Saturday, November 7, 2015

Tihai: Endings are Beginnings

I find myself home early from a gig, and energized, so I want to talk tihais. There's a video below if you just want music.

A tihai is a rhythmic pattern that repeats three times, often, but not always, landing on the sam (downbeat) of a tala (rhythmic) cycle. Unique to Indian classical music, both north and south (where it is called a mora), a tihai has 2 main features: the phrase that repeats three times, and the gap between the phrases.

This isn't going to be a scholarly article, just my observations, impressions and philosophy of tihais and all things cyclical. There will be minimal math.

A rhythmic pattern that repeats three times...that could mean, at its shortest: Dha Dha Dha
or, theoretically, a pattern that takes 3 years to complete.

Simple tihai:
Teteketagedighene Dha -
Teteketagedighene Dha -
Teteketagedighene Dha

Tihais can have tihais within them:

Teteketagedighene Dha - Teteketagedighene Dha - Teteketagedighene Dha - - -  - - - -
Teteketagedighene Dha - Teteketagedighene Dha - Teteketagedighene Dha - - -  - - - -
Teteketagedighene Dha - Teteketagedighene Dha - Teteketagedighene Dha

They can be's a tihai with 9 tihais within it:

Teteketagedighene Dha Dha Dha - ne Dha Dha Dha - ne Dha Dha Dha - - -  - - - -
Teteketagedighene Dha Dha Dha - ne Dha Dha Dha - ne Dha Dha Dha - - -  - - - -
Teteketagedighene Dha Dha Dha - ne Dha Dha Dha - ne Dha Dha Dha

Or, to use an example from the previous post, 27 tihais in one, with a bit of shorthand:

{DhaTunNaKetete Dha - ne Dha - ne Dha -
DhaTunNaKetete Dha - ne Dha - ne Dha -
DhaTunNaKetete Dha - ne Dha - ne Dha - - -
DhaTunNaKetete Dha - ne Dha - ne Dha -
DhaTunNaKetete Dha - ne Dha - ne Dha -
DhaTunNaKetete Dha - ne Dha - ne Dha - - -
DhaTunNaKetete Dha - ne Dha - ne Dha -
DhaTunNaKetete Dha - ne Dha - ne Dha -
DhaTunNaKetete Dha - ne Dha - ne Dha - - -  - - - -  - - - - } *3

So, that's a huuuuge tihai, made up of three smaller tihais, and each of those smaller tihais is itself made up of three even smaller tihais, and each one of THOSE tihais contains an even smaller tihai! Wild. Indian music was drilling down into particle physics before we even had a microscope on this planet.

Here's a graphic illustration of that:

This monster tintal tihai runs 16-16, 16.5-16.5 and 1-1

So. Math.

If you're in tintal, a 16 beat cycle, and you want to play a tihai that takes 2 tala cycles to complete (starting and ending on the 1st beat of the cycle), you have 33 beats to work with (16x2,+1...the downbeat of the next cycle). You can play an 11 beat phrase (11x3=33) and it will work. Tihais do not have to start from the first beat of a cycle though. They can start from anywhere. Nine. Three. Fourteen-and-a-half. 7-and-two-thirds. Doesn't matter, as long as your math is sound. There are people who can better explain the mathematics of tihais. It's not my speciality.

What I am interested in, though, is the concept. Of tihais, and of cycles.

Endings are Beginnings, Beginnings are Endings

Tihais are both beginnings and endings. Sure, you can play a tihai to finish a kaida, but it also marks the beginning of the next rhythmic cycle, the next chapter. Within a kaida, or an improv, tihais can mark chapters...the end of one section and simultaneously the beginning of the next section.

You've probably heard the expression 'When one door closes, another opens'. The full quote, by Alexander Graham Bell, is:

When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.
-Alexander Graham Bell

Which might be profound, depending on your mood. I certainly find it useful when big, painful changes happen.


