Music Academy, I actually liked it a lot. The stage has a really interesting backdrop, and on each side of the stage are some pretty neat paintings.

We saw a traditional Carnatic performance that included a female vocalist, a violinist, a mridangam player, a tambourine player and two tanpura (drone) players. There were many people sitting on the stage; I would assume most were family or disciples of the musicians.

Towards the end of the concert, there was a percussion duet, between the tambourine and mridangam players – a true showcase of rhythm. At the end of the fifteen-minute duet, the other instrumentalists join back in to play just a few bars of the original composition (that had initially segued into the duet), and the piece ended with two more bars of the duet. Not surprisingly, for me, this was the highlight of the concert. It saddens me to note that during the percussion duet many people left. Even in India, drummers get little respect! (Below are a few videos of the duet).

After the show was over, we ate a delicious dinner at the venue: almost every concertgoer congregated around the outdoor buffet. It was probably the best meal I’ve had here in Chennai…and, even though it was “street food,” I didn’t get sick!

To cap off a really great evening, Ajay and I went to a nearby record store – although, it was more of just a very large room with a lot of CDs and DVDs spread on many tables, rather than an actual record store. Ajay recommended seven different records of famous mridangam and tabla players; I must admit I would have been very lost as to what exactly purchase without him there to help!

When I reflect on the evening, it makes me appreciate how our meeting was entirely serendipitous: it is just neat how, sometimes, things can unfold so perfectly.

The tambourine player in white looks very sad.

Friday, January 11, 2008


A couple weeks ago, I received this very random email titled, "Question about a Japanese taiko drum." I answered the question to the best of knowledge; hopefully was of some help. Here is the message:

Hello Jesse,

Came across your "drum" blog while looking to identify a Taiko (Daiko) drum which we believe to be in the Osaka area of Japan. Let me explain. The (RealityFanForum.com) fans of the CBS reality show The Amazing Race try and identify ("spoil") the locations of the upcoming episodes of the show before they are aired. Currently the 12th season of The Amazing Race (TAR) is airing in the states. We know from the previews that TAR passed through the Osaka area of Japan sometime this past June/July. According to the previews, they visit the downtown area (home of the famous mechanical Osaka Clown), as well as the Kishiwada Castle and a third, yet unknown site which contains a ornately decorated Taiko (Daiko) drum. See attached photo. The drum head is gold colored, with a "three tadpole" center design, surrounded by red/green/blue/black "rays" pointing inward toward the center design. The drum is resting on a blue/purple pad with two mallets either side.

The fans of TAR are trying to identify the drum, and thus identify the location where the race visited. We gather from your blog that you are particularly interested in drums, and being an expat in Japan, might be interested in our quest. Any information you could provide regarding the drum pictured would be appreciated.

If you would like to follow along with us, you are welcome to visit the realityfanforum.com web site any time. After weeks of googling the web, we have come up empty handed as regards this drum. The Osaka episode will air in a few weeks. Thanks again.


Fans of The Amazing Race


(The internet is crazy!)


After publishing my post on Rajna Swaminathan, the young female mridangam player, I received an email from her mother, Lalitha Swaminathan. Thank you very much for clarifying this! (Note, "mrudangam" is an alternate spelling of "mridangam").
Hi Jesse:
I saw your posting on the blogspot. Thanks.
Actually, Rajna's father is Dr. P. K. Swaminathan, a scientist in Maryland, USA. He also plays Mrudangam and is a disciple of Maestro Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman. Rajna was born and brought up in Maryland. She studied Mrudangam under Maestro Sri Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman, who made several lengthy visits to the Swaminathan residence to coach her personally. She just turned 17 in early January. She got the "Best Junior Mrudangam Artiste" award from the Music Academy.


So, thanks again, Lalitha! Rajna's website is pretty neat, there are a bunch of pictures, videos, and audio recordings, so I would high recommend checking it out...

Thursday, January 10, 2008


(Written December 30, 2007)

At the Music Academy, the weekends always are pure pandemonium: Chennai is the largest city in Southeast India, so it comes as no surprise that to obtain concert tickets is more a matter of luck than effort. This afternoon, after standing in line for a bit, it was announced that the venue was entirely sold out. There were tickets, however, still available for the “Mini Hall.” At first, I assumed that the Mini Hall would just be a smaller venue, with less acclaimed musicians. Forty rupees later (a buck), I had my ticket and found my way to the Mini Hall at the Music Academy Madras.

I walked in, and immediately said out loud, “Are you serious?” On the stage of the Mini Hall was a projector, with a live feed of the ongoing performance from the Main Hall. I couldn’t help but laugh; there I was, sitting in an auditorium watching a video of a live performance that was going on just a few feet from where I was. In all fairness, both the video and sound quality were very good. It was actually pretty funny, especially since people came pouring in!

After staying for a while, I ventured over to the Sathguru Gnanada Hall, another venue, about a ten-minute walk from the MAM. Unfortunately, only aisle “seats” were available, which I decided to pass on.

I’d say today was an interesting day to observe the madness of the music festival...

The Music Academy Madras

Sathguru Gnanada Hall, the second most popular venue in Chennai


Apologies for the absence of posts as of late. I have a bunch of updates to post, and will get those up in the next few days or so. Happy 2008!

My chair in Chennai. (I really wish I knew how to make this not sideways...sorry!)

One of the temples on my street in Royapettah, Chennai.

The sign from my "hotel" in Chennai. Apparently, somebody stole the "B" as it is called "Balan International"

The drum man.