Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Tabla and Irish Music

Solo Tabla is a very solitary pursuit - day in and day out one needs to spend quality time playing, reflecting and obsessing about the minutiae of rhythm. There is an incessant need for interesting melodies, for me anyways, to be able to provide the canvas on which to paint, splash or spill the elements of my repertoire and enjoy the child-play; wipe it all clean and have another go. And another. And another. Till it is like a perfect marriage and the melody and rhythm go together like a horse and carriage. After a while, the neighing of the horse gets annoying so it is time to move on to another animal. So it is with me and melodies.

It is with this in mind that I occasionally go searching for melodic loops or just pick a genre out of the blue. Like Blues. Nah, the rhythm is a monochromatic blue. Or Belly-dancing. Nah, the jiggles give me the giggles. And thus one fine day, I landed in the world of Celtic music. Now here is a rhythmic equal to tabla, if there ever was one.

I do not exactly recall how I got there but as I listened to Tim Chaisson play a tune on the fiddle, my jaw dropped. I could sense the exact contour of the rhythm inherent in the melody and could actually predict how the melodic improvisations would go. It felt as if I had given him a Tabla composition and said :  Here, play a melody that fits to this rhythmic template. This is the theme and this is how the variations on the theme should proceed. This was it. I had fallen hook, line and sinker for Irish Traditional Music. And what has become somewhat of a recurring pattern over the years, I knew exactly what was going  to happen for the next few months. Fiddle, Fiddle and Fiddle. Nothing but the Fiddle.

So here is where we have to thank the stars, or whatever imaginary deity one uses as the gratitude receptacle, for living in a world where there is so much information literally at our fingertips. I read a fair bit about Irish Traditional Music, listened to a ton of it in recorded form, sought it out in live-settings locally and basically tried to immerse myself in it and feel it. And I kid you not, I have discovered that it is the easiest way to listen to classical Tabla without listening to Tabla. I am not sure how else I can put it : rhythm is so tightly integrated into the Irish traditional tunes that it is a pinnacle of bite-size musical sophistication in a one-man-band format. Bar none. Measure none. The fact that this sophistication occurs in a folk as opposed to a classical idiom is completely irrelevant, although it may appear strange to traders of academic superficiality and labels in the various musical traditions. No wonder, then, that fiddlers have no real need for accompaniment. The best an accompanist can do in the Irish traditional music context is play something that subtly accentuates the melody or the inherent underlying rhythm and, in general, maintain a plus-minus contribution on the right side of zero. That's all. So that's the game, but boy, is there fun to be had within those constraints !

So let us play. First some background - skip this section if any mention of music theory incites a yawn. I promise to keep it short, sweet and mostly pertinent. Let us just look at the basic definitions :

Irish traditional dance music in general, and the jigs and reels, in particular, have a very definite structure. Most compositions are structured in 8 bar repeated phrases, of which there will be at least two. Jigs are in 6/8 time and reels are in 4/4 time or variants thereof. The expansions take a binary (A.B.) form; both sections are usually repeated, forming an AABB or ABAB structure.

Classical Tabla compositions, the kaidas and relas, have a very definite structure. Most compositions are structured in 8 bar repeated phrases, of which there will be at least two. Tisra-jati compositions are in 6/8 time and chatusra-jati kaidas and relas are in 4/4. The expansions take a binary (AB, bhari-khali) form; both sections are usually repeated, forming an AABB or ABAB structure.

No coincidence then that classical Indian Tabla and traditional Irish jigs and reels are a perfect match. Some times the musical progression gives the feel of a question and answer format; other times it feels like the weaving of a braid. This particular aesthetic is common to both the forms and I can really feel that when these are combined.

So let us raise a pint for the long line of masters in both traditions who have given us these gifts of incredible music : layers of infinite complexity, all hiding underneath an illusive veneer of simplicity !

First up, a traditional tabla rela played along to Dot Mckinnon's Reel played by Tim Chaisson of PEI. The tune was composed by his father, Kevin Chaisson, and he has recorded this particular tune (as have several other fiddlers, he says) with his Celtic band, The East Pointers.

Next up, is a sequence of several Tabla compositions (some kaidas, some relas) played to the same tune - Cooley's Reel, a well-worn melody familiar to most Irish fiddlers. I got it off an instructional video for that particular composition presented by Kevin Burke (who possesses oh such a butter-smooth touch on the fiddle ..).