Rhythmic time in Indian music is based on cycles. A cycle begins, and at the exact moment it finishes, the next cycle starts. One complete rotation of the earth makes one day. The earth orbits the sun, a process that takes 1 year. Our solar system is itself orbiting the centre of our galaxy, which takes about 230 million years. Google tells me that apparently our Milky Way Galaxy is not really orbiting anything, just drifting around aimlessly, but I bet you 230 lakh rupees it's drifting around in a certain raga that we haven't heard yet, in a great a cosmic alapana ;)

Plus I bet the entire universe is spinning. Everything is cycles. Light is cycles. Sound is cycles. Matter is made up of particles that are vibrating...more cycles. Maybe time itself is a cycle. This is heavy:

So. Tihais are cycles within cycles. You could theoretically play a tihai that took 3 years to complete. Call a year a cycle. It'd be a 12 beat cycle, with each beat taking a month. Let's choose January 1st as the downbeat, sam (even though March 21st, the 1st day of spring, is a better downbeat IMHO). Let's also pretend each month has 28 days.

Here's our tihai:
Teteketagedighene Dha - Dha - Dha - - -
Teteketagedighene Dha - Dha - Dha - - -
Teteketagedighene Dha - Dha - Dha -  - -  - -
Teteketagedighene Dha - Dha - Dha - - -
Teteketagedighene Dha - Dha - Dha - - -
Teteketagedighene Dha - Dha - Dha -  - -  - -
Teteketagedighene Dha - Dha - Dha - - -
Teteketagedighene Dha - Dha - Dha - - -
Teteketagedighene Dha - Dha - Dha

January 1: Te
January 7: te
January 14: ke
January 21: ta
February 1: ge
February 7: di
February 14: ghe
February 21: ne
March 1: Dha
March 14: Dha
April 1: Dha (1 month vacation! you deserve it)

Totally absurd (but someone should totally do it! 52 Kaidas challenge!) BUT! my point is that it's all perception. We measure our lives in the tala of the year. Your childhood a peshkar, teenage years the kaidas. University, maybe relas. Starting a family, gats. The older years, the poetry of parans and chakradars. And we all have a giant final chakradar tihai coming. Which will begin the next cycle.

When you're playing tabla, or any music, you could think of it in this way. Stages of life. I'm FINALLY getting to the video, if you haven't thought 'dude has finally lost his MIND!' and closed the browser window already.

This is a peshkar/kaida/rela that I learned from Pandit Suresh Talwalkar, and i want to do a cycle-by-cycle breakdown. I've wanted to do one of these forever! Maybe open the video in a separate window, and resize things so you can see both the video and the blog at the same time if that's useful. Or just listen.

Cycle 1: Theka, an intro phrase from khali (9th beat) then a tihai from 13¼
DhaDhinna (Dhatunna) DhaDhinna (Dhatunna) DhaDhinna Dha

Cycle 2: Peshkar theme 1, with a variation introduced on the 4th repeat, from 13

Cycle 3: Theme 1 again, with a variation from 5-9, then a tihai from 11⅞
Dha - kreDhaDhinna Dha ( - - terekite)
Dha - kreDhaDhinna Dha ( - - terekite)
Dha - kreDhaDhinna Dha  ... introducing terekite, foreshadowing theme 2...

Cycle 4: Peshkar theme 2, with a variation again introduced on the 4th repeat, from the 13th beat

Cycle 5: Theme 2 again, with the variation from the previous cycle from the 5th beat, and a tihai from 114/8 
Dha - kreDhaDhinna Dha - (DhagenaTerekite) [underlines denotes double]
Dha - kreDhaDhinna Dha - (DhagenaTerekite)
Dha - kreDhaDhinna Dha

Cycle 6: Peshkar theme 2 again, variation from 5, and a tihai from khali (9th beat)
KreDha - KreDha - Dhin na KreDha - KreDha - Thun na Dha -
KreDha - KreDha - Dhin na KreDha - KreDha - Thun na Dha -
KreDha - KreDha - Dhin na KreDha - KreDha - Thun na Dha

