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Chapter 33: Introduction to the Tabla Solo


The second field of tabla applications is the tabla solo. Tabla has become more known as a solo instrument. Percussion ensembles are making their way into the musical world. The tabla player in this scenario is the lead artist. There aren’t too many rules for the soloist. There are some fundamental characteristics of the tabla solo.




Unlike what many people unfamiliar with Indian music think, tabla solo is not fancy drum playing. As mentioned before, there are rules to any form of Indian music, yet improvisation potential is great.


The first aspect is the base. Every tabla solo is based on a particular tala. An entire solo may be based on ektal of twelve matras, for instance. The entire piece will need to be based on twelve beats. All improvised pieces must fit through the twelve beat cycle.




The improvisation is what the artist creates to fit into the fixed cycle. In the beginning, the artist may use a peshkar or an introductory tabla piece which starts off the solo. Then, the artist resolves on the theka (most likely a well known prakar). This is where the main action begins.



The next phase is also improvisational. It involves making thematic compositions through the qaida. Nice complexities result from this form and create a nice tension and release effects. The basic concept is studied in brief in Chapter 25.




Audience members won’t be able to tell if the pieces played by the tabla soloists are actually original or used before. Most of the times, the artists will throw a fixed composition used before into the solo. However, before playing that fixed composition into the solo, the soloist will actually speak the bols out loud before they actually play the composition. This is similar to citing a source if the statements or work was not original. Sometimes, compositions (known as gat) are transpositions of one unrelated cycle in the current fixed cycle. For example, if the tabla solo was meant to be in rupak tala, there could be a jhaptal composition that was compressed in such a way, that it fits in the rupak tala cycle. Another composition may try to imitate sounds of nature, like a deer jumping or a conch-shell blowing.



Rela is a flow of bols. This is the final quarter of the tabla solo, which is often the most exciting portion. It is similar to the qaida, but it storms the bols in an thematic matter. After the final grand tihai, the tabla solo comes to a conclusion.




In the simplest situation, it is only the tabla player. However, it is not uncommon to see a sarangi player or a harmonium player present playing a lehra. A lehra is a very simple melody which takes exactly one cycle to complete. The melody is designed in such a way that the tabla player knows where he or she is in the cycle. The sarangi or harmonium player has absolutely no freedom in changing melodies, creating subtunes, or adding more ornaments. Only freedom given is before the tabla’s entrance with a very brief introduction and when the tabla is finished to give a good conclusion.


If no instruments are present, sometimes, an extra person is there to clap on all the talis and wave on all the khalis to help the tabla player mark time accurately. For example, if a tabla soloist wants to do a solo in jhaptal, then clapper will clap audibly on the sam, matra 3, and matra 8 and wave on matra 6.


Tabla solos do indeed take practice, especially if the cycle is a rare number like nine beat matta tala or eleven beat chartal ki sawari tala. The off-sync should never take place. Remember, Indian music is improvisation within limits. The limit is following the cycle of twelve beats, following all of the rules of the qaida if used, and cite and play correctly all non-original compositions when used.

UPDATED: June 20, 2009