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  • Writer's pictureAkasha Usmani

The Australian who loves tabla

Sam Evans is the first Australian to have a PhD in tabla and is also the founding director of the Melbourne Tabla School. Based in Melbourne, Evans is a performer, composer, and a teacher. An Australian musician who plays the tabla and has spent many years in training and research in India, to integrate culture, music and instruments of India in Australia. He spoke to Akasha Usmani.

Founding Director of the Melbourne Tabla School, Sam Evans

Akasha Usmani (AU) - You’re the first in Australia to have a PhD in tabla. What led you to research on this Indian instrument?

Sam Evans (SE) - I started playing a drum-kit in my early childhood and was playing professionally by the time I finished high school. While I liked the instrument very much, there were aspects about the drum-kit and the music played on it that I didn’t completely love, so I decided to take a journey to find another instrument. I sold everything I owned and started my journey by riding my bicycle over 2000 km up the east coast of Australia. My adventure took me throughout Asia, Europe, and Africa, listening, studying and playing different drumming traditions. It was in India that I found an instrument like no other. The tabla had everything I was looking for: complexity, sophistication, musicality, repertoire and a depth of history rare in the world of drumming. All this in a country so foreign to me, like a wonderful exciting alien world, I fell deeply in love with India and the tabla. I spent a decade over the next fifteen years living in India, dedicated to this incredible instrument and wonderful culture.

AU - How do you think Australia has accepted this Indian Instrument?

SE - Australia is one of the world’s most successful multicultural countries. You can find aspects of hundreds of cultures here, and Indian culture is today a big voice in contemporary Australia. Indian music is, of course, a huge part of Indian cultural heritage that is shared among the Indian diaspora and now, the broader Australian community. While some people still say to me, ‘you play tabla, what’s that?’ I have found a growing recognition of the instrument in the broader community. In the music industry and the music education industry, the tabla is well known and well respected. I play tabla in many different ensembles and a wide range of venues in Australia, from the famous Sydney Opera House to small house concerts and everything in between. The Melbourne Tabla School had the tabla accepted as part of the formal music education system over twelve years ago and students can now sit tabla exams as part of their final high school exams as well as attend university on the tabla at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. I don’t know of many other non-Indian countries that have recognised the tabla to this degree.

AU - What are the similarities and differences between Indian instruments and Western musical instruments?

SE - Indian and Western musical instruments share many things in common; pitch, melody, rhythm and the most important element, an ability to express the human condition through sound. The instruments in both traditions may be played to create beautiful music, be expressive and they all take many years of determination to master. Indian instruments follow a modal system of pitch and melody (one pitch at a time), unlike Western music, which is predominantly organised around chord-based harmony (multiple pitches at a time). The lack of chord-based harmony in Indian music has allowed Indian musicians to dedicate more time in creating complex and detailed systems for melody and rhythm. Western musicians, on the other hand, have dedicated much time in creating complex systems for harmony. Western instruments are commonly learnt through reading music, while Indian instruments are commonly learnt through the oral tradition. Importantly, the instruments in both traditions provide the player with alternate methods of self-expression, free from language, in which beautiful music is created.

AU - You’re the founder of Melbourne Tabla School. How was this started?

SE - After studying Tabla for over a decade in India with Pandit Anindo Chatterjee, as well as a brief time with Ustad Zakir Hussain, I returned to Australia to perform. At that time many people requested to learn to play the Tabla, both Australians and the Indian community. After seeking permission from my guru, I started teaching a few students in my home. Now, 13 years later, we are the largest Tabla school in the country with four different venues, multiple teachers and an ever growing community of Tabla players.

AU - Can you talk about your journey in India? What was your experience in India like?

SE - India is my second home, I often think it should have been my first! I love so many things about India. But it was not easy at first. My first experience in India was very tough, I was terribly sick and often tricked, but I persisted. I started learning from a variety of different Tabla teachers and was lucky enough to eventually become a disciple of the great Pandit Anindo Chatterjee in Kolkata. I love Kolkata and Bengali people in so many ways. For me, I grew up in a small town in a rural area and Kolkata has a population greater than my entire country! I love the food and the culture and people and mayhem. I have travelled throughout India; north, south, east, west and there are always more amazing things to be found. Of course, there are difficult aspects in India for a pasty white boy, but all of those pale in insignificance to the treasures I found and life lessons I learnt in India.

AU - How do you think music strengthens the cultural ties between the two countries?

SE - Cultural ties between India and Australia are very important and becoming more so each year. The Indian diaspora is one of the fastest growing populations in Australia. That means Indian culture is one of the fastest growing cultural traditions in Australia as well. Music is one of the most accessible forms of Indian culture, not just for Australians, but also for the Indian children that are growing up in Australia. These days many of the local councils are putting on big events for Holi and Diwali and these are often largely about food, music and dance. This means Australians are increasingly being exposed to Indian culture and aspects of Indian culture are subsequently being subsumed into Australian culture. I think Indian food was probably the first wave of Indian culture that tied Australians to India, and I would like to think music is the next wave. What could tie two cultures more than Australians learning and performing Indian music!

AU - Your album, The Tabla Project, explores the possibilities of the tabla outside its traditional music framework. How have you integrated the traditional instrument - tabla, to the music of today?

SE - In my humble experience of playing music on this planet over the past 35 years, to me, ‘the music of today’ is music that includes aspects of the world’s different musical traditions. How could it be any other way? Today we commonly find Western back-beats in Bollywood music and sitar in Western pop music. Integrating the tabla in this new tradition requires new approaches to the tabla. Playing with a variety of instruments and musicians from different musical cultures has placed the tabla in new and different music. I regularly work with musicians who come from Persian, Indonesian, Japanese and Western musical backgrounds. While we sometimes play music from a particular cultural tradition, and I find ways to integrate the tabla in that tradition, we more commonly strive to play music that includes aspects of different musical traditions but is not tied to any single tradition. In many of my projects these days, including The Tabla Project, I perform with multiple tabla pitches in a way that the pitch of the tabla is integrated within the harmonic structures of the music. The multiple tabla pitches can form part of the melodies or harmony or create new melodies. While doing this, I still maintain the left hand on the bayan drum, this means we still have the classic sound of the tabla and bayan in the music, but the pitch of the tabla changes to better situate the instrument in today’s new music.

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