It is all rather experimental so it may ruffle some feathers with the traditionalists in either tradition, but that is all right. A bit of that is always worth it. So if you do play Tabla and would like to play along to something a little bit different; put on a jig or a reel, and motor right along.

(The originals, the tunes sans my tabla contamination, are available here and here )

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Another block-buster merger


26 November, 2015

Stock Exchange Release

Mumbai and New York, November 26, 2015 - Yamadoot Enterprises, India's premier merchant of death, and Grim Reaper Corporation, the market leader in North America and Europe for mortality services, announce their intention to combine to create a global leader in end of life solutions. The all-share transaction, on the basis of 1 Yamadoot share for every 1 Grim Reaper share, puts the market value of the transaction at a whopping 101 Billion US dollars, based on the average share-price of the two companies over the last three months.

Yama Raj, the CEO of Yamadoot Enterprises, will head the combined entity with Grimm Ripper Sr. heading the integration effort, which is expected to be completed within a year. The combined company will be uniquely positioned to serve the worldwide pre and post death market bringing about the best of the East and the West, opening up access to alternative versions of heaven and hell to customers in all markets.

"We have been in the cloud, long-before cloud became a buzzword", Yama Raj says, "There will be synergies realized in the operations, but I do not expect any workforce reduction as the combination will open the flood-gates for value-added services that we will be uniquely positioned to offer. Some of the combined work-force of over 100,000 employees, primarily soul-escorts, will be re-vectored into new positions in sales, marketing and delivery of new services. There is absolutely no reason for us to shut down any of the blast-furnaces or giant rosary ferris wheel holograms aboard the satellites serving the Western Hemisphere, just the escort services to those could now be provided by employees from elsewhere in the combined company, with appropriate cultural and sensitivity training, of-course."

"There will be challenges", Grimm Ripper Sr. says, "but we have given considerable thought over the last few months and have a solid plan moving forward to capitalize on our complementary strengths. The world is truly global today. We have unprecedented choice in how we live, where we live and what we consume, with absolutely no limitations imposed by geography; the combined company will extend the same choice now to the after-life."

Forward-Looking Statements

Insert bull-shit-legalese for stock-market press releases here - we ain't responsible if you get suckered in by whatever we say.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Cold White Beautiful

It is all a matter of perspective : old man winter has no power if the heart can seek beauty in the pristine trails in the forests.

शीतम श्वेतम सुन्दरम 
शिशिर ऋतु, शीत लहर की 
शीशा शाख शबनम

A transliteration :
  sheetam shvetam sundaram
  shishir ritu, sheet lehar kee
   sheeshaa shaakh shabnam

A loose translation (minus all the shee-laden alliterations) :
      cold white beautiful
winter season, the cold wind turns
       dewdrops to glass

All photographs are courtesy of my good friend, Weng-Hong Yim, who took these in Gatineau Park recently. The background music is courtesy of the wonderful iTablaPro app (preset of Raga Madhamaad Sarang, Taal SitarKhani , 125 bpm)

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Ode to a Tabla composition

Ustad Amir Hussain Khan was one of the greatest Tabla players to have ever lived. And as a composer, he simply has no equal . There is an elegant simplicity in his compositions that seem to take on the various hues of a rainbow as the playing speed increases. For us mere mortals, playing at even the violet end of the VIBGYOR spectrum is immensely pleasurable; one can only imagine how these compositions would have sounded from his Tabla with his hands in full flight.

Here is a meta-bandish (meta-composition)  : a (vocal) bandish about one of his (tabla) bandishes. < digression // I do not do compositions any more, I do meta-compositions; said the quack as he pensively scratched his beard while mentally undressing that spectacled, artsy bohemian ... // end of digression >. The subject of my song is the following composition : one of Ustad Amir Hussain Khan's signature compositions, that just about every professional Tabla player plays, or at least attempts to play.

Tabla composition : Rela,  Taal : Teentaal, Composer: Ustad Amir Hussain Khan

dhagetere ketegege terekete dhingine dhagetere ketegege nanakine tinekine
taaketere ketekeke terekete tinekine dhagetere ketegege nanagine dhingine

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Ruing The Rainbow : Ontario Elections 2014

political punditry picture perfected
each and every newspaper rejected
 limericks lynched
and haikus hacked
my blog, a mausoleum of poetry dejected

(please click on the image to enlarge)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Poetry Of Optical Fiber

(please click on the image to enlarge)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

I have Tabla on my mind

One of the advantages of growing up in India is that one gets a carte-blanche licence to murder poetry in several languages. A steady diet of Hindi movies in childhood ensures that the child packs his or her cache full of cliches to last a lifetime with a generous smattering of Urdu for love, Hindi for forgiveness and Punjabi when you need to show someone their place.