Cycle 7: Peshkar theme 2 w variations from 5 and 13 (i call this an idling cycle... prepping for tihai)

Cycle 8: Peshkar tihai:
{Dha - terekite Thin Na - - Dha - kreDha Thin na - -
                                               Dha - kreDha Thin na - -
                                               Dha - kreDha Thin na Dha - - - } *3

Cycle 9: Kaida! Theme, introduced without baya, with a variation & baya introduction from 13

Cycle 10: Kaida theme, full, with a variation from 13

Cycle 11: Minor variation (Ghe na instead of Dha - ) with a Dha Dha variation from 13

Cycle 12: Ghe na variation from 1, Dha Dha variation from 5, filled version from khali and a tihai from 13 (sort of..there's an intro phrase)
ge Dhatidhagena Dha terekite DhatiDhagena Dha - (kena)
                                                 DhatiDhagena Dha - (kena)
                                                 DhatiDhagena Dha

Cycle 13
: Now the kaida becomes home base, and rela phrases (of 7 & 9) are introduced, from beat 7, and then again from beat 15
The rela phrase is
Dha terekite TakeDhinneNaNaghene (7)
Dha terekite Dha kitetake DhinneNaNaghene (9)
(I'll use only the numbers from here on in)

Cycle 14: Kaida, rela from 3, kaida, rela from 7, kaida, rela from 11 through to sam
or, A 7-9 A 7-9; a 7-9, 7-9, 7-9
(lower case 'a' means khali)

Cycle 15: A 7-9, 7-9, 7-9; a 7-9, 7    {7 Dha - 7 Dha - 7 Dha}

Cycle 16: A 7-9, 7-9, 7-9; 7-9 7-4-4   {9 Dha - - 9 Dha - - 9 Dha}

Cycle 17: 7-9, 7-9, 7-9, 7-9; 7-9, 7-6    {9 Dha -kat- 9 Dha -kat- 9 Dha} 

Cycle 18: final tihai: 7-9, 7-4-6   7 Dha -ne 7 Dha -ne 7 Dha - (ge- din - ne)
                                                     7 Dha -ne 7 Dha -ne 7 Dha - (ge- din - ne)
                                                     7 Dha -ne 7 Dha -ne 7 Dha

Sooooo. The 1st 18 years of the life of a tabla composition. Lots of drama from 14-18, just like everyone. Note that there are 10 tihais in this progression, one used to start the whole thing going, then others to transition between sections, as punctuation within sections, and to end the piece (and start the next cycle).

That's Rattan Bhamrah on esraj, and this was a concert at Musideum in Toronto, July 8, 2014, as part of my Music:India series. 

Najia Alavi
On a sad note, the main camera was operated by a lovely woman by the name of Najia Alavi. She responded to my call for a volunteer to run a camera in exchange for a pair of tickets. We'd never met. She did an awesome job, as you can see, and we kept in touch periodically. Najia passed away, suddenly, tragically, in May 2015. RIP Najia.

Monday, November 2, 2015

re Surfacing


There's a full-on tabla-nerd post below, but first...

I've been absolutely touched and humbled by the response to my previous post. I've tried to respond individually to everyone, both friends and strangers, who have sent emails, shared, retweeted and commented here, and on Facebook and Twitter, but I want to say thank you. Thank you for your support, your encouragement and your kind words. A lot of people have used the word 'brave', and I understand why... it's ok to say 'I broke my arm', but it is still not ok to say 'I'm suffering an affliction of the thoughts are working against me...I'm working against myself'. That needs to change. If I can play a small part in that, then the vulnerability of opening up about it was absolutely worth it. I'm not sure I was brave. I sure didn't feel brave posting that.

