Introduction to the Tabla

Dear student: In this online guide, there will be three characters whom should be great friends by the end of this chapter. They are instructor, student, and the tabla. You, the student, and I, your guide, can know more of each other later. I’ll introduce you to the tabla, whom you’ll do most your practice, work, and creations on. The tabla is our focal point in this course. Material shown here will be helpful, but not necessarily a replacement course in pakhawaj, khol, or any other percussion instrument.

The origin of the tabla is the most debated topic. It is argued to have appeared at least five hundred years ago. Some musicians will argue that tabla was derived from dividing the ancient barrel drum, pakhawaj, into two segments which became the two drums of the tabla. This is shown in Figure 1.1. Another famous theory suggests that the two drums evolved separately. Some other speculations show that the tabla was of Persian origin from either the nebla drums or the Arabian tabla drums.

Figure 1.1
Although the origin is unknown, the tabla has found its way into accompanying classical music of North India. It has been simply a classical rhythmic instrument until late Ustad Allarakha used the tabla as a solo instrument capable of moods and improvisations. Also to his credit, he is known for introducing the tabla to the West with world renowned sitar player, Pandit Ravi Shankar in 1964 in New York. Ustad Allarakha’s son, the famous Ustad Zakir Hussein, has developed new pitch changes in the tabla as well as new bols, which you will learn in Chapter 2. Now, the tabla has become more than accompaniment to Indian classical music, but an instrument used in many genres of music.

The tabla is simply a pair of two kettledrums from India. Let us examine further what is on the tabla.

The smaller treble drum is known as the daya. This comes from the Hindi word for “right.” Naturally, if you are a right handed person, you will play the daya with your right hand. Other courses might refer this drum as the danya, and “tabla”. I avoid using this word, as the word alone is prone confusion. In this book, daya or dayan means “smaller drum” and “tabla” means the pair of both drums. The body of the dayan is made of wood. The shell is known as the lakadi.

The bigger bass drum is known as the baya which means “left” in Hindi. If you are a right-handed person, you will play the baya with your left. Other books and teachers will refer to this drum as the banya, dagga, or the duggi. I will use baya or bayan as the “bigger bass drum.” The body of the baya is made of copper, nickel, aluminum or rarely clay, fiberglass, or wood. The shell is known as the pital.

The drum head is known as the “puri.” On each puri, there are three layers. The outer rim is known as the kinnar. The middle layer of goat-skin is known as the maidan, and the black iron layer is known as the syahi. It is also known as the shahi, or gob. You will notice on the baya that the syahi is off-center, unlike the dayan, whose syahi is in the center. The explanation will be more evident in the future chapters.

The outer rim of braid, right outside the playable portion, is known as the gajara. This is used for tuning with your tuning hammer. You will not nor should not attempt tuning tabla. Incorrect hammering of the gajara can warp the sound of your tabla and destroy your puri. Tuning will be taught in Chapter 34.

The lacing “straps” are known as “tasma.” More expensive tabla use leather rawhide for tasma, while older and cheaper tabla uses rope. Currently, in order to avoid tuning and re-heading problems, bolt-tuned tabla is used. I personally think this is a better option to get, but it is a good idea to consult your teacher first.

To tighten your tabla, there are wooden blocks called gatta. There are always found on the dayan drums. Occasionally, gatta are inserted in the bayan to tighten it.

Lastly, cushions known as chutti, help elevate the drums to allow the maximum amount of sound to resonate.

Here is a picture of the tabla with labels in Figure 1.2.
Figure 1.2

 When learning tabla, it is very beneficial to practice and perform sitting on the ground in the Indian “yoga” position. This will allow maximum energy on the tabla. Very rarely is tabla ever played on tables, while sitting on a chair. It is usually the least recommended posture. Some ashrams and some players will play the baya on the ground, while they keep the dayan on the lap, considering the lap as the cushion. This might be pleasing, but it might become very tiring after hours of playing. In addition, it adds greater strain to the hand with the dayan hand.

As you have seen these pictures of the tabla pair, they are always on an angle. For now, you do not have to play on an angle. In fact, it is very recommended that you have them leveled to the ground. This way, you can see exactly where you are hitting. It is analogous to a piano player looking at the keys, initially. Through years of practice, speed and striking judgments will come very naturally that one does not need to look at the keys. Similarly, later on, for speed and comfort, you can tilt your daya and baya away from you. It is a common practice to have the daya and baya facing away from the player, while the baya and the daya are slightly looking at each other.

Get some time with your tabla. Look and feel it to get an idea what it sounds like. Without learning any tabla information, your first assignment is to strike the daya using your index finger. What sound is produced? Do you have a long resonant sound? Do you have a stiff nonresonant sound? Is it partially resonant? Work for the resonant sound. This is very difficult for beginners who have not dealt with Indian instruments. On the other hand, for mridanga players, this concept should be of no difficulty. Keep trying to strike the daya using your index finger and aim to get that open resonant sound. Until you can do this without difficulty, do not move onto Chapter 2. Every chapter onwards relies on your ability to strike the daya, as well as baya, to produce an open resonant sound.