This collection of mine can be best described as a Woodstock where the words of the saints make free love to the chants of the Sufis, a sumo-wrestler recites Haikus and Kafka plays Tabla while being chained to a cubicle to add an element of the macabre. Close your eyes and take the image in, if you will.

Let us proceed. I will try to do a workable English translation for the quips but the potency of poetry is lost in translation; so please bear with the sumo-wrestler as some of the subtleties may get lost in the folds. You can click on the images to enlarge, if you so wish.

We will start off with something mildly philosophical : Does life have any meaning ? Or, if you prefer to look through the cross-hairs of the religious rifle : Does human life have any meaning ?  Of-course, it does not. The sooner you can get over it, the sooner you can start enjoying your sheer good fortune of being alive.

death of trees, the fool recites tabla-phrases
every severed branch, a tabla of different tuning

This year, Guru Purnima (Teachers' Day) falls on July 12, 2014. I take my Tabla lessons over Skype from my teacher Pt. Arvind Mulgaonkar; here is my card for the occasion.

fortunate Kulpreet, finds a Guru online
uses head for a tabla, a receding hairline

Now I will baldly go where no bald man has gone before. Only bald Tabla players are allowed to make bald Tabla player jokes. My tribute to Maestro  Zaakir Hussain, the great Tabla-player; who no doubt has a great hair-stylist who is also up there somewhere where the tall grasses grow.

In jest, Kulpreet asked for Zaakir's locks
God yanked from the roots, the kaafir's locks
[ kaafir means a non-believer, apostate ]

It is a common human failing to seek short-cuts where none exist. In Tabla, as in life, riyaaz (deliberate, sustained practice) makes perfect.

the same cure for all ills, is a common practice
a potion apothecary, practice, practice, practice

Of-course, hours and hours of long, sustained practice makes a nice segue into the phenomenon of the angry wife. That slammed door, that you hear, my friend, is the door of the fridge in the kitchen; the canvas upon which is painted the art-work of steadily multiplying sticky notes of
things-to-be-done-around-the-house while you incessantly beat your drums !

a mullah in a temple, a pandit in a mosque
a wife serene obedient, in your dreams, kulpreet

And finally :

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Tulips Tabla Raaga Bahaar

The Tulips at Dows Lake (site of the Ottawa Tulip Festival) were simply awesome this year; perhaps compensating for the extremely long winter. I took some pictures at the crack of dawn (5:30 AM, May 19, 2014). Why this early ? Golden Rule of Photography - shoot just before sun-rise and just-after sunset. Plus, I was less likely to get strange looks as I lugged the Tabla from flower-bed to flower-bed. (Anyone up at that hour looking at tulips had to be certifiably-strange and the rules explicitly state that strange people cannot give strange looks to other strange people).

I have grafted some Tabla onto the tulips and set the composition in Raaga Bahaar, the raaga of the Spring season (when birds and bees and men of religion are all horny). The tune is a well-worn traditional melody in that raaga; if you were to ask anyone familiar with Indian Classical Music for something in Raaga Bahaar, they would likely sing or play something very similar to this tune.

A Tabla for two then at the Tulip Festival Tea Party ? Say no more.
(a text of the song and some translation notes follow; background music courtesy of iTablaPro )

Tulips Tabla Raaga Bahaar

dheeray-dheeray abb kay aayee bahaar
khilay gul gul khilay bayshumaar
gine-dhine dhine-gine
gun ginoon tine kine
na-mumkin guru bin
dhinedhine dhagenedhi nedhagene dhinedhine
dhingindhingindha- dhingindhingindha- dhingindhingin/ aayee bahaar
kite roag tite kite
din raat tite kite
kite taka tite kite
titekitetitekite dhadhatitekite dhatitekitetite kitedhatitekite
titekitetitekitedha- titekitetitekitedha- titekitetitekite/ aayee bahaar
dheeray-dheeray dhire dhire
dhire baney dhirdhir phire
dhirata dhirata dhire
dhatrakadhi redhiredhi redhiredhi redhikite
dhiredhirekitetakadha- dhiredhirekitetakadha- dhiredhirekitetaka/ aayee bahaar

