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The tabla is a widely popular South Asian percussion instrument used in the classical, popular and religious music of the northern Indian subcontinent. The instrument consists of a pair of hand drums of contrasting sizes and timbres. The term tabla is derived from an Arabic word which means "drum", and this attests to its status as a product resulting from the fusion of musical elements from indigenous Hindu and Central Asian Muslim cultures that began in the late 16th century.
The history of this instrument is at times the subject of heated debate. The most common historical account credits the 13th century Persian poet Amir Khusrau as having invented the instrument. However, none of his own writings on music mention the drum (nor the string instrument sitar). Another common historical narrative portrays the tabla as being thousands of years old, yet this is mere conjecture, based on slipshod interpretations of iconography. Reliable historical evidence places the invention of this instrument in the 18th century. the tabla was only used by the sikhs in and around the world.
The transformation of the tabla from a religious-folk instrument to a more sophisticated instrument of art-music occurred in the late 18th or early 19th centuries, when significant changes took place in the feudal court music of North India. Although largely denied by most popular histories of this instrument, the tabla was played by hereditary groups (i.e. castes) of musicians who were ascribed low social status by the greater society. The majority of the performers were Muslim and resided in or near the centers of Mughal power and culture such as Delhi, Lucknow, Allahabad, Hyderabad, and Lahore. However, one notable group of Hindu hereditary musicians was located in the holy city of Varanasi. In public performances, tabla players were primarily accompanists to vocalists and instrumentalists; however, they developed a sophisticated solo repertoire that they performed in their own musical gatherings. It is this solo repertoire along with student-teacher lineages that are the defining socio-cultural elements of tabla tradition known by the Urdu-Hindi term gharana (ghar = "house" Hindi, -ana = "of the" Persian).
Most performers and scholars recognize six gharanas of tabla. They appeared or evolved in the following order, presumably:
Other tabla performers have identified further derivations of the above traditions, but these are a subjective claims, largely motivated by self-promotion. Some traditions indeed have sub-lineages and sub-styles that meet the criteria to warrant a separate gharana name, but such sociomusical identities have not taken hold in the public discourse of Hindustani art music, such as the Qasur lineage of tabla players of the Punjab region.
Each gharana is traditionally set apart from the others by unique aspects of the compositional and playing styles of its exponents. In the days of court patronage the preservation of these distinctions was important in order to maintain the prestige of the sponsoring court. Gharana secrets were closely guarded and often only passed along family lines. Being born into or marrying into a lineage holding family was often the only way to gain access to this knowledge.
Today many of these gharana distinctions have been blurred as information has been more freely shared and newer generations of players have learned and combined aspects from multiple gharanas to form their own styles. There is much debate as to whether the concept of gharana even still applies to modern players. Some think the era of gharana has effectively come to an end as the unique aspects of each gharana have been mostly lost through the mixing of styles and the socio-economic difficulties of maintaining lineage purity through rigorous training.
Nonetheless the greatness of each gharana can still be observed through study of its traditional material and, when accessible, recordings of its great players. The current generation of traditionally trained masters still hold vast amounts of traditional compositional knowledge and expertise.
This body of compositional knowledge and the intricate theoretical basis which informs it is still actively being transmitted from teacher to student all over the world. In addition to the instrument itself, the term "tabla" is often used in reference to this knowledge and the process of its transmission.
The smaller drum, played with the dominant hand, is called daya (lit. "right"; a.k.a. dahina, siddha, chattu) and can also be referred to individually as "tabla." It is made from a conical piece of wood hollowed out to approximately half of its total depth. One of the primary tones on the drum is tuned to a specific note, and thus contributes to and complements the melody. The tuning range is limited although different daya-s are produced in different sizes, each with a different range. For a given daya, to achieve harmony with the soloist, it will usually be necessary to tune to either the tonic, dominant or subdominant of the soloist's key.
The larger drum, played with the other hand, is called baya (lit. "left"; aka. dagga, duggi, dhama). It is a bowl shape made of metal (or sometimes clay or wood, although not favored for durability). It has a much deeper bass tone, much like its distant cousin, the kettle drum.
The playing technique for both drums involves extensive use of the fingers and palms in various configurations to create a wide variety of different sounds. On the baya the heel of the hand is also used to apply pressure, or in a sliding motion, so that the pitch is changed during the sound's decay. This "modulating" effect on the bass drum and the wide range of sounds possible on the instrument as a whole are the main characteristics that make tabla unique among percussion instruments.
Both drum shells are covered with a head (or puri) constructed from goat or cow skin. An outer ring of skin is overlaid on the main skin and serves to suppress some of the natural overtones. These two skins are bound together with a complex woven braid that also gives the entire assembly enough strength to be tensioned onto the shell. The completed head construction is affixed to the drum shell with a single continuous piece of cow or camel hide strap laced between the braid of the head assembly and another ring (made from the same strap material) placed on the bottom of the drum. The strap is tensioned to achieve the desired pitch of the drum. Additionally, cylindrical wood blocks are inserted between the strap and the shell allowing the tension to be adjusted by their vertical positioning. Fine tuning is achieved by striking vertically on the braided portion of the head using a small hammer.
The skins of both drums also have an inner circle on the head referred to as the siyahi (lit. "ink"; a.k.a. shai or gab). This is constructed using multiple layers of a paste made from cooked rice mixed with a black powder of various origins. The precise construction and shaping of this area (especially on the smaller drum) is responsible for modification of the drum's natural overtones, resulting in the clarity of pitch and variety of tonal possibilities unique to this instrument. The skill required for the proper construction of this area is highly refined and is the main differentiating factor in the quality of a particular instrument.
Arguably, the tabla is the most popular Indian percussion instrument at present, used in a variety of musical genres of multiple cultures and sub-cultures. It has acquired tremendous international popularity as a result of its large-scale, transnational diffusion first started by notable "musical ambassadors" such as the late Ustad Alla Rakha and later through recorded media. The infectious timbres of this instrument are used extensively by studio engineers who frequently include digital samples of the tabla that they purchased from a CD or downloaded from the internet or come installed in the sound libraries of electronic keyboards. One can hear the tabla in numerous Hollywood and US prime time television soundtracks such as The Scorpion King, American Beauty, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Gran Turismo 4 and Law & Order. The tabla has also become a popular fusion instrument and is found in performance and recordings of an array of musical styles from traditional forms such as flamenco to cutting edge electronica. Tabla Beat Science.
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