Thursday, February 28, 2008


So after I officially have passed my six-month "anniversary" of the Bristol Fellowship, I have decided to go for a new look for the website. Honestly, as you probably have already gathered, I know very little about web design - I just thought this template was a nice change. Of course, feedback and recommendations are always welcome.

On that note, I have noticed that this site has been receiving many "spam" comments. I try to delete these comments as soon as possible, but definitely do not click the links that are provided. Just thought I'd give you that heads up...

Monday, February 25, 2008


A flurry of thoughts of my experience in India come to mind: in no way is this post a denouement, but rather it is an informal reaction to my time in India…

One of the most underrated aspects of traveling throughout India is that I have found so many awesome records that I would never find back in the States. Indeed, we live in an era of globalization; yet, sometimes I am overwhelmed with how much music I encounter here that I would never be exposed to back in New York City. On those terms, I have discovered a ton of fantastic Indian percussionists, including Palghat T.S. Mani Iyer and Guru Kaaraikkudi Mani – all of whom I was unaware of prior to my arrival in South India.

Furthermore, I have attended so many concerts of local artists – all professional musicians, yet not internationally promoted. There is something very special about seeing a performance and knowing that it is an isolated opportunity: I cannot go to Virgin Records in Union Square and buy the records of these drummers.

A carving on the door of a temple in Chennai.

Perhaps one of the more frustrating aspects of this fellowship is knowing that I will never be able to convey so many of my experiences to this website. I have seen some many things that are pertinent to my research, but I just haven’t been able to write about. For example, while in Goa, I saw several concerts of Western Shivaite converts – Westerners that converted to Hinduism, and worship Shiva by playing music (amongst other things…). Yet, I have been unable to figure out where this group fits into my research. Either way, there has not been a shortage of music-related experiences while in India. It seems that I constantly was surrounded by music: there is always some minor festival or parade precession just around the corner. Simply put, Indian culture is saturated with music, from the pop Bollywood hits to traditional religious songs to regional folk ballads.

I feel very grateful that I have been able to meet so many welcoming musicians here in India; I cannot imagine how my experience in India would have been if I had never met Chandran, my tabla teacher.

I have become very appreciative of the fact that I am conducting this research in the age of the internet: I could not imagine having to plan this fellowship without the aid of computers and instant communication. Furthermore, I think it is really neat that my research is produced in real time: because of this website, I am able to update all of you with my discoveries almost instantaneously – pending I have internet access, that is.

I am very curious to see how the Moroccan tabla compares to the Indian tabla: I would imagine that the crafting is almost identical, but I have learned that hypotheses prior to field research are a complete shot in the dark.

Swami Vivekanada Museum

Swami Vivekananda, the man who introduced Hinduism to the West

Marina Beach in Chennai

Church in Chennai

Saturday, February 23, 2008


More glimpses into my life...

Portuguese Catholic church in Anjuna

Mini drum shop with djembes and dholaks

Better than being a burger.


A few months ago, I met a jazz drummer from Sydney, Australia named Jamie Cameron. I have heard some of Jamie’s records, and he truly is a fantastic drummer. During our conversation, Jamie told me that he had just come back from studying the janggoo drum in Korea. (The janggoo is actually a drum widely used in Japanese music; many historians believe that the Koreans introduced music to the Japanese, thus explaining why both cultures share an instrument).

Jamie told me how much he respected the Korean janggoo drum, because it has such a rich history. Then he said something that really struck me: he affirmed, “I think that we [Western drummers] have no idea how to play the drums.” Essentially, his theory is that the Korean janggoo drum has been played for centuries, and thus has been perfected. The Western drum kit, on the other hand, is a very new instrument, as it is not even one hundred years old. The first drum kits – a snare, tom toms, pedal-driven bass drum, high-hat and ride cymbal – came onto the music scene in the late 1920s/early 1930s.

When Jamie told me his theory – something that I think actually is not a theory, because I have no doubt it is the truth –, I told him that the Indian tabla upholds his hypothesis. The tabla is another drum that has been played for ages; there is a very specific way to learn the tabla, the teachings have been perfected. Most drummers will agree that the musicianship it takes to play a tabla or Korean janggoo drum is simply at another level to that of a Western drum kit. While the physical coordination of Western drums may be more challenging than any other percussion instrument, as Western drums require the command of hands and feet, the Indian tabla or Korean janggoo have a more much specific school of training.

