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.