Karsh Kale: Reinventing Tabla Culture

Karsh Kale

“I either played classical music on the tabla or rock music onthe drum set. I never brought them together. Even culturally I wouldn’t bring them together; I had my Indian friends and my white friends. My whole life was separated that way. And as my life came together, the music just came together naturally.”

Karsh Kale’s life and his music have merged into a cultural crossroads that’s more like an expressway to tomorrow. As a drummer, deejay, producer, songwriter, and tabla ace, he is claiming uncharted territory by joining traditional Indian ragas with funky loops and dense electronica. His first solo release, Realize (Six Degrees), ties it all together in 13 tracks of deep, rousing world dance grooves. As one ofthe leaders of the Asian Massive movement and a contributor to the great Tabla Beat Science, his deejaying packs NY clubs while his revolutionary band Futureproof keeps the performance scene guessing and praising the young musician’s abilities.

Born in London of Indian parents and raised in the Long Island suburbs, music entered Kale’s life early. “My father really introduced music to me. Not only Indian music, but I think he was the first person to play the Beatles for me. I was always into drums – like John Bonham and Neil Peart – at like three or four years old because I had an older brother who was into rock and roll. I started playing kit as soon as I could walk and move. I understood certain rhythms and the kind of limb separation that you need came naturally to me, so the first time Iever sat down at the kit I was able to play.

“Then my dad took me to see Zakir Hussein and it was like seeing a rock star on tabla. So from then on I was determined to play tabla. I basically taught myself by studying Zakir. Rhythmically, the tabla was something that challenged me technically, because it was a totally different approach to playing music. Plus, most people have a teacher to say, ’What you’re doing is good or bad. ’ I didn’t have that. I was always guessing.”

He guessed his way into a Musical Performance degree at NYU and it was there that he began hisvoyage that would result in Realize. “I did a lot of acoustic side projects, mostly in a jazz environment, which is probably the safest place to do it. Then I started incorporating other stuff because I was also playing in heavy metal bands, rock bands, funk bands, hip-hop. Once I got to the point where I came to NYU, working with hip-hop music and the electronic side of things is really where I started to push the tabla to another place. I would always see tabla players on stage treating the instrument as an ornament. You would hardly ever hear them,and I knew what the instrument could actually do and I wanted to change its role. Because it’s more than percussion, it’s a very tonal instrument, a very musical instrument. But I think put in a certain environment where there’s bass and drums, you lose the effect of the instrument. And that’s what encouraged me to make the electric tabla.”

Kale’s inventive experimentation reaches beyond the clubs and studios and into the workshop to create these ’electric tabla.’ Adding metal hardware to traditional tabla, he also rigged them with an internal miking system. Just plug XLR cables into the side of the drums, feed it into a mixer, and presto change-o. “Basically anything that you would do to an acoustic guitar to make it an electric guitar, that’s what I’ve done to the tabla. I don’t use MIDI triggers or anything like that; I try to keep it as organic as possible. It’s really about enhancing the frequencies of the drums so if I’m on stage with only the electric tabla it’s loud and powerful enough that I can rock the house like a drum kit.”

With his invention in hand, a music degree in pocket, and boundless ideas in mind, Kale decided to leave the bands he was collaborating with and experiment on his own. “I just felt like my input was falling on deaf ears a little bit. I felt like I knew more than they thought I could offer. So I created two different bands as vehicles for myself to be able to create more of an Asian-based electronic/whatever it could be. As I was working on that it just evolved into becoming a deejay and an electric tabla player. And that allowed me to then go out in sessions and work with artists as a composer and be able to offer more than just being a percussionist.”

His performances with Futureproof and the work he did with Tabla Beat Science quickly caught the attention of Six Degrees Records, permitting the creation of a solo CD. Kale spent six months between various NYC studios and multiple locations in New Delhi working on the album. “I didn’t want to make a tabla record and repeat what we did on Tabla Beat Science. I wanted to make a record about my vision of the music and myself as a musician.”

Karsh Kale’s freedom to explore the possibilities of traditional and modern music inspires people around the globe. As for the next generation, he advises, “A lot of young Indian musicians in America find themselves in a contradiction where they allow themselves to be open-minded in everything in their life except Indian music. They keep it separate. As any kind of immigrant coming to America, if you don’t plan on going back then you have to reinvent your culture. And that includes everything – music, food,everything. And make it make sense and put it into context for yourself so that you’re not constantly torn between two worlds.You’re actually making a world for yourself as opposed to having someone else tell you what it means.”