BY JOHN PAYNE
A former child prodigy, Aditya Kalyanpur studied under the late, great Ustad Allah Rakha (famed for his decades-long collaborations with Ravi Shankar), and also tutored with Ustad’s son, Ustad Zakir Hussain. Kalyanpur founded the New England School Of Music in Boston along with the Shyamal Music Foundation in Mumbai. In addition to his work in a couple of jazz-oriented bands alongside guitarist Larry Coryell, he has contributed tabla to several TV advertising campaigns in India and guest-tabla’d on numerous pop recording sessions the likes of Katy Perry’s “Legendary Lovers” from her album Prism as well as recording with the Stones’ Keith Richards and with composer A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire).
Kalyanpur, now an L.A. resident, grew up in Mumbai. He’s not one who can boast of a musical lineage; his parents were music lovers but not professional musicians. “I don’t have the kind of pedigree that some musi- cians of my generation enjoy,” he says. “My dad is a mechanical engineer and my mom was a computer professional.”
His family was very supportive of his fascination for the traditional classical music forms of India, and his particular interest in playing the tabla, which began when he was a mere two-and-a- half years old. “We had a tabla player at my grandmother’s place in Mumbai, and I used to go play his tabla, bang on it,” he says. At three years old Kalyanpur could reproduce several of the rhythmic patterns of the Indian classical musical styles, not yet mastering the finger techniques, of course, “but at least what I did with my hands was in sync with some of the rhythmic structures in Indian tabla.
“There are fixed rhythmic structures in Indian classical music and they are called taals,” he says. “There are different taals which comprise seven beats or twelve beats or sixteen beats, etcetera. I was very intrigued by these taals, and I could replicate at least the mathematical structure of the taal even as a child.”
Kalyanpur had been exposed to all genres of music at a very young age and was also drawn to a lot of Western-style drumming. “In fact, at one time my father said, ‘Do you really want to learn tabla or do you want to learn drum kit?’ I said, ‘I think the tabla, because it’s more complex and it’s more complicated.’ Using the fingers and all of the patterns and complex stuff, it’s not easy doing it with the fingers on the tabla.”
His studies in tabla started at age four, at classes taught by local teachers, as well as a tutor who came to the family home to teach the precocious lad the basics of the drum. Further training under Ustad Allah Rakha made a big impact on him as an educator and performer-composer.
“He always believed that tabla was a performing art,” he says, “and that the technique, the presentation, the style, and the repertoire had to be conveyed through the performance, more than through the philosophical aspects of Indian classical music. It was more a practical playing and learning of complex rhythmic structures, complex traditional compositions, specific and mathematical musical devices such as the tihai, a pattern repeated three times at the end of the 16-beat taal metric cycle used in raga and other types of North Indian music.”
Kalyanpur’s particular area of expertise is in the Punjab gharana style of tabla play. “In India, the tabla has six different gharanas or schools of tabla playing,” he says. “The origin of the tabla is believed to be in Delhi, and Delhi gharana is considered the father of all gharanas, so from Delhi came all the other branches of tabla playing. My guru was born and brought up near Punjab, and he studied with a teacher who belonged to the Punjab gharana.”
Punjab gharana, like the various other gharana styles, has its own “language,” a musical sensibility influenced by the local languages’ vocal speech patterns and rhythms. It’s also influenced by a percussion instrument called the pakhawaj, which is considered the father of the tabla. Played sideways, the pakhawaj has loads of resonance and is generally played with a very loud and robust vocal style called the dhrupad, the oldest North Indian classical musical form. The tabla that followed the pakhawaj was better suited to the kal vocal style, which employs closed-ended rather than open-ended vocal phrasings.
Kalyanpur enjoys sharing knowledge about his instrument. It’s a generous, sensitive character that comes through when you witness his “conversational” performances with sympathetic players in any musical genre, but particularly in sounds dating back to the earliest days of classical Indian music.
“It’s a dialogue,” he says. “You’re trying to complement each other, so it’s extremely important what kind of accompaniment you choose to play with somebody. It should not disturb the other instrument or suppress it; it should adapt a style that suits the other instrument, and the style of the instrumentalist who plays.”
Whether it’s in the context of an Indian classical concert, a pop studio session, or a workout with one of his jazz-rock-oriented bands, Kalyanpur easily makes adjustments to his playing technique to pair like a pal with the contrasting instruments he’s sitting with, whether it’s a sarod or an electric bass.
“I have to make adjustments in my creativity,” he says. “In my approach to each instrument, I’m trying to understand the soul of that instrument, the soul of that musician I am playing with. What does he expect from me as a drummer? How can I complement his music? How can I embellish it best to my abilities so that it sounds ‘one’? Whether it’s jazz or sarod or sitar, I’m always trying to adapt in a way that complements the other player’s style and do justice to that form of music.”
While for Westerners it can be surprising when the historical, often cerebral classical Indian music is heard in contexts outside the dignified concert hall, Kalyanpur’s work in a variety of advertisements or session work for non-“serious music” artists such as Keith Richards and Katy Perry presents no problem in reconciling the values of these disparate spheres.
“Whenever I play with any form of music or kind of musician, I’ve never thought that I’m having to compromise my traditions or the vast repertoire of what I learned. I’ve always felt that it’s a beautiful challenge, how to implement that tradition in a new format, whether it’s pop or it’s jazz or traditional Indian classical. It’s very challenging when you’re compelled to think of new ways to present that tradition. I’m happy to adapt and modify that tradition in a way that people will like, and will say, ‘Yeah, this is modern within a traditional framework.’”
Like the artist who plays them, Kalyanpur’s tablas themselves are keenly responsive instruments. Tablas are made to resonate in certain keys like a D, C, A sharp, B flat, and so on, and have the flexibility to go down a half note or up a half note. That’s the maximum each can be tuned to; if the desired note can’t be reached, one has to use another drum.
On tour Kalyanpur usually travels with two or three different drums of different keys, and he says they are incredibly sensitive to temperature and humidity. He has to have a tight cover or at least a blanket wrapped around them to protect them from damage and to ensure that they remain in the same temperature range. A familiar sight at an Indian music concert is that of the tabla players tuning with a hammer between every song.
“A lot of factors determine the tuning,” he says. “It all depends on the conditions in that room at that time, at that place; it could be the lights, the air conditioning, the heat, a lot of hard bashing, the vibrations of the other instruments.”
Here’s footage we got from The San Jose Jazz Festival of Aditya playing with Bombay Jazz at The California Theater.