Translation and Notes
slowly arrived spring this time
blooms flowers, flowers blooms countless
gine-dhine dhine-gine (dhinegine is a tabla phrase)
I count your virtues
impossible (to progress) without guru
dhinegine ... (dhinegine based composition of Pt. Arvind Mulgaonkar)
what ailment is this tite-kite (titekite is a tabla phrase)
day and night tite-kite
till what time tite-kite
titekite ... (titekite based composition of Pt. Arvind Mulgaonkar)
slowly (play) dhire-dhire (dhiredhire is a tabla phrase)
dhire becomes dhirdhir (double) then
dhire... (dhiredhire based composition of Pt. Arvind Mulgaonkar)

Friday, May 09, 2014

Midnight Train To Maalkauns

I have loved Maalkauns for as far as I can remember, even when I did not know what it was. There is just something so extraordinarily special about this raaga that it I can never tire of it. Every now and then, it possesses me for weeks on end, where nothing else matters and I see the world through the pentatonic hues of its notes - Sa ga Ma dha ni Sa.

This song of mine has allowed me to indulge in several of my loves at the same time - poetry, maalkauns, tabla, and thinking about trains. Mutual co-operation is not known to work in a harem environment but somehow maalkauns has pulled it all together, I think.

So sit back, relax and allow me to take you on a ride on the Midnight Train to Maalkauns. (the text of the song and a translation follows; the background music is courtesy of iTablaPro)

midnight train to maalkauns
ve tu gaddi charh maalkauns dee
sur-sangati som-ras aalaa
saakee yati taal-pyaala
gamaka meend taan-ras aalaa
chakkar challan chaal tintaala
maal maal-kauns kamaal
karey layakaari ga-ddi-dee chaal

hey you, get on the maalkauns train
the interplay of notes is an intoxicating drink par excellence
the server is the flow of rhythm, the cycle of rhythm is the cup
the nectar of gamak, meend and taan is exquisite *
the wheels spin to the cycle of tintaal
maalkauns abounds in riches
movement of the train does syncopation

(* gamak, meend and taans are musical ornamentations)

I dedicate this composition to the fond memory of my father, S. Surjeet Singh, Station Master, Northern Railways, India with whom I explored the rhythms of the rails and rode many a midnight train. If this piqued your curiosity about Maalkauns even a tiny bit, have a look at Rajan Parrikar's amazing treatise on it with a superb collection and commentary here  :

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Poetic Pollination, Spiritual Science

What makes a flower beautiful ?

Ask a poet and be prepared for a mixed-metaphor-medley.
Ask a monk and be prepared for wishy-washy-wisdom.
Ask Richard Feynman, the renowned physicist, and you will get the answer :

I have a friend who's an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don't agree with very well. He'll hold up a flower and say "look how beautiful it is," and I'll agree. Then he says "I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing," and I think that he's kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is ... I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it's not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there's also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts.

In Punjabi, we can take the essential idea and simply get rid of all politeness, thus : "Kalakaaran ne koi theka nahin leya hai phullan dee khobsooratee daa". (The artists do not have a monopoly on the beauty of flowers). My song, in Punjabi, on the Raat Dee Rani (Queen of the Night, Night Jasmine, Cestrum Nocturnum) is a construct of my own, similar reflections; perhaps a direct result of reading way too much Richard Dawkins. I have based the melody on Bageshri, a late-night raaga that evokes a sense of a serene wonder for me. The text and a somewhat loose English translation follows.

Cestrum Nocturnum Bageshri

raat dee raani
khirhee mere vehday
udan sugandhiyaan
saanjh saveray

suttiyan titliyaan
bhoond suttay saare
karan kisay hoar nu
mehkaan ishaarey

charheya chann, chaanani ne
phull chittay rangey
ekk phullay khehan
doojay behan patangay

aayee basant, kherhey anant
kaisiyan inaayatan
darwin dee soch sach
rahiyaan naa bujhaarataan


queen of the night
blooms in my courtyard
wafts of fragrance
at dawn and dusk

butterflies are sleeping
the wasps are all asleep
the smell signals
somebody else

the moon rises, moonlight
colors the flowers white
brushing a flower, then
sitting on another, the moths

spring arrives, blooms unlimited
what joyous wonders
darwin's thought, the truth
riddles no longer

Friday, November 22, 2013

Tabla, Tabla And More Tabla

Some creations from the last couple of months, inspired by : you guessed it, Tabla. And some dabbling in photography.

