“Rising” A live recording by Derek Gripper (Guitar) and Udai Mazumdar (Tabla)
Udai’s tabla lesson during the Alliance Française concert
“Namaste Friends. I am here to talk a very little bit about the tabla. I am sure all of you know the tabla very well. You have been having many Indians and Indian music, so I will not speak much here. But as I was requested, I’ll show a tiny bit.
So as you know, both the drums together are called tabla. The left hand drum gives us the bass sound, and the right hand drum gives the treble, and both together are called tabla and not tablas. And what is very unique in tabla, first of all, is that we play it with the fingers, and not with the whole hand or with sticks or whatever. And secondly we can tune this instrument, especially the right hand drum. The left hand is also tuned. The right hand drum is tuned to the tonic of whatever we are playing. Coming just now for this tour with Derek, I couldn’t bring so many, so I brought one tabla which is in B. B natural. So that is why we are playing all the songs that are set to B. The tonic is the B.
How we tune it is the little secret in tabla, which is one of the only percussion instruments which can be tuned. One of the very few. It is this black spot you see in the middle. It is made out of iron powder, charcoal powder, and rice starch. They make a paste and they put it on top, layer after layer, and they rub it a lot with a stone. And then it becomes very hard, dry, like small particles. If we didn’t have this here the tabla would sound somewhat flat. This black spot here gives us a long resonance which is why we can tune the instrument. It is very long. It rings beautifully.
The other very particular thing in Indian percussion instruments, and Indian melodic instruments, is that we have this oral traditional of learning the arts and not writing it down (maybe writing it down later for future reference). But while we learn from the master he always sings whatever he has to teach, whether it is tabla or sitar or dance, or flute, whatever it is. He would sing it and we would imitate his singing, or his speaking, on the instrument. So that is how we developed an art of syllables for the instrument So each note, each sound I play on the tabla, has a syllable. So, just for example, we have Ta…Te te….Tun na…Ghe…Ghe na…Ta ra te te…Te ri ki ta Ta ka ta…and so on. There are so many syllables.
We combine these syllables to make compositions. Big compositions. We have many different rhythmic cycles. We choose a cycle, of six beats, or ten beats, or seven beats, or sixteen beats which is a very popular rhythmic cycle. Each of them have their own names. And then we start this rhythmic cycle which goes on like a metronome, like a clock. And our work is then to be fixed in this metronome, one being fixed in its own time – it always comes to one. And we improvise inside. Or sometimes we play a fixed composition. The task
is always to finish on one. So I will play some fixed compositions…”
Udai’s initial training was in vocal music. His first encounter with the tabla was at the age of seven years. In 1981 he began his studies with the eminent Pandit Ashoutosh Bhattacharya, one of the foremost disciples of the legendary Pandit Kanthe Maharaj. In 1989 Udai moved to Delhi to live with world-renowned Sitar Maestro Ravi Shankar with whom he learnt the art of tabla accompaniment for many years.
Udai has performed at many important Indian and International festivals. He has accompanied Ravi Shankar on numerous occasions, including performances for the royal Families of England and Sweden and in a concert to mark the 75th birthday of Ravi Shankar. The latter concert Udai performed alongside the world famous tabla player Zakir Hussain. Udai is a regular performer on Indian National Radio and television and he travels continuously to perform at festivals around the world. Udai is based in New Delhi, India and Basel Switzerland, from where he travels for concerts around the globe and teaches private students.
Derek Gripper’s Explorations in Indian Classical Music
When I was about nineteen I was asked to help with a project on Robben Island. We stayed on the island for a few days, a group of musicians working on music for the return of all the great figures of the Island on Heritage Day. In a way I met every important aspect of my future music in those few days: Sivamani, a self-taught Indian percussionist who is now one of Bollywood’s big music stars, Robbie Jansen, the great Cape Jazz sax player, his side man trumpeter and accordion player Alex van Heerden, and double bass player Brydon Bolton. Sivamani and I played together one night, on tabla and viola, and he got excited and said I needed to learn Indian music. A few months later I had sold possessions and borrowed the rest and I was in Chennai for one of the biggest festivals of music in the world. I can’t say it was a successful trip on the formal learning front as two months is not even time to scratch the surface, but it gave me a chance to see the incredible depth of Carnatic music, the sheer scope of the diversity of styles and personal expressions, and convinced me to go home and concentrate on playing the guitar…I had seen the violin played as it could be played and that was a mountain I didn’t feel up to climbing. I returned to India a few more times over the years, learning little bits here and there from some wonderful musicians, and then I put the project aside, letting the influences and lessons seep through by themselves, without trying to develop them consciously.
I met Udai in the Bird’s Eye Jazz club in Basel, Switzerland. I was doing a sound check and he made the mistake of saying he liked the piece – so I made him play with me in my set. He said nobody had ever done that to him before, poor guy. The concert was a tribute to our mutual friend, and my brother-in-law, Alex van Heerden, who had passed away earlier in the year. I had spoken a lot to Alex about Indian music, but it was only once he met and played with Udai that he confessed that he got what all the fuss was about. Here we are playing together for the very first time:
One night Alex and I were sitting talking in a minus-twenty Swedish winter. We had been talking for days. Too much talk. We had also been composing and arranging a series of Afrikaans minimalist electro-pop songs which would become Hemisfär. We were wondering about the music of Cape Town. Where had the rhythm of the Goema come from? As we were speaking a piece of music started playing on the radio. An Indian pop song. There it was: a fast goema. We laughed and declared that the goema had come from the East! Problem solved.
So it was a wonderful thing when Udai said he wanted to come to Cape Town and to play together again. He arrived and when I heard him warming up his tablas in his room upstairs I knew I was in for trouble. I confess that I thought we would be able to have a restful time and improvise some beautiful concerts. Not so! He drilled me and taught me and broke open my compositions until they glowed with a new light – the light of India’s great and ancient tradition of rhythmic composition.
By the time he left my head was buzzing with rhythms, permutations, possibilities. I went walking on the beach after I took him to the airport. I tried to see the sea and the sand, but these rhythms kept on coming and taking up all my space. I gave myself up to them, clapping talas, speaking rhythms – grumbling softly along the beach like a madman.
By the next day my body gave in. At first it felt as though I was experiencing some sort of apotheosis. Then I became weaker and weaker and the tick bite fever took hold. Three weeks of confused and painful weakness.
I emerged on a stage in the City Hall, with Madosini, that great and masterful woman who knows how to draw the universe from a little wooden stick and a piece of wire. I played from death itself, searching for a music beyond the vastness of India, a music of this strange and magical place where I find myself, a place where the simplest things can sing the song of all things. The Cape.
Alex once suggested that you have to believe in magic to play music here. Sometimes I think magic is all we have. Besides the goema. We have that. A magical thread of rhythm that swam against the current from the East to find new life on the desolate shores of a new land.
There are three new compositions on this CD. The others have had their stories told on the CDs Ayo and Kai Kai:
Written in Copenhagen airport in the month before the climate talks in Copenhagen.
Written after reading Justin Nurse’s beautiful and terrifying account of the loss of his daughter Vanilla when their car caught fire while she was sleeping inside. This happened on the morning of Vanilla’s second birthday.
Written about a parking lot in Denmark. Afterwards a taxi picked me up with Joni Mitchel singing the words “put up a parking lot.”
Derek and Udai’s final South African Performance