Internal Spark - Spirituality & Music

Internal Spark – Interview with Tabla/Electronica/Philanthropist musician, Robin Sukhadia

February 24, 2013

I am speaking today with tabla musician and Fulbright Grant recipient Robin Sukhadia. I open with his video, “Tabla, Turntables and Invented Instruments” to introduce you to his work with high risk youth at Eagle Rock School in Colorado:

Scot: I read that music in India dates back to 5000 years with paintings of tabla drums discovered in Hindu temples around 500 BC. What inspired you to study this ancient instrument? Robin: I began studying tabla because I wanted to bridge my present day experience of living in America and the west with my cultural roots in India. I remember listening to tabla for the first time through my dad’s vast vinyl record collection. I was completely hypnotized by the sound of the instrument at an early age. After that experience, I always wanted to create that sound with my hands. I found it so intricate and I loved how the tabla rhythms would kind of dance. It was often difficult to pinpoint where the rhythm starts and where the rhythm ends and my ears gravitated toward these hypnotic polyrhythmic sounds. As I got older I started to examine more closely what tabla is and what it is about and it is at that point that I discovered how deep an instrument it really was.

Scot: Did you have any formal music training when your were in school?

Robin: I had studied piano in elementary school and saxophone in jazz band along with all sorts of Western music all the way through college, so I had an understanding of many different types of music. But, with the tabla there was something different. I associated it with my parent’s generation having heard it all those years in the house and as I dug into it more, I started to realize that it was very futuristic and ancient at the same time.

Scot: Did you play the tabla when you were a child?

Robin: Not at all, I was not a percussionist when I was growing up. I loved rhythm, but I spent most of my life studying melody and working with chords and modalities. I think my first introduction to percussion was through my study of piano actually. I believe the piano is really a drum in many ways. You’re literally striking a key that is hitting percussively another string and I feel that piano has that side to it. It is a very tactile and finger and wrist oriented instrument. I didn’t have my first tabla lesson, until I was almost finished with college in 1997.

Scot: So, you’ve come to tabla recently.

Robin: Yes, I consider myself new to the tabla, 11 years of studying is pretty young in this instrument’s tradition.

Scot: You have a proficient grasp of its complexity from the recordings I have heard. With your knowledge of both traditional and modern forms of Indian music, do you find yourself experimenting with different drum tunings and techniques to accompany the newer forms of musical styles you are performing?

Robin: Definitely. I am interested in placing tabla in the context of contemporary art forms and music. For example, I am using Ableton music software right now and experimenting with new tabla sounds and rhythms to perform with all sorts of musicians outside of classical Indian music. I’ve played with DJ’s, flamenco artists, harpists, etc., and I am interested in showcasing tabla as a versatile instrument.

Scot: By exploring the boundaries of this instrument, do you find yourself immersed in higher levels of creativity? Robin: I think so, yes! To me music is an important way to examine the subconscious through abstract and conceptual thinking, both of which are critical to creativity. You are literally learning to channel energy and that is what creativity is. To pick out that which is conceptual and abstract with a clear channel, leads to a more creative and innovative outcome. When I perform and decide which musical elements to explore, whether it be Western instrumentation or electronic music, it challenges me to think about the traditional classical compositions I have been studying and how I can make them compelling to the listener. I think that musicians from every background should do this to exercise those abstract and conceptual levels of music and creativity.

Scot: I read that you study with a traditional tabla guru. Did you experience any friction with your teacher by your manipulating traditional ragas for a more modern approach? Robin: Luckily, my teacher Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri is actually extremely traditional, but at the same time has been very encouraging of my experimentation and pushing music in new ways. He is an interesting musician himself. He has been teaching tabla in a traditional way at Ali Akbar School of music in San Rafael, California for over thirty years. He is also a professor at the CA Institute of the Arts, in Los Angeles, which is one of the most progressive environments for learning music in the world. The California Institute for the arts offers everything from electronic music, to people studying music robotics, to Charlie Hayden who leads an incredible jazz program. The students that are coming into Swapanji’s classroom are coming from all of these different backgrounds. They are not coming to him just to be tabla players; they’re coming him to learn what the tabla is about so they can integrate it into their contemporary compositions. The reason I have been able to go so deeply into these experiments with the instrument is because he allows me to take risks and supports me 100%.