Right Hand Bols
In order to speak the language of the tabla, you must know the alphabet and the sounds of the tabla language. There are numerous sounds of the tabla. To identify a particular sound, we use a special set of words for the corresponding sounds. The words are known as “bols.” It comes from the word ‘bolna’ which means “to speak” in Hindi. As musician Ali Akbar Khan once said, “Let the instrument to do the singing for you.” As you learn tabla, you will later realize that the tabla will do the “speaking.” In order to allow this concept to hold true, a firm knowledge of bols must be understood.

For students who have played and studied mridanga, some of them may refer to the term “bol” as mantra. I personally disagree using the word “mantra” as a substitute for the “bol.” It is a very poor substitute and really a misnomer for the word as well as the function of a bol. Mantras are more or less sound vibrations, implied as incantations. Bols are not incantations nor do they hold known spiritual connection. Bols are the sounds that which the tabla speaks. Bol is the preferred term and will be used throughout the course.

In tabla, there is a numerous amount of bols for dayas and bayas, separately, and combined. There are even combinations of bols that are considered as an important single unit. Due to this fact and new bols being invented, only the most important and basic will be covered here.

Some schools and gharanas will require students to write bols using Devnagari script. It is a good cultural habit to learn Devnagari. It is useful in reading modern languages such as Marathi, Hindi, and Nepali. It is also useful in reading Sanskrit religious texts. However, I will not emphasize using Devnagari. Knowing the bol name and how to play it is more important, than learning how to write the Devnagari bols.

When learning bols, click on the picture of the bol in order to hear how it sounds like.

Figure 2.1

As I overemphasized in the conclusion of the previous chapter, it is very important to be able to strike the daya with the index finger to produce an open, free resonant sound. This is the very name of that technique. That sound produced by that motion of the dayan is known as “tun.” Listen to the bol again. You can almost hear it say, “tun.” As Figure 2.1 shows, the optimal sound will be produced if the finger strikes the syahi. It is recommended to do that for the optimal sound. Keep practicing this bol until fully mastered. For mridanga players, this is the same technique used to play “tā” on the mridanga.

Figure 2.2

Without a doubt, this is the most important bol needed. This is the bol that given the tabla its famous sound. This is one of the most important sounds. Many people have much difficult with this task. Therefore, the concept of “muting” must be introduced.

In order to close the “open resonant” sound from the ‘tun’ bol, a finger position called the mute or the muting position must be used. This involves taking the ring and pinky fingers together and placing them on the maidan and kinnar layers. Some artists even place these two fingers on the syahi. It is merely the matter of personal taste. Look on Figure 2.2 how the muting involves the ring and pinky fingers. Some beginners mute with middle finger, although this is a very poor technique to use when doing fast compositions. It may be painful to hold the correct and seemingly awkward muting position, but keep practicing. This position will become natural very quickly.

On acoustical properties, once you mute the dayan, you form an “imaginary X” on the dayan. With your index finger, forcefully strike the kinnar where “X” intersects. This is shown in the demonstration in Figure 2.2. Keep practicing this bol, as this is one of the most important and most common bols to tabla.

Some gharanas, especially East Indian traditions, will strike the maidan instead of the kinnar. This is their version of their “tā.” This bol is referred to as “thā.” Practice this version for very forceful “thā.”

Exactly the same as “tā.” East Indian gharanas treat “nā” and “tha” (being their “tā”) as two distinctly different bols. I don’t. Nā is the same as tā, in this course.

Figure 2.3

This bol is very frequently used in playing tabla. This is perhaps one of the most confusing bols, as this bol somewhat lacks standard. The common approach in playing this bol is to apply muting position, as described before. Instead of hitting the kinnar or the maidan, strike your index finger on the border of the maidan and syahi. This stroke should be a resonant stroke, which sounds more muffled than the “tā” stroke. If you are having a difficult time getting pure resonance in this or the previous strokes, keep practicing. As mentioned earlier, the common difficulty amongst new tabla players is the ability to hit something and allow optimal resonance. Once this hurdle is overcome, tabla playing can be taught.

Beginners attempt playing “tin” will often find it hard to differentiate it from “tā.” Remember that “tā” is louder, than “tin.”

This stroke will be described in depth later on.

Figure 2.4

Every letter counts. This is a completely different bol from “tin.” Tin was a resonant stroke. Ti, also known as te, is nonresonant. No “tun” nor “tā” resemblance should emanate from this sound. This involves the middle finger striking the center of the syahi. Muting the drum is optional. In faster composition, it will be impractical to mute the “ti.” The key feature of nonresonant bols is that you don’t lift you hand as fast as with resonant bols. Keep practicing this bol.

There are more right hand bols, which will be discussed at an appropriate time. For now, these five dayan bols are very important to know. Attempt these exercises. Do not worry about time keeping as of yet. Time keeping will be important in the tāla chapters. For now, mastery of the bols is very important. A dash (–) means the bol is held for extra time. Notation will be introduced in Chapter 6.