If you are suffering depression, you are not alone. We needn't be brave to talk about it, and to seek help. Recognize your patterns, and discern which ones are helping, and which ones are not. This is a challenge, because they often overlap:


Depression is a looping disorder. This is purely my definition. Thoughts repeat, get magnified, coloured by anxiety, gaining weight and momentum, spinning faster and faster until they occupy almost the entire bandwidth of your mind. It takes an incredible force to kick out of that loop, but if the wheel is still spinning, it's entirely too easy to be drawn back in. Easy...comforting even (as horrible as that is), because it's familiar. There's a strange satisfaction in worrying, perhaps an evolutionary survival skill that is, while not entirely obsolete, maybe not quite as necessary today as it once was to our ancestors. A wise friend once told me 'worrying is praying for what you don't want to happen'. That has kicked me out of a few loops over the years. Jot it down and use it if you think it'll help.

But! looping is fucking amazing if you're a tabla player. FUCKING AMAZING! How else to repeatedly play a single phrase 100 or 1000 times to develop the muscle memory and technique to reproduce it in the hostile, distraction-laden environment of a stage or recording studio? I'm a looping fanatic. At times one song is on repeat for an entire day while I work on something. Sometimes a week. I learn new music by listening it dozens and dozens of times. It's how I come up with ideas...the very fundamental process of my creativity. I can get a mental centrifuge up to 10,000 RPM in no time, spinning out idea after idea. (Though sometimes nothing comes) Kaida phrases loop in my head, and slow-morph, variation to variation, an incredibly satisfying process that is...whoops....EXACTLY like worrying and simmering self-criticism.

So. How to keep the good looping, and discard the bad looping? Hmm. This is the challenge, for me, anyway. You could, saaay...check your thoughts! But how often? 50, 100 times a day? That ain't gonna work. Thinking about thinking is part of the problem. Think about THAT for a second ;). Thinking about thinking. We are the only beings on earth capable of such a feat (as far as we know...though I think dolphins are probably self-aware, and definitely cats) and it's a blessing 90% of the time. It's huge, and deep, and makes us who we are to a large extent. But when it goes wrong, it is not a good scene. Maybe we're in the awkward teenage years of consciousness...gangly of mind. Again...mindfulness meditation, specifically mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is vital, if you have a looping brain that likes to chew on its own thoughts. That storm happening immediately in front of you will drift away with your breath, and suddenly appear much less severe, lose power, and eventually dissipate. Find a course, or a regular practice near you, and join up. It's incredibly simple once you know how, but the challenge is maintenance.

I'm not sure if I want this blog to become 52 Kaidas with a side order of depression, so I dunno how much more I will write on this topic. But i might write more.

I recorded this this past summer while I was housesitting for my brother and his family. A break from a routine environment is often inspiring, no?

Jhaptal (10 beats). Two kaidas I learned from Pandit Suresh Talwalkar on 2 different study trips to his Taalyogi Ashram in Pune.

Wait, whaaat? No lehara! (I asked Sureshji why he used vocal leharas in his work, rather than the usual sarangi or harmonuim, to which he replied 'it's like ants crawling on my brain!'. Ha. There's some escape-from-looping wisdom for you right there!). The drum grooves are from a sample library, which I edited into a 10 beat groove from an 8 beat one...recite jhaptal's right in there.)

The first kaida:
Dha - DhatiDhagena Dhagethinna Dhagena DhageThinnakena
GhenaDhatiDhagena Dhagethinna Dhagena DhageThinnakena

and the second:

Dha-trekeDhetete Kena DhatiDhagena DhageThinnakena
TrekeDhetete KenaDha - DhatiDhagena DhageThinnakena

(note how the second line is a kind of reverse/reply to the first...the opening phrase flipped backwards, like a question)

You'll notice I don't play all the bayan strokes...something I've started to do for 2 reasons:
1. less than perfect technique, aka a weak left hand
2. space, and a more 'drumkit' sound. When you listen to someone playing drumkit, the kickdrum is not all that frequent (unless you're listening to death metal). I'm trying to pick and choose which bayan strokes I play to lend a certain flavour of funkyness to the parts.

