Along with the human voice, percussion instruments hark back to the earliest musical origins of humanity. Banging on things to create war sounds, tribal chants and perform ceremonies has been part of human social connections since, well, the beginning of humans.
Drums are pervasive in every culture. In Indian music, the tabla, two drums which can create multitudes of sounds, have traditionally been relegated as support for singers, sitar players, flutists and court musicians. The tabla is essential to Hindustani music (North Indian classical music) as well as folk music of various regions of the country. They have traditionally provided rhythmic support, but innovators like Zakir Hussain and Talvin Singh have brought tabla out of the background and on occasion turned it into the principal instrument — the lead singer, if you will.
Enter Talavya, a quartet of tabla players who will perform at Queens University's Dana Auditorium on May 11 and evoke ancient Indian rhythms, but at the same time bring the storied percussion instrument to the forefront and further into the international realm.
"Our goal is to present Indian classical music in a contemporary language that can be enjoyed by more people," explains Rushi Vakil, performer and Talavya group leader. "The language of tabla is really graceful, full of different tempos, energies and emotions. All the shades of music can be found in it. Talavya is an idea; a concept originated by my guru, my father, Pandit Divyang Vakil."
During performances, the group works to find a balance between improvisation and fixed portions of the music. "Everything can't be improvised and everything can't be composed, otherwise there would be no originality," Vakil explains. "We can make changes as per the audience wants and we can do something different every time."
But they also want to make Indian classical music fun, since many people find it to be too complex. "Talavya is a sugar-coated pill that makes the other things go down easy," Vakil says. "Then, with this type of sugar pill, people will be attracted to the art of classical music."
One manner in which Talavya increases awareness is through workshops while on tour. "Indian music is a very deep art. It has amazing concepts and ideas behind it," Vakil says. "In workshops, we try to explain some of this in the simplest way possible so the audience is engaged better. Even among Indians, they view classical music as very difficult. So the workshops make the audience feel like participants. You don't have to be specially trained to enjoy classical music."
In skillful hands, the tabla can create myriad jaw-dropping sounds, including a galloping horse, insects chirping, rainfall and distant thunder.
The players in Talavya — Vakil, Sahil Patel, Mike Lukshis and Kaumil Shah — have gone through years of intensive training. All hail from India, except U.S.-based Lukshis. "Michael is highly accomplished and has been coming to India for many years," Vakil says. "He is like a brother to all of us and is a good match for the quartet."
The quartet performs developed compositions interspersed with improvisation, meditative pieces, lightning fast interplay and age-old rhythms, adjusting on the mood of the night and the audience reaction. Heena Patel accompanies the quartet on harmonium, keeping the tempo for the tablas.
They have performed with numerous world music players, while each player is also an accomplished soloist and performer, as well. Rushi Vakil is also a composer and has worked with the Korean National Orchestra, among others, as well as scored music for Bollywood.