Thursday night at Lincoln Center, Talavya’s harmonium player Heena Patel scrunched up her face. Facing the crowd, she explained her dilemma.”I tell people that this band plays tabla. They say, ‘No vocals. no melody.’” She shrugged.
And then let those thoughts resonate. “What do YOU think of tabla?” she wanted to know.
The crowd exploded. Sure, there was a good representation of New Yorkers with heritage in the Hindustani subcontinent, but there were more who probably had none. This demographically diverse, typical New York audience had just witnessed a suspenseful, electrifying three-way drum duel between tabla players Rushi Vakil, Kaumil Shah and Mike Lukshis.
On one hand, it was a breathtaking display of supersonic chops. On the other, the first segment of composer Divyang Vakil’s suite Tabla Dreams was just as much of a showcase for subtlety as well as the group’s encyclopedic rollout of Indian beats from across the centuries.
Those chops were matched by a sense of humor. It might be extreme to equate this performance to having three Zakir Hussains onstage, but the effect was pretty close. Each player’s personality immediately made itself known. Rushi Vakil made it look easy and more often than not served as the ringleader, completely deadpan, unless he was winding up a frenetic volley with a final slap and then flinging his hand away, daring his bandmates to match his finesse and power. Shah has an attack with ferocity to match his articulation: imagine a machinegunner who can also hit a target at a thousand yards. The New Jersey-born Lukshis, front and center, rose to the challenge of playing on the level of his Indian-born bandmates, who probably grew up with a tabla in front of them before they could walk. His right hand a blur, his beats spun and somersaulted and sometimes galloped in an endlessly adrenalizing series of tradeoffs along with the occasional stampeding unison passage.
The tabla is the rare drum which can also play melody, and the group delivered plenty of those. The most breathtaking was a recurrent low-register sirening effect. The funniest was when they’d play a series of riffs and then perfectly replicate them by vocalizing in rapidfire takadimi drum language – a playful Indian mnemonic device where every beat from various places on the tabla, from muted, to sharp, to low and warpy, has an equivalent syllable. Meanwhile Patel anchored the music with an endlessly circling series of enigmatic, often ominous modal riffs, serving as co-conductor and signaling changes when the three guys would go off on a rampage.
The suite’s first part was mostly tradeoffs; the second featured the more intricate and delicate beats a tabla player can deliver. The third was a clinic in gats, encompassing both rhythmic riffs and shifting time signatures, rising and falling and finally winding up in a blaze that left both band and audience out of breath. Patel averred that this was the band’s first US performance in a year – hopefully we won’t have to wait another until the next one.
These Lincoln Center atrium performances are amazing. The next one in the ongoing series of performers from around the world is this Thursday, May 25 at 7:30 PM with one of the world’s greatest and most eclectic oud players and composers, Rahim Al Haj. Admission is free; get there early if you want a seat.