Fun exercise: play a kaida phrase, but completely open baya. Pick one stroke where there would be bayan, and add it in. LOOP! (omg) and repeat. Once it's settled, add another one, somewhere else. Continue until you've added them all in, or you've reached a cool density that floats your boat.

(all closed)
Ta-trekeThetete Kena TatiTakena TakeThinnakena
TrekeThetete KenaTa - TatiTakena TakeThinnakena

(add Dhe, and hammer it...boom!)
Ta-trekeDhetete Kena TatiTakena TakeThinnakena
TrekeDhetete KenaTa - TatiTakena TakeThinnakena

(add Dha - )
Dha-trekeDhetete Kena TatiTakena TakeThinnakena
TrekeDhetete KenaDha - TatiTakena TakeThinnakena


Every kaida will have a unique little development you can find, yet another layer in this incredible artform.

I'll leave it there for now. Thanks for reading, thanks again for the support and kindness, and be well.

PS speaking of looping.... one more:

I recorded this track waaaay back in the day (Feb 2010), but finally made a video with it, slightly remixed, with some added percussion. The video is a giant tabla LOOP (omg!)...a circle of tabla filmed with a GoPro mounted on an Ikea kitchen timer, rotating over the course of an hour, sped up to match the track length. The colours are out-of-focus christmas lights (which litter my apartment) layered underneath for an aurora borealis effect.

The setup

Uthan, Palta Theka, tintal, composed by Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri for a tabla ensemble at the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael California back in the day, taught to me by Ritesh Das. This is one of my very favourite pieces of repertoire. The uthan is gorgeous, 3 speeds, with a monster tihai that repeats the same bol 27 times (DhaTunNa Ketete Dha-neDha-neDha-) starting from the 16th matra, running 16-16, 16.5-16.5 and sam to sam.

The palta theka has an incredibly subtle and beautiful development, gradual and sensual, developing from sparseness to dense groove in a really lovely way, with another monster tihai. The whole thing loops so damn well. *sigh*

Saturday, October 24, 2015


It's been 16 months since I've posted on this blog. I'm writing this post because I was touched by a comment that arrived today: well as an email I received after a recent performance.

I want to explain why I haven't been posting, but first, some music and visuals:

I'll talk about the video and the tabla material below, but I want to share something first.

About 3 years ago I slipped into a very deep and debilitating depression (and frankly, I'm still not entirely out of it, which is worrying). We all ride our own sine-waves (or hey, cycles!) of mood, up and down, round and round, but this was completely new, completely different. I wasn't aware of what was happening for a long time...well over a year I think. I suspect depression is unique to each person, as individual as our voices, or the art and music we produce. Mine manifested as a lack of inspiration, an absolute voiding of all self confidence, creeping hopelessness, increasing isolation, and overwhelming anxiety. As the self-critical voices grew louder and more persistent, it was all I could do to get out of bed in the morning, let alone produce anything artistic. I fought it, periodically struggling to the surface...mounting the Cycles project in some of the very darkest days, putting on a concert series at Musideum, travelling to India twice to study, and again on tour with my band Autorickshaw, performing dozens of concerts, worked on dance and theatre projects, recorded a new solo album, but most of all, created dozens of video works. Almost all my video work, in fact, has been produced in the last three years, over 70 videos of my own, not to mention dozens more concert and music videos for other artists. Video and photography have been one of the few anxiety-free areas of my life in the last three years, and I gladly dove into the sanctuary and freedom of expression of creation in those mediums.

I obviously have not been as debilitated by depression as some people are...people who simply cannot work, or require pharmaceutical or hospital intervention. For this I am thankful. But I feel as if I'm operating at about 25% capacity on any given day, though some days are better than others.

