By Ariel Walzer
Learning to play the tabla, a traditional Indian percussion instrument, is like “learning a language,” says Sejal Kukadia, teacher at the Long Island branch of The Taalim School of Indian Music, which just opened in New Hyde Park and is run out of Kukadia’s house (the main school is in Rutherford, N.J.). But unlike Russian, Arabic, and Chinese, you won’t have to spend long nights poring over textbooks that weigh more than your dog.
Some background on the tabla for all you newbies:
The instrument consists of one wood drum and one metal drum, both of which are covered by goat skin. Each part of the surface of the drums makes a different sound and therefore has a different name. So each note name is like a word of a language. This language is important for the musician since the tabla is taught out-loud, and not by sheet music.
“Your teacher will speak a composition orally, and you will have to memorize it,” Kukadia explains. “He will say the words: a series of patterns. The student then has to understand and catch that pattern and memorize it on the spot.” As I speak with Kukadia on the phone, she then rattles off “ditas” and “dahs” to show what a spoken composition would sound like (Kind of like singing the guitar solo from “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” but with a considerably more professional tone, no offense to Slash).
Kukadia has been playing for 10 years and has managed to make a living not only performing, but teaching. The Taalim School of Indian Music–which is centered around the teaching and leadership of guru Pandit Divyang Vakil–has several locations in the Northeast, spanning across New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, and Divyang Vakil boasts over 300 tabla students worldwide. On Long Island, there’s the New Hyde Park school, as well as a school in Bellerose and in Flushing, Queens. The school has personal classes, workshops, and group classes all for the tabla. It also holds student recitals and hosts different events of Indian classical music, if you’re interested in stopping by for concerts.
Another great opportunity the Taalim School offers is the chance to study with students at the Rhythm Riders Music Institute in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, which Kukadia considers the mother school of her own endeavor. Students from both schools have the opportunity to travel to the other school and practice and perform with students there.
Though many of you might be thinking the tabla is only ever used in traditional Indian music, you’ll be surprised to learn that it’s had an impact on more recent culture. “A lot of mainstream music like rap musicians have the rhythm [of the tabla] in the back of their music,” Kukadia says. “I just sit down and turn on my television and there will be a car commercial with tabla beats.” So next time you see Jay-Z hawking a Nissan, you should listen closely: you may hear the language of the tabla.
Group classes cost $25 per class and private lessons range from $40-75. For more information about the Taalim School of Indian Music, check out their website here.