Major: Communication Studies
Hometown: Boulder, CO
Study Abroad Program: UNC Summer in India
My First Tabla Lesson
Aligarh was hot. Brutally hot. The whole week that we were there it never got below 116°. I had never experienced a heat wave like it in my entire life.
Aligarh is not a town one finds on a tourist’s map of India. There is nothing about it in Lonely Planet. In fact, aside from Aligarh Muslim University, there is really nothing to “see” in Aligarh. Nevertheless, Aligarh is one of my favorite places in India. It was there, in the blistering heat, that I had my first tabla lesson and met one of the kindest families in India.
Rafi Ahmed is the son of Ustad Shafi Ahmed, a famous singer who has performed both in India and in the west. You never would have guessed it, however, if they did not tell you. Even then, it is the photos that do the final convincing. Both father and son, along with many immediate and extended family members, live in the same home tucked away in an Aligarh alleyway. Getting there is not exactly maze-like, but the lack of adequate lighting makes it quite difficult to find once night hits. At that time, it also becomes very hard to see the cows – or worse, their excrement. Both somehow manage to get in the strangest of places.
Upon my first walk to this remarkably simple brick-and-cement home, I was somewhat nervous. I simply had no idea what to expect. I had met my teacher, Rafi, earlier that day, but I had not understood a word he said. My only image of him was that of a man with pan-stained teeth and a cigarette dangling in between. Fortunately, thanks to the lack of foreigners in Aligarh, as well as the efforts of the local newspaper crew, our group had already become stars and people greeted by name as I walked by. “Salaam-alakum Habib,” several locals exclaimed, deftly matching my face with the one in the paper despite the dark. “Alakum-asalaam,” I responded, wishing I knew their names too, but more concerned with not stumbling in the rocky, dirt path.
When I finally did reach the correct door, I was greeted by a pretty, little girl who shook my hand and asked me how I was no less than five times. I was then ushered into a side-room that had the same simple cement construction as the rest of the house, but was furnished with a few humble chairs. It was their guest room and I felt quite honored to be receiving such first-class treatment. I was then greeted by Omar, a splendid boy who looked at me with mild curiosity and a big smile. He was soon gently shooed out of the room by Irfan bai who did his best to converse with me in English. I did my best to converse with him in Hindi until a cold drink, exclusively for me, was brought by Rafi’s kind-hearted wife. After some pleasant chat, conducted in the same manner, Rafi joined us and I was quickly escorted upstairs.
Upstairs were the small home’s two rooms: a bedroom and a music room. The music room was completely bare except for a shelf built into a wall, two sitars in two different corners, and a large air conditioner. On the shelf were an old set of tabla. I was quite excited when I saw them for it was the first time I had seen tabla up close – a big deal for me. Rafi brought in a rug – more for my benefit than anyone else’s – and the tablas were placed in front of me. Just like that, I was asked to play. In India, most beginners on tabla (typically children) do not get this privilege until after they have learned the rhythm orally. I was thrilled at breaking the tradition, since I wanted to get started right away, but I did not know how to play. I had to explain to Rafi that I knew nothing about how to play, as the drum was not common in America. I finally got the Hindi right and he proceeded to show me some the trickiest finger techniques ever as we were joined by his wife and children. I felt somewhat embarrassed in front of the kids, who kept laughing, but I realized that it was certainly not at me as much as it was at just being happy. Their mother still attempted to quiet them for the sake of my dignity. I appreciated the gesture, but it did not help me produce a sound on the drum. The left hand is supposed to assume an uncomfortable position akin to an eagle’s talon and fiercely strike downwards while the right hand has to gently rest on the ring finger (so as to help create just the right amount of sound) while the pointer strikes the rim as freely as possible. Attempting to do that only produced more laughter (much of it mine).
But onward we went as Rafi presented the oral part of the rhythm. “Dha Dha Ti Te, Dha Dha Tu Na, Ta Ta Ti Te, Dha Dha Tu Na!” In the Indian musical system, this is how rhythm is taught. It has been such for as long as teachers have been teaching. Musical notation, as used in the West, is virtually unheard of. Each different sound corresponds with a different way to hit the drum. I clumsily learned the fingerings and the kids finally stopped laughing, though their interest continued. During our small breaks where Rafi would explain things to me, Omar would smile mischievously and beat the drums with his hands. Each time he would be gently reprimanded, but that did not stop him. The room and the house and the whole family were too peaceful and loving to have made it anything but a welcome interruption.
After two hours I felt like I was home. I had no idea that life could be so good in such brutal heat in a small cement room. While Rafi’s teeth did not get any less red, my former image of him had completely transformed. I had never had a teacher who made me feel so welcome and who so patiently and attentively helped me understand. Nor had I ever had an entire family sit on my lesson and participate actively! On top of that, Rafi and his wife (who also aided in the explanatory process) refused the money I tried to offer them and they did so genuinely (I made them take it). It was quite difficult to say goodbye, though I was going to see them the next day. By the time I left, Omar decided, as a result of my lesson – or perhaps our lesson – that he wanted to start learning tabla too.
I hope he does because he’s got the best teacher in the world.