Scot: Is this normally the case with traditional teachers?

Robin: I would say that 99% of the traditional teachers would not agree with the things I am doing! I have had some friction in that case where I am asked what I am trying to do with this instrument and their challenging the authenticity of this contemporary form of practice. What I usually come back with is that the actual performance is rooted in the classical sense. I am very respectful of these traditions and compositions. I think there is “fusion” music and there is “confusion” as the great Maestro Ali Akbar Khan often stated.

Scot: Tell me more about that thought.

Robin: You can be a good fusion artist, which is someone who takes the best of both worlds, classical and contemporary, or you can be confused by throwing them together and not being deeply concerned about either one. I haven’t stopped studying classical tabla music and I am continuing to work deeply on its concepts.

Scot: It’s wonderful to see that you have a teacher interested in advancing traditional forms of Indian music with a contemporary spin. Developing a modern approach seems to open up the mind for creative possibilities.

Robin: What you said is important: this instrument needs to move beyond the boundaries of a 5,000 year old tradition of music in South Asia and find a voice and relevance outside of that. This is where the instrument is right now and the crux of the challenge of where tabla is today.

Scot: How do you see the instrument advancing?

Robin: You have to remember for most of tabla’s history, it was only studied by men who were born into musical families of a certain caste. Not anyone could go and study tabla, you certainly couldn’t be a woman and you couldn’t go to a teacher and ask him to show you what he learned. This was a guarded and protected secret language and was pretty much only enjoyed by the aristocracy.

Scot: Elaborate more on that.

Robin: It’s only been in the last twenty-five years or so that this instrument has really come out from that. We have a lot of work to do to continue to open up its potential. Thanks to musicians like Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Pandit Anindo Chatterjee and many, many others, this instrument is starting to open up and become more acceptable to different styles of music.

Scot: I have recorded with a tabla player and found the tone and rhythm interesting and compelling. I learned that it was a mnemonic instrument where memorization of rhythmic patterns and tones are transposed into intricate emotion laden rhythms. Which, like you mentioned has its own language. My question for you, is when you perform with other musicians, what role do you play in evoking the emotions in the song and the musicians?

Robin: Tabla language is the key to that. Whatever type of music I am playing I translate it into tabla language in my head. I am thinking in tabla voicing and patterns i.e., (dha-ge-na, dha-ge-na which translates into, 123, 123.) My mind is conditioned to translate these sounds into tabla language from my studies. When I am performing with others I think to myself, what would be an interesting composition from something that I have learned, or improvised, that could converge the pattern being played and how do I communicate that with the people I am collaborating with. This powerful language makes it easy to distill, by not having to write the music down.

Scot: Explain that process.

Robin: It’s mesmerizing when you hear tabla and you ask the performer what did you just play, they can recite it to you verbally. That is the core of what this music is about and why this instrument is so resilient and surviving and thriving now. I am not spending time having to write down music, which can interfere with the improvisational aspects of music. I listen to the music and internalize it with my breath, which is what you are doing when you are reciting. You are bringing the language of the instrument into your body. In doing so you become more grounded and centered in your spiritual being. You are able to listen and be more active in the music.

Scot: I read that the tabla language you describe is rooted in Sanskrit text rather then musical notation. Do you feel you are able to communicate more spontaneously with other musicians because of this?

Robin: Before I proceed I want to clarify that the language and the drum itself are not entirely rooted in Sanskrit. Tabla is a hybrid instrument, meaning it’s an amalgamation of existing culture in Northern India, which was primarily Hindu but also incorporates Muslim influences. Over a period of centuries, Persian and Turkish (where the Mughals originate) invasions resulted in a culture that was heterogeneous. So, the instrument and language is a mixture of Persian and Urdu influences with Sanskrit. The tabla is not just an Indian instrument, it’s a reflection of the Persian influence in northern India and Pakistan over many centuries in time and also central Asia as well. It is an instrument that developed out of invasion and has been morphing and evolving over time from many different influences.

Scot: Thanks for the clarification.