Tun – Tā Tun Tin Tin Tun Nā Ti Ti Nā Tun Nā Tun Nā Tun Tun Tin Tin Nā Nā
Nā Tun Tun Nā Nā Tun Tun Nā Nā Ti Ti Nā Nā Tin Tin Nā

AUDIO CLIP: Chapter 2 Exercise

These bols are high pitched and most easily recognized. People will hear more of this drum than the baya. Considering this fact, constant practice in getting the correct sounds with bol names is mandatory. It is a proven process that proficiency of these bols and playing them will allow you to literally play any composition. The bols are the basic building blocks of tabla. The bols are our alphabet, where we make short words. With those short words, we make sentences, which allow moods and emotions.

Left Hand Bols

In order to speak the language of the tabla, you must know the alphabet and the sounds of the tabla language. There are numerous sounds of the tabla. To identify a particular sound, we use a special set of words for the corresponding sounds. The words are known as “bols.” It comes from the word ‘bolnā’ which means “to speak” in Hindi. As musician Ali Akbar Khan once said, “Let the instrument to do the singing for you.” As you learn tabla, you will later realize that the tabla will do the “speaking.” In order to allow this concept to hold true, a firm knowledge of bols must be understood.

Just as the right hand bols are very important to know, left hand bols on the baya are very crucial to know. The baya produces a deep bass sound. In the dayan, there is no possibility of changing the pitch. The baya, however, introduces a possibility of pitch bends. Even though there are not as many bols involved with baya, the possibility of sounds and techniques produced with the baya speaks louder than the dayan.

The daya had its syahi on the center of the drum. The baya, however, has its syahi off-center. Due to its off-center placement, there is a special position involved for the baya. The baya must be one o’clock with respect to the player. This is shown in Figure 3.1. The red lines indicate where your wrist is placed. For mridanga players, the baya is played much differently than what is “common.” The one o’clock and wrist positioning will be collectively known as the baya position.
Figure 3.1

Figure 3.2
This is a nonresonant stroke. This is also the stroke with greatest degree of freedom. The most common approach is to take the enter palm and slap the baya without lifting your hand. Make no sure no signs of resonance exist. Notice in Figure 3.2 that the wrist is where the red lines correspond to in Figure 3.1. The fingers are going slightly outside the drum.

In some cases, “ka” is aimed for the syahi giving it a rough sound. This is popular for heavy, less classical and loud performances. In classical performances to “emphasize” a dayan bol, the finger flicks the kinnar giving it a distant, clear cut sound. This is known as the finger ka. Some people refer to this bol as kat, ke, or ki. I will use each term equally. Whether you play the standard style shown in Figure 3.2, the syahi style, or the finger ka, it is very important that you obey the one o’clock rule and the proper wrist positioning. In other words, it must be in baya position.

Unless stated otherwise, “ka” will always refer to the standard technique of playing “ka.”

Figure 3.3
 For the left hand, this is the only resonant bol involved. However, this is the most difficult to play.  For the baya position, you can keep your wrist on standard position. You can get as close as the syahi, but do not attempt to cross it. With the index finger, strike the maidan to produce a resonant tone. Do not lift your wrist off the baya. Keep practicing this bol until you can get the sharp distinct tone. You can use your middle finger, index with middle finger, or a combination or index, middle, and ring fingers for this bol. Look at Figure 3.3. Pay special attention at the baya position and how the maidan is being struck.

Like ka, there are many ways to approach gha. One way is the have it totally open with no wrist on the baya. Striking the maidan as described before. This is usually referred to as the open gha. Practice this style.

Using baya position from Figure 3.1, play the gha bol. This time, while striking the maidan, slide your wrist toward the syahi, simultaneously. You should hear a good “swoop” sound or a good pitch bend. Since you slide your wrist to produce this sweet form of gha, this is referred as the sliding gha. Practice this style of sliding gha. Be creative! As the sliding causes pitch bends, thousands of sounds can be made. See what sounds you can come up with. While you practicing sliding toward the syahi, try playing the sliding gha where you start at the syahi and slide away from it.

Some people will call it ga, ghe, ge, ghi, gi, gin, and ghin. I use all forms of “gha.” Each style of gha will be emphasized beforehand. For mridanga players, there is a full palm “gha”, however that is not used here at all. I suggest practicing this controlled “gha.”

These are the two main principal bols used for playing the baya. Now is a great time for practice. Play the following sets of bols.

Gha Ti Ka Gha - Ka Tā - | Ta Ga Nā Ka Nā Ka Tu Nā Thā Ge Nā Tin Nā Ka Ge Ti Thā
Ta Tā Tun- Gha-- | Tā Tā Tun- Gha--| Tā Tā Tun- Gha--|

Be sure you know how to play every bol before. Play them, remember them, write them, and study them. The next chapter will develop complex bols which will help complete our alphabet of our tabla language.


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