This blog was a casualty of that period. In fact, tabla was very nearly a casualty of that period. I contemplated stopping many many times. I started studying tabla because I loved the sound, loved the deep musical language and traditions, and needed discipline in my life. I've done it for 25 years now, though I still hesitate to call myself a tabla player. I'm unsure, even today, whether I have anything of worth to offer in the world of tabla. My repertoire is relatively limited, my technique not even close to the level of professional players in India. So, tabla became a source of great anxiety. Practicing was a battle to shut out the clamour of self criticism, and stopped being enjoyable, peaceful, and healthy, except for very rare occasions when everything lined up and all I could hear was the music. Practicing used to be joy, and it became a painful prospect I avoided at all costs.

So. Why am I telling you this?

So you will maybe recognize the signs, in yourself, or in someone you know. My tools are: •Mindfulness meditation: simply observing your breath has the amazing ability to push anxiety away so you can get a good look at it (and it's never as bad as you think when it's not clamped on your face, blotting out your vision).
Exercise: work out. It will help you sleep, it will release endorphins that will make you feel good.
•Eat well. Eat yoghurt. There's is a growing body of scientific evidence that our gut biome (intestinal flora, bacteria) has a pretty strong effect on our mood.
Skin contact: if you don't have a lover, get a massage. We are not solitary beings, despite what modern western society would have us believe. We need other people. Depression is isolating. Loneliness is dangerous. Physical contact is important.
•Finish things: the artistic mind often makes grand plans, dream impossible dreams. Don't stop doing that, but also make micro works of art you can complete in a short time. Work on one kaida, even if it's just the theme, 1 variation and the tihai, and record it, perform it for a friend, or just perform it for yourself. The sense of accomplishment will make the next project seem less overwhelming and impossible.
•Talk: This, most of all, is why I'm telling you this. Don't hide what you're going through. That will only increase your isolation. Mental health problems are rife in the world, yet still have massive stigma attached. Tell your closest friend, or a family member. Someone you trust, who loves you, and wants you to be happy. They can be a major source of energy to help you climb out of it. If a friend comes to you seeking help, please don't say 'ah, it'll pass', or 'pull yourself out of it!!'-something you'd never say to someone with a broken bone or a disease. Any contact is incredibly important, so simple conversations, even online chats, may actually be life may not realize it, but you're making a difference. Reach out, and recognize when someone is reaching out. Be costs nothing, and means so much.

ok. I think that's it. Thanks for reading. Comments welcome.

Onto the video above.

I've posted the audio of this here before, but now it has that has come out of some of what I've been going through. This piece is in Chartal Ki Sawari, that uber-lovely 11-beat tala with the swing at the end. This material is all traditional Lucknow repertoire I learned from Pt. Swapan Chaudhuri, which I've recorded and posted before, a number of times. The bassline is based on the Jaunpuri gat Chris Hale and I perform together...I'm honestly not sure if it's still in Raga Jaunpuri at this point, but in any case, the tabla is traditional even of the presentation and accompaniment is not. That is Ben Riley on drums, Justin Abedin on guitar, Rich Brown on bass. There's an extended 'even tabla players get grumpy' 11-minute version here, with Chris Hale on Sitar:

In closing, I will endeavour to post more regularly...I have a few things I've made in the last little while that are tabla-centric, and while I'm tempted to post them all at once in a big multi-post, I'm going to wait, and spread them out.

Thanks, Anonymous commenter, for sparking the pilot-light. It's amazing what a few kind words can do.

be well,

PS re 'Surfacing'...a video I made this summer during a rough patch:
Water is life's mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.
-Albert Szent-Györgyi
Music improvised by Autorickshaw and guests sometime in 2005, with:
Kevin Breit-guitar, Rich Brown-bass, Jonathan Goldsmith-keys, Ed Hanley-tabla, Suba Sankaran-voice, and Debashis Sinha-percussion, at Puck's Farm, Schomberg, Ontario. Recorded and rough mixed by Walter Sobczak. Thanks to Frazier Mohawk.