In no way am I asserting that Indian percussionists are “better” than Western drummers; nothing in music should ever be compared, as music is not a competition. Nonetheless, due to the rich history of Indian drumming, it is fair to say that instruments like the tabla are far more evolved than the Western drum kit.

The tabla can produce a mellifluous range of sound because everything from the technique of the tuning to the mastery of method of playing has been tried and tested over centuries and centuries. As with any aspect of life, with further years of study, more is known and that knowledge can be applied to the practice.

Don’t get me wrong, when Jamie first told me his theory, I could not help but highlight the incredible skills of jazz drummers like Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones and David King. But what Jamie was saying, was that those drummers will just be the beginning – that in a few centuries, Western drummers will be doing unimaginable things on the drum kit.

Friday, February 22, 2008


I had no idea that Carnival was celebrated in India. Although it was the Portuguese Catholics that introduced the holiday to India, today, Carnival is celebrated by Christians, Hindus and Muslims all throughout the state of Goa – and apparently, in Kerala, as well. To the best of my knowledge, India is the only country in Asia that celebrates Carnival.

I was able to see two cavalcades; one in the small beach town of Anjuna, and another in the larger town of Mapusa. The Anjuna celebration was so small that it seemed as if there were more spectators than participants. In Mapusa, on the other hand, the streets were packed with people, both watching and partaking in the festivities.

Like Carnival celebrations everywhere, it really was just a whacky, but wildly fun, gathering. The processions include many floats with dancers, musicians, and individuals dressed in elaborate costumes.

I was a little disappointed that there was not any live, acoustic drumming. To my surprise, there were actually several drummers playing electronic kits, while parading on the back of the floats. It almost seemed like it would be more complicated to use an electronic drum kit than an acoustic one in a parade. For whatever reason, the drummers opted for electronic kits: maybe this was a sign of modernity eclipsing certain drumming traditions. Regardless of that, the music still was an intricate and essential part of the celebration.

Of course, there was a certain “Indian” dynamic to the festival: maybe it was because the procession in Anjuna had a sign that read, “VIVE CARNIV_L 2008,” or because a float in Mapusa declared, “HAPPY CARNAVAL.” Either way, it was a pleasant surprise to see Carnival, the Indian way…

Pictures and videos below...



Thursday, February 21, 2008


Pondicherry is the former French colony in India.

Gandhi statue.

Drum salesmen.

Busy street.

Research related.


Some of my contacts have come about in the most random fashion: while taking a taxi ride from Chennai to Pondicherry, as I was explaining why I was in India, my driver told me that one of his closest friends was a drummer. After spending a few days in Pondi, I returned on to Chennai, and met with a thirty-something year-old drummer named, Ashok.

Fortunately, Ashok lives in Royapettah, the same neighborhood I have been living in; so it was not too difficult finding his house. Initially, I was under the impression that Ashok was trained in Indian hand drums, like the tabla or dholak; but, it turned out that he actually studies Western drum kit. I had yet to meet an Indian musician that exclusively played Western style drums.

Ashok has been playing drums for many years; but asserts that it only has been “six” full years, as that is how long he has studied under his teacher, Gopal Sivamani, one of the most respected Indian drummers. Sivamani is a very accomplished recording artist, and, like many famous Indian musicians, is from Chennai. It was unclear how often Ashok plays with Sivamani; nonetheless, the way Ashok spoke of Sivamani, it was clear that Ashok greatly respected and admired his teacher.

The guru–shishya (teacher–student) relationship is an essential aspect of Indian culture. With any sort of musical apprenticeship, there is an inherent spiritual training, as well: like all great student-teacher relationships, much more is learned than the said subject. Perhaps this why Ashok was so curious as to whom my teacher was; because in India, a drum teacher is more than a drum teacher. For the record, my first drum teacher was John Cutrone; and while at Hamilton College, it was Jim Johns.

