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It has been ten years of explorations and explanations. Having studied under tabla gurus like Zakir Hussain and Swapan Chaudhari, Ritesh Das, artistic director of the Toronto Tabla Ensemble, conceived of the ensemble a decade ago—it was an experiment that started with five students. Today the number has doubled and the ensemble enjoys a dedicated audience. The ensemble recently held a celebration at the Du Maurier Theatre in Toronto to celebrate their achievements, where I got a chance to speak to him.

When describing the philosophy that guides the Toronto Tabla Ensemble, Das admits that much of what he does is not new. He had already experienced this phenomenon when in India with Shankar Ghosh’s tabla ensemble. “Then while studying under Swapan ji in California, I played in Swapan Ji’s tabla ensemble at the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael. Then I saw Zakir bhai’s Rhythm Experience. Seeing all of these things, I tried to get the best of all of them and come out with something new, which was in my own voice. That was my goal,” he reels off, much like he reels off a gat (a short composition made up of a series of bols, or the names of the different strokes of a tabla) full steam in order to confound his students.

In a way the ensemble is an offshoot of the Indo-jazz movement that Ritesh Das was a part of while he was studying at the Ali Akbar College of Music. Inspired and influenced by the now famous Zakir Hussain and John McLaughlin “Shakti” collaboration, Das wanted to add his own twist to the idea of collaborating. He shies away from the complexity of what he calls “maestros composing.” The complexity of his work, he feels, lies in its mischievousness, the way it plays with around with music. He also feels that his music is not so much about experimenting with instruments. “It’s a full scale collaboration—tabla with kodo, flamenco, dance … It’s exploring cultures through music.” He even goes as far as to compare it with popular Bollywood music. “Hindi movie songs, some of them, were highly influenced by stuff coming out of the Middle East; some songs came out of Western classical music or pop. That was the whole idea of having a big ensemble and orchestra. Even with the rhythm, you had the Indian folk influence and a little bit of Western pop rock with a Middle Eastern rhythmic structure.”

Moving beyond the usual binary of East-West fusion that is usually associated with collaborative efforts, the Toronto Tabla Ensemble has reached out to the world to borrow from and play with musical influences, while retaining an integral part of the tradition it has evolved from. This blend of tradition and innovation marks most of the ensemble’s work. Their concerts, for example, start with the customary lighting of the lamp; but the faint glow of oiled wicks soon give way to the brilliant hues of the lighting effects. Another interesting reflection of this blend is the studio, where students come to learn the tabla and dance. In the heart of downtown Toronto, it is a warm welcome from the bitter cold of winter—Indian art deco and modernist wall etchings give it a splash of color, while incense wafts in the rooms. Sounds floating through these rooms suggest tabla, kathak, and belly-dancing going on in tandem.

While collaboration is an oft-used word with Ritesh Das, so is practice. “In order to do what the tabla ensemble is doing, one has to really, really study tabla to understand how really the material is executed or applied. The knowledge which the students get is not the knowledge that you can get overnight—as people mature so does the ensemble, because it goes to the next step, a higher way of thinking of how to work with the taals and the rhythms and so forth. Once they get that kind of idea they can understand where collaborations happen. Instead of just playing regular grooves with the guest or something you can apply tabla structure to it.”

The compositions themselves strongly demonstrate Das’s approach to the tabla. For example, Weaving, a piece from their upcoming album and played at the tenth-anniversary concert, starts in a traditional Indian vein—successive pairs of tabla players drummed out in teen-tal, a simple 16-beat cycle. Playing around with intricacies of rhythmic patterns, the first pair start on the first beat, the second on the fifth beat, the third on the ninth beat and the fourth drummer on the thirteenth beat of the cycle, until all seven players are involved in a fairly complex composition.

Once this rhythmic cycle is established, the two drummers on Western drums literally exploded into it. An interesting duality results—while the drums play “with” the tablas, they also completely rip out of the cycle carrying the piece towards a rousing crescendo. Bassist Ian de Souza, one of the guest artists of the concert, adds to this creative medley by inflecting it with a touch jazz that was subtle and yet mind-boggling in the way he wove in and around the sixteen beats.

Another piece from their upcoming album, Waterfall, makes creative use of the Punjabi bhangra beat. At the concert two of the tabla players came on stage with dhols strapped across their chests and proceeded to belt out the bhangra beat in the midst of the subtler tabla beat. With Das conducting the drummers, the three percussive instruments crash-boom-banged together to convey the raw power of rapids hurtling down a sheer drop.

Levon Ichkhanian, the other guest artist of the concert, has collaborated with the ensemble in their latest work. In an aptly named composition titled Nomad three different traditions of music are brought together to emphasize the fluidity of boundaries and the way music seeps through it. Levon’s contemporary eclectic guitar somehow manages to sound like a Middle-Eastern string instrument as his folksy-Armenian/Lebanese heritage tune blends beautifully with the Indian influence of the ensemble.

The coming together of these two eastern influences with the drums and bass is especially interesting as they provide each other with a sense of contrast but seamlessly integrate into the larger theme of the composition, emphasized by Joanna Das keeping the beat on the xylophone.

In fact, this is the most fascinating aspect of the ensemble—the dialogue that is established between musical traditions. How the tabla, which has recently gained popularity as a solo instrument, can play with musical traditions of the Middle East and jazz, and how these other traditions play off of each other within an Indian tradition. Das acknowledges that fusion of different influences is old hat, but believes in avoiding confusion. The ensemble does just that—it explores new interpretations, but retains the essence of each tradition. For example, you don’t often see Western drummers freestyling, but in the ensemble the two drummers do several creative on-the-spot improvisations in a manner not unlike the tabla. Ritesh Das’s tabla, similarly, experiments with other music cultures, maybe giving it some Indian chutzpah in a jugalbandi besides proving that the tabla can hold its own against a melodic instrument.

Aparita Bhandari is a freelance writer from Toronto.