When the Tablaman Comes to Town, Everybody Gets Down
Indian percussionist Sandip Burman had been studying the ancient art of tabla playing in his native Calcutta until he came to the United States at the age of 20 on a sponsorship from Music for World Peace.
“I was left in the gas station, 35 cents in my pocket, in California,” Burman recalls. “I had one student. Luck favored me. I called him up; he drove five hours to pick me up. I stayed in his house. Then from there, I got a couple more students. Then I started to tour around, and ended up in San Francisco.”
Burman eventually found his way to Chicago, where he started making connections with the jazz community. He has performed with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette, and jazz saxophonist Randy Brecker.
These days, though, he spends most of the year on the road, touring colleges, universities and high schools across the U.S. He likes to perform in academic settings, he says, because “I’ve always liked the educational part of Indian music. It’s so deep. We’re just learning every day.”
Burman and his band roll into Oberlin Saturday night for a show in Warner Concert Hall at 8 p.m.
Burman’s approach is slightly different from that of most tabla players. He plays tabla tarang (tarang means “wave” or “sound”), which is a set of about 13 pitched, tunable drums that turn drumming into a melodic event. Whereas a tabla drummer would normally only be concerned with the tala, or rhythmic cycle, of a particular composition, players of tabla tarang are able to interact with the raga, or melodic line, as well.
“Tabla tarang is a really unique thing,” Burman explains. There are not many people in India or in the world who perform tabla tarang because, “It is hard for the body. You have to do yoga. Plus, you have to learn two professions. You have to learn the raga, plus you do the tala. You’re playing total melody on it. I’m working as a melody player rather than as a drummer.”
The drums are tuned to pitches in the Western scale, and laid out before the drummer. He has a range of over an octave, giving him the opportunity to converse melodically with other instruments. Burman’s Oberlin show will feature saxophonist Colin Mason and bamboo flutist John Wubbenhorst.
“It’s hard to be a guru. It’s not that easy,” Burman says. “You have to sacrifice, I guess. Before you tell somebody, ‘Control yourself,’ you have to control your own self first. Then you are an example. So I have to see how much I can learn, how much I can pick up with the most musical musicians, and then pass that lineage to my students.”
Burman faces a big challenge in bringing together Indian music’s complex rhythmic cycles (he says, casually, “We’re going to play five-and-quarter rhythm cycle, eight-and-half, you know,”) and the precise melodic lines and improvisation of Western jazz.
In many ways, Burman’s diverse influences are evidence of the continued globalization of jazz; its boundaries are breaking down as other cultures adopt and transform one of America’s best-loved exports. The day is not far away when the distinction between jazz and world music will cease to be useful.
Traditional music in India is treated with the same reverence classical music enjoys in America. Burman has performed his compositions for tabla tarang a number of times with chamber orchestra. “All music doesn’t have harmony, because it’s more soloistic. But if you know how, you can create it in such a way that everybody can have a part,” he says. He found working with the orchestra to be “a huge challenge. I like to call it ‘innovation within tradition,’ rather than fusion.”
Aside from his role as a musical teacher, Burman, like many musicians across the world, also sees his work in a spiritual light. He explains, “You have to do your work for its own sake. Pour the water for the sake of pouring the water. You have to let the brain be centered. If you do that, you can mix everywhere, go where you please, and the evil will not touch you. It is like the example of the lotus leaf. It is just there. It will help us to give up attachment. All of the time, I find that selfishness is silhouetting itself as virtue. This world is not our ambition. It is only one of the stages.”