Robin: Most people think that it is an instrument from India, but don’t realize that it developed from influences from Afghanistan, Pakistan and connections to Turkey and Iran. Therefore, it has Muslim influences and Hindu influences. And sadly, there is this huge movement in India to claim this instrument as a Hindu instrument. It is a consequence of rising Islamophobia in India right now. There is a drive to own every Indian classical form as Hindu.

Scot: Please elaborate on that subject.

Robin: There is a narrative in India saying that these instruments came from the temples and were only played in temples and that’s simply not true. These instruments were also played in the courts of the Mughal emperors, for and by courtesans as well. We have to realize that some of the historical references to these instruments are being revised because of the current political climate.

Scot: How does recitation apply to the classically trained musician.

Robin: Unfortunately, I think a lot of Western classically trained musicians cannot play without a piece of music notation in front of them.

Scot: I have found that as well when recording with orchestra members. Most classically trained musicians are unfortunately not taught to improvise in their studies.

Robin: I think that it is a detriment to the idea of playing music, “playing” being the operative word. Play music, have some fun by being active in enjoying the experience, rather then trying to make it an articulate intellectual exercise!

Scot: That’s the difference between interpretation and creation. Classical musicians are interpreting composer’s music that is written out, whereas the improvisational artist is using the free flow of creativity to connect with their spiritual nature and the instrument itself to create a voice and tell a story.

Robin: That is true.

Scot: Earlier in our conversation, you mentioned the influence of Persia in the hybridization of the tabla. Persia is well known for their poets. Did their poetry influence the language of the instrument in any way?

Robin: Absolutely. Poetry is a critical part of Persian and Sufi culture and you can hear that influence in tabla compositions. You can hear it more so in the compositions of Northern India as opposed to southern India. You have all these aesthetics that come in from Persia including dance, recitation of poetry, with an emphasis and focus on grammar and structure. In listening to these intricate compositions, they are beautiful not only in the musical sense, but also in a mathematical sense. There is a lot of focus on math and symmetry with counterpoint and rhythms that take the listener on a musical journey. When you hear some of these masters reciting, they play with the ear and time in such a way that they parallel the way poems are recited in Udu.

Scot: Many tabla devotees believe the instrument is a divine connection to God and practice the passage called “Chilla”, in which they play in a solitary room for as many as forty days. Have you ever experienced this exercise? Robin: I have not done a “chilla” myself. I am still young in my study of tabla and I think that it is worth exploring once you spend more time with the instrument and are ready. It’s not a requirement and as a matter of fact, my guru has not completed one and he is a world master.

Scot: If you decide to do a Chilla, what would you expect from the experience?

Robin: I think that it is an important part of the practice. The idea of isolation and going really deep internally and cutting off communication with the outer world and finding communion with your instrument would be a powerful thing to do. I hope to do it one day in the future when I have the time to devote to it.

Scot: It sounds like a journey that takes much preparation and devotion.

Robin: Yes, there are stories where tabla artists have gone into a deep practice of 12 to 15 hours a day. I have heard of people tying a piece of string to their head so that when they began to nod off, it would wake them from their sleep to continue. Scot: That is quite the devotion.

Robin: There is still a tradition of this spiritual austerity practiced in India to this day. The idea of putting your body through a sacrificial experience that is rigorous, allows the artist to concentrate on channeling their creative energy. Like the fire coal walkers, the Chilla is another form of that.

Scot: This is similar to the teachings of the Buddhist way of eliminating the ego for spiritual enlightenment.

Robin: That is true. I have practiced this concentration in my own way when I was in India and here in the states by spending many days practicing my tabla by myself in isolation. Without this devotion and discipline you cannot progress. There are no short cuts and I don’t know anyone who is proficient with an instrument who has not devoted the time to this solo practice.

Scot: I agree with you. It is an important aspect of a professional musicians life. Which brings me to the chapter in your life that lead to your work with the Fulbright sponsored Project Ahimsa music program. How has the power of music changed the children’s lives who participated?

Robin: This is a big part of my life and creative process. All the years of going to India to study music especially in Calcutta where my teacher is from, I would go to class and I would walk home and see one of the most powerful parts of being in that culture.

Scot: What did you see?

Robin: You are experiencing face-to-face what life on the streets is really like for many of impoverished people worldwide. There is a lo