Celebrating the Ottawa summer with some smooth jazz. There is a method to the madness in how the pieces of fruit get arranged depending on what composition is being recited. What a tabla nerd, one might say, and one would not be wrong !

Beautiful flowers meet the lovely strokes from the Ajrada tradition of Tabla : a combination conceived in Pelee Island, Ontario.

A composition for my Tabla teacher Pt. Arvind Mulgaonkar featuring some of his brilliant sketches :

Nikaas is a term that does not lend itself easily to translation. In the context of a given composition of Tabla, it may encompass any and all of the following :  hand and finger placement, whether the stroke produces an open (resonant) or closed (non-resonant) sound, whether the played stroke corresponds to the recited stroke, how the fingering changes, if at all, when moving from medium to fast speed etc. etc. Having said that, it is a general Indian tendency to make things unnecessarily more mystical and convoluted than they really are. No doubt, however, that a good teacher takes the mystery out of a lot of the intricacies of rhythm that would otherwise take a person a long time to figure out. I am very fortunate.

The Lyrics:

nikasat naahin nikaas guru bin

chalan kaiday rele rav
kabb hai kinaar kabb lav
guru saadhey haath jab
baney baayen kee goonj tab

A rather loose translation :

not possible to figure out nikaas without guru

chalan kaidas relas rav (various kinds of tabla compositions)
when is kinar when is lav ( kinar is the drum edge , lav is the area between the edge and inner black spot)
guru fixes(develops) your hand when
the baya(the left, bass drum) starts to boom(resonate) then

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Pind Mereya - Ode to Badial, my village

Fractal art, birds of Punjab and a somewhat random collage of memories of my village - Badial, District Hoshiarpur, Punjab, India. 

The background music application is iTablaPro - a lovely app from Prasad Upasani. The recording has been made using GarageBand.

The lyrics are somewhat loosely based on facts. What follows is a virtual tour of the village, including some of the places referred to in the song. The map is from Google Maps.

A. Kikkar trees around the now non-existent well. Reserve your tickets now for the longest running musical in town. The Cacophony Of Crows. One show daily at sunset. It is spectacular.

B. Doodh-a-dhaari. A shrine to some sort of goddess of milk. If your cow is not getting pregnant, offer some milk here. If you have lots of milk now, offer some milk here. Not sure who consumes it but the cats around the neighborhood are particularly fat.

C. Mahasatee. Rumoured to be the first settlement in the village. There is a ramshackle hut here and a tomb surrounded by fruit trees (Jamun, Amb and Shahtoot) and bushes of bhang (cannabis). Perfect spot for someone running from the law and is usually occupied by a renegade just like that. The occupant usually leaves as mysteriously as he arrived. People fill in the blanks for where he came from and where he went and embellish it suitably to be included in the folklore of the place.

D. Gugga. In the same complex as Mahasatee. The final resting place of Gugga - some sort of H2O don. Light a lamp here before you dig for water. Make an offering of dalia (porridge) if you strike water. The vagabond will appreciate it. Mangoes and Marijuana do not exactly make a balanced diet. 

E. Patti-Wala-Choe, the seasonal river that gushes during the monsoon and is down to a trickle for the rest of the year. Herders bring their goats and buffaloes to graze around the periphery. Ber bushes. Prickly Cactus. Excellent spot for bird-watching. Tittar-Kabootar. Ghuggi-Tateehree. Chirhi-ChakkiRaaha. How could one not love this language ?  List a few birds and the names just roll off the tongue and into a poem.

F. Mango Groves. Beware of the old man lying on a broken cot. Unless you are working on your PhD on "The Elements of Grotesque and Alliliteration in Contemporary Punjabi Swear Words".

G. Fields of Sugarcane. Happy Valentine's Day.

H. Village Gurdwara. It is a low-budget, avant-garde sort of affair. More Le Corbusier functional, less Las Vegas opulent kitsch. Except for the loud-speaker, there we go all out.

I. Cremation Grounds, the Final Frontier. Watch out for deadly snakes in the surrounding bushes. And mysterious packages of Toona  - black-magic and voodoo. Leave a package here if you want to cast a spell. A bigger package if you want to counter a spell. An even bigger and nastier package if you want to counter the counter-spell.

Wish you the best on the rest of your journey. It has been my pleasure showing you around the village.