Some people think that a critic’s main job is to let the public know what music they’re not supposed to like. Why else do the words “critical” and “criticism” usually imply some form of verbal abuse? Critical gadflies are needed when an artist is supported by a campaign of enthusiastic press releases. But when a journalist writes about Indian fusion music, or any other style outside of the mainstream, there is really no point in being critical in this sense. Why debunk artists to readers who probably have never heard of them? It makes more sense to ignore an artist whose work is less than outstanding, in hopes that they will eventually get better, and write only about those musicians that your readers ought to know about but don’t.
A tabla player named Suphala may have changed this situation for Indian fusion music. A full-length article in the New York Times describes her as firmly ensconced amongst New York’s glitterati. This article recites facts known by every musically literate South Asian as if they were the hottest scoops imaginable: that tabla players sit cross-legged, that tablas are played “not simply with crude slaps, but also with rapid taps of the fingers” and that Suphala’s teachers, Zakir Hussain and Alla Rakha, are the two greatest tabla players of our time. The main topics, however, are her gig at the Greenwich Village townhouse of Diane Von Furstenberg, and her friendships with Salman Rushdie and rock-and-roll sons Sean Lennon and Harper Simon. I wondered if Suphala could be the first counter-example to the claim that if you’ve made it in New York, you can make it anywhere. The article admitted that, “in New York, where guitarists and vocalists are as plentiful as pigeons, tabla players are scarce and in demand.” Could technical competence and beauty be enough to create this excitement? Perhaps in the Bay Area, where good tabla players are almost as plentiful as good guitarists, she might not have made much of an impression. Other students of Zakir Hussain told me she was a dedicated student, but didn’t refer to her as the “tabla goddess” of her press releases. I thought I might need to puncture a hype balloon, so I asked for a press package, and prepared to be “critical” in the traditional sense.
But the good news is: The rave reviews are fully justified. Because she is playing with a larger fusion ensemble, it is not possible for Suphala to show the kind of tabla virtuosity required for the intimate duo format of traditional Hindustani music. For that reason, if someone must be given the title of “tabla goddess,” I would nominate Anuradha Pal, who exhibits a better command of traditional tabla technique in her purely classical performances. Ms. Pal is also somewhat prettier, in my opinion, which I suppose should count for something in a goddess competition. But if we ignore the album photographs, and irrelevant comparisons to other artists who happen to share her gender, two undeniable facts remain: Suphala’s tabla playing is first-rate, and her new album stands out as an impressive achievement by any standard.
In certain ways, the album is similar to the music of Karsh Kale and Talvin Singh, for it combines tabla with both electronic and acoustic Western music. But the balance between the three elements is very different, perhaps because Suphala’s music evolved in jazz clubs and concerts, rather than techno-dance parties. The most distinctive acoustic instruments are multi-tracked trombones and violins, and their main function is to play broad textural strokes punctuated by subtle rhythmic fluctuations, reminiscent of minimalist composers Phillip Glass and John Adams. On some tracks, this function is also performed by synthesizers, sitar, bansuri, guitars and vocalists (including Nora Jones, who was an unknown when she recorded for Suphala). There are a few nice solos by these melodic instruments, some poetry recitations, and even actual songs with lyrics. But the main purpose of the melodies is to provide a foundation for rhythmic solos that combine tabla with electronic and other acoustic percussion.
The overall effect is a sense of exuberant rhythmic energy surrounding an inner circle of melodic calm, which captures perfectly the sense of being a creative person in the fiercely competitive chaos of New York. Suphala’s record company Rasa Records strives to resolve this conflict by creating a “magical place where sensuality, spirituality and style converge” and combating the idea that “spirituality meant austerity and denial of the senses.” Vajrayana Buddhism and Tantric Hinduism share similar values, but warn that this path can degenerate into narcissistic materialism. Suphala’s music does effectively combine the sensual and the spiritual, and has captured the attention of the stylish. But can it inspire traditional spiritual values like altruism or courage?
Wherever she may have gotten the inspiration, Suphala has those virtues in abundance. Last February, she performed with men in Kabul, where austerity and sensory denial has been at its most virulent and violent. Under the Taliban, men and women were forbidden to perform on the same stage, and music itself was banned altogether. There are still people in Kabul willing to enforce those values with violence, but Suphala’s example inspired those who see spirituality in music and beauty. Anyone critical of her spiritual authenticity had better be willing to do at least as much.
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.