The Tabla originates from North India and consists of a set of two drums, treble and bass. They are distinct from most other drums in the world, in that each drum is played with a different hand. Very seldom do you see both hands playing on one drum. The drums have a regal history dating back centuries to the time of Princes and their Kingdoms whereall Palaces had their own set of full time musicians, including Tabla players.
The performer sits on the floor with the drums in front of him, which are nestled in two supporting rings called ‘Adharas’. The high pitched drum is cylindrical in shape and stands about 10 inches high. It is made from wood, usually shisham or nim, and is hollowed out from the top like a big cup, remaining sealed at the bottom. The drum has only one skin, generally about 5 inches in diameter. The shell is wider at the bottom than the top by about 1 and a half inches.
The bass tabla is basically a small single headed kettle drum made form nickel alloy. (It is sometimes possible to find them made from clay.)
Both drum heads (Puri) are made from goat skin and have a complicated hoop (Pagri) which is woven around the edge of the sin. The skins are fixed to the drum with a long leather strap called ‘Chot’. This strap is threaded through the hoop and underneath the drum through a small leather ring.
Both inside and outside the skin there is a thin rim about 1 inch wide running around the edge. This is called the ‘Kinar’ or ‘Kani’ and is also made of goat skin.
The long leather strap is pulled tight, bringing the drum skin to tension. The treble drum is pulled a lot tighter and needs small wooden blocks (Gattha) inserted between the shell and the straps to get it up to the pitch required. Sometimes you see smaller wooden blocks used for the bass tabla. (In Benares a completely different method is used for the bass tabla. They use rope and metal rings to get the tension.)
The skins then have paste patches applied to give the skins the resonance required. These patches (Shyahi) are made from a paste of iron filings, flour and ground hill stone. In India a chemical is also added to stop ants eating the patches. The treble drum is tuned by knocking the wooden blocks with a small hammer. Finer tuning is then carried out by hitting the leather hoop of the skin either up or down, depending on the pitch required.
The drum is tuned to the tonic or dominant note in the scale of the piece of music to be played. It is important to bear in mind that Indian music does not change key, and so if you play music that does then you will need more than one high pitched Tabla to hand. The bass Tabla is generally not tuned to a particular pitch largely because of the glissando technique that is used on that drum.
The Indian phonetic system.
BOLS (Literally ‘word’)
As opposed to a system of written notation, Indian percussionists use a vocabulary or words to represent the patterns they play. These words are intended to mimic the sounds that come from the drums. Each stroke and combination of strokes has its own word or set of words.
It is possible to look at these words as an alphabet of phrases, out of which longer and longer patterns are composed. The words have no semantic meaning apart from the patterns they represent. Generally these words are the first thing a student learns when learning a new composition. Once they get familiar with the words of a composition they go on to playing it on the drums. It splits the difficulty of learning a new piece into two first learning the rhythm of it and then the fingering and note articulation.
The vocabulary you find in North Indian, Hindustani percussion is notably different from that of South Indian, Carnatic percussion, both in the words they use and also in the general construction of the rhythmic compositional system.
Pete Lockett will be releasing a book on the Tabla with Soar Music towards the end of 2001. Keep up to date at www.petelockett.com
See also introduction to Tabla and Indian Tals by Peyman Nasehpour