All of that aside, for a couple of hours Ashok and I jammed on his drum kit. Ashok actually had a really large kit: it was a standard five piece (snare, bass, two rack toms and a floor tom), plus a trio of marching toms above the snare, and two timbales above the floor tom. Considering the size of his apartment, his kit was absolutely massive.

Not surprisingly, as Ashok lives in a government housing complex, he needs to muffle the drums, so that the neighbors do not complain. To minimize the sound, Ashok wraps all of the drums and cymbals with dishtowels and other clothes. It is a rather clever system; although, it makes playing the drums much, much more difficult, as your playing speed is reduced dramatically, from the resistance of the cloth.

While it was extremely refreshing to get behind a drum kit, after several months without proper practice, my chops were rather rusty. Ashok sounded very good; his stick control was outstanding. In Western drumming, the two most common strokes are the single stroke (the drum makes one sound with one stroke/hit) and double stroke (two sounds with one stroke). Ashok has been practicing triple, quadruple, quintuple and sextuple strokes; all which sound really awesome.

One of the most frustrating aspects of this fellowship is that I am always surrounded by drums and percussion; yet, I have very few opportunities to play a drum kit. Further, as expected, my research predominantly focuses on hand percussion; which is why I seldom am exposed to full drum kits. My constant desire to air drum often leaves me looking rather hyperactive, as I always am in motion…

It has worked out that in each country where I have conducted research, I have had at least one opportunity to play a drum kit: in Fiji, I gave drum lessons at a church on Kadavu; in Japan, I jammed with students on roof of the University of Kyoto of Art & Design; and in India, I was able to play on a muffled kit with Ashok.

As much as I am enjoying my experiences right now, I cannot wait to get home, and play for hours while applying my new knowledge of international percussion to my drum kit.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Chandran, my tabla instructor, earns a bulk of his livelihood by performing “light” music. Although he is classically trained, Chandran thoroughly enjoys playing light music – which, essentially, is a nonreligious, pop music. Light music is most often performed at weddings and other social functions; the music itself consists mostly of covers of popular Bollywood (film) songs.

So, I accompanied Chandran to a Hindu wedding – my second in the past six months. Like my experience in Fiji, I was the only Western at the event. That being said, like so many other situations, I definitely felt welcomed. Actually, I attended the wedding celebration, not the service itself; but, the party is always the most important part, right?

It was really neat watching Chandran set up his tabla set and other percussion instruments. Because the light music is very melodic, as it is really just pop music, Chandran used five different tabla (right-handed) drums, so that he had a wide range of pitches to play with. He even tuned a dholak accordingly (to A on the music scale), and basically used it as a sixth tabla. In a purely religious setting, like that of a performance at a temple, a tabla player would most definitely not have so many tabla (right-handed) drums to work with, as the melody is not essential to Carnatic or Hindustani music; or rather, the melody is not the responsibility of the tabla player.

Considering its traditional roots, the versatility of the instrument is quite impressive: surely, the tabla is classical instrument – it must be remembered that Carnatic and Hindustani music are the equivalent of Western classical music, like that of Schubert or Mozart. Nonetheless, the tabla does not sound out of place in a contemporary context. Indeed, there is a certain paradox of the tabla, as it is able to juxtapose itself, by functioning in both traditional and contemporary music.

Aside from the tabla, Chandran also used a variety of percussion instruments, including some small bongos, a set of tom toms, and shakers. Interestingly enough, the shakers where just old aerosol cans filled with rice; very resourceful indeed. Also, the band had another drummer, named Madhavan, who played an electronic drum pad. Madhavan said that normally he plays an acoustic kit for his performances, but was unable to get one for this show.

Truth be told, the sound quality was pretty poor, so that was a little disappointing. Further, light music is almost a glorified karaoke, as just about anyone is welcome to grab the mic and sing his or her favorite Bollywood hit. Regardless, it was very entertaining to see my first light music performance. I thought it was interesting that although it was a light music performance, there still was a framed picture of Saravasti, the Hindu Goddess of Music on the stage.

I must admit, the groom did fairly well with his dowry: there was a motorcycle, television, refrigerator, washing machine, and much more. It is funny because I think I now have been to more Hindu weddings than “American” weddings…

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Like all Indian festivals, Pongal is a sensory overload: the sounds, smells and sights engulf your entire being. What is so special about observing these festivals is the unexpected: indeed, I often do not know what to anticipate, especially in regards to the music. To be honest, I am not really sure how to share all of my Pongal experiences; so, here are just a couple short stories and observations from the festival. My apologies if there is a serious lack of transitions paragraph to paragraph…

During one of the afternoons of Pongal, I was walking with a Dutch fellow around Marina Beach. As I was telling him the single most valuable lesson I have learned from traveling throughout India – never, ever be surprised by anything – a procession with fireworks and a band came from out of nowhere. And yes, the explosions of the fireworks were too close for comfort…

Throughout Pongal, there are buses that go from the city to the surrounding villages. Many people actually leave Chennai to visit their families outside of the city. Not surprisingly, the public buses are packed with people; and many of these people are the festival musicians. So, quite frequently, a bus with drive by and there will be musicians onboard that are practicing…

On each night of Pongal, I watched the festivities in my neighborhood, Royapettah, which is in central Chennai. On all three nights, there was music; and while on all three nights, the drumming was the same, the accompanying instruments were different. The drums were rather interesting, as one side was played with fingers and the other a stick. The drums themselves have a very sharp, distinct sound, as the heads are made froma very thick oxen skin.

I was a little surprised to see a Western saxophone played during one of the religious processions; yet, as I already have written, I have learned to never, ever be surprised by anything in India. Even if traditionally a saxophone has no place in a Hindu temple, India, more so than anywhere else in the world, has a profound ability to adapt and absorb aspects of contemporary culture. On the most basic level, music is music; what does it matter what instrument is used in a religious ritual or ceremony?

I readily admit that the former sentence somewhat undermines the foundations of my research; yet, there is a certain truth that music does change with the time. Of course, it seems that the percussion instruments used in the festival still are “traditional” Indian instruments…

As you will witness in the videos, this procession, filmed in Royapettah, simply goes from the temple to the main road; only about three blocks or so. Throughout the city, I would imagine that there are dozens of similar displays: remember, Indians always seize the opportunity to partake in a festival!

While I would have liked to have seen the evening celebrations in other neighborhoods, it was really neat to see the same one three nights in a row. Often, for many obvious reasons, I feel very much so an outsider to these religious rituals and musical performances; yet, as I had been living in Royapettah for almost a month, to a minimal but existent degree, I did feel a part of the community. I knew several of the children and adults that were organizing and participating in the event.

On the last night, I actually was invited to perform the puja – wafting the smoke above my head three times and eating the prashad. It was a refreshing change to no longer feel like I was just an academic looking in, but instead a participant in the Pongal festivities.

Enjoy the videos; while many are similar, they do have their differences. Furthermore, Pongal is a visual and audio experience, so my descriptions admittedly provide little insight…

Sunday, February 17, 2008


I have a theory: on any given day, somewhere in India, there is a festival. Whether it is to venerate a god, to commemorate a local hero, or simply to celebrate life, India is teeming with festivities.

Throughout South India in mid-January, Pongal, a four-day festival, is celebrated. (Pongal actually is celebrated throughout India, but my writing is only in reference to the Pongal of Tamil Nadu). Originating as an annual harvest festival, Pongal has become much more than a simple celebration of farmers’ crops. Like many Indian festivals, Pongal is a medley of music, dance, food, and parade after parade. Without a doubt, Pongal is a religious festival with specific rituals and actions that uphold the values and traditions of Hinduism.

In actuality, each of the four days of Pongal is dedicated to a different god within the Hindu pantheon. Bhogi Pongal, the first day, pays tribute to Indra, the rain god. It should be noted that labeling any Hindu god with one characteristic, like “rain god”, is rather misleading, as whatever each Hindu deity represents is dependent on what sect of Hinduism is observed. For example, Indra also can be recognized as the “war god” or “king of the gods.” Yet, in this instance, in Tamil Nadu, Indra is revered as the god of rain.

Unequivocally, Surya Pongal, the second day of the festival, is the most important day. Similar to pagan festivals around the world, Surya Pongal pays reverence to the Sun, for sustaining the growth of crops; and even more broadly, for nurturing all of existence. “Surya” literally means “Sun.” This day is the most exciting of all the days, as there are the many processions throughout the streets.

The third day of the festival, Mattu Pongal, honors cows by decorating them with all sorts of bells and whistles (literally). One has to wonder whether a cow truly appreciates being
painted; regardless, the bovine receive attention normally reserved for the divine. It is quite the sight indeed.

While the entire festival is an elaborate worshipping of the gods (or more specifically, the Sun), the final day, Kannum Pongal focuses on the family and the food. In a certain sense, Kannum Pongal is very similar to the American holiday of Thanksgiving. The word “pongal” literally translates as “boiling over.” Thus, the name of the festival is symbolic of being thankful for the abundance of food provided by the harvest.

During the four days, many families create small shrines outside their doorways, ranging from candle arrangements to decorative paintings, called kolam. The kolam designs are made from brightly colored powders. Many streets are lined with lights, as well.

The music of Pongal is folk music; I will write more on the specifics in the following post, on my Pongal experiences. So until then here are a handful of pictures. Needless to say, any writings, photographs or video footage fails to capture the true essence of Pongal…And yes, the prashad (food) was more delicious than it looked...

Friday, February 15, 2008


Hi everyone. I just wanted to share the address of the drum shop in Chennai where I bought my tabla set. I would HIGHLY recommend Abdul's shop if you are in the market for any Indian percussion instrument or sitar or sarod. The quality of the instruments are excellent and the prices are very reasonable. More updates to come shortly...

Abdul Kareem
A.R. Dawood & Sons
286, (New 154), Triplicane High Road
Chennai – 600 05
+91 44 28546934 (tel)


Below are a handful of videos from my tabla lessons with Chandran in Chennai....

Sunday, February 3, 2008


Since the New Year, I have taken several tabla lessons with Chandran. It has been a real treat to learn how to play this drum – although I will be the first to admit that I do not “know” how to play the tabla, as it takes years of studying even to begin to understand the instrument. The tabla is my favorite percussion instrument (for reasons I will get to in another post); in short, I have always been fascinated by the sound of the drum and seemingly infinite possibilities of rhythms of the drum.

I must admit that one of the most basic elements of playing the tabla, the positioning of the body, is very difficult for me. When I practice with Chandran, it can only be for about thirty minutes or so before I need to stretch my legs. Because in Western society children are taught to sit in chairs, and not on the ground, we grow up with a different capacity of flexibility than most Indians. For many people, Eastern or Western, this is not a big deal; but for those who know me, I have very long legs and extensive cross-legged sitting can be a problem for me! Oh well…

The coordination of the various finger positioning and moments is a tremendous challenge, to say the least. A true student of the tabla spends countless hours every day to perfect the mechanics of playing the tabla. Being that I understand the complexity of the training, I do not let myself get overwhelmed when I struggle to play something correctly. Further, like all instruments, tabla is best played with a clear mind.

As I have written in an earlier post, the different finger strokes, called bols, each produce a unique sound. There are eleven “main” bols; although, I only know of about half of them (I would never claim to truly “know” any bol). Each bol (finger stroke) can be played on a different part of the drum; so there are a multitude of combinations of sounds that can be made. There are three parts of the drumhead that are played: the edge of tabla (called the kinar), the interior white portion of the head (called the chantii) and the black circle in the middle of the head (called the siyahi). The pitch of the drum is highest on the edge of the drum.

Since my first lesson, Chandran always has asserted that to get the proper tone out of the drum, the bol (the finger stroke) must be done as quickly and tightly as possible. Your finger must never rest on the head of the drum. “It is like you are touching fire,” Chandran has told me. “Or like [the movement of] a snake.” It can be very strenuous to always have the fingers hovering above the drum without any support.

View of Marina Beach from Chandran's house.

In another life, I would love to dedicate forty-plus hours a week to study the tabla. The paradoxically “gift and curse” element of the tabla is that because, in my opinion, it the most expansive and complicated percussion instrument, it does sound the best; nevertheless, the tabla requires an unprecedented level of dedication just to play it on an elementary level and get the proper sounds out of the drums. I know that when I get back to New York, I will be practicing tabla when I can; yet, I do wish I could really learn how to play this instrument. That being said, I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to learn more about the tabla.

I will post more videos when I can.

Kalai with parrot