Suphala: Ancient Sounds For The New World


Ancient Sounds For The Next Generation

Things aren’t supposed to be low in New York. They just aren’t. Things are taller here. Skyscrapers like the Chrysler building and the Empire State building stretch toward the moon, winking as the sun begins to set. Corned beef sandwiches stacked half a foot high raise a rye eye toward the confident gourmand who’s about to dig in. There’s even a Tall Club of New York. Really. About the only thing that isn’t tall in this town is the mayor, Michael Bloomberg, standing at an unfortunate 5'8" (no shoes, of course).

It’s like the city is built to make you feel smaller.

But in Suphala’s New York City apartment, tucked away on a small, tree-lined side street in the heart of Brooklyn’s venerable Park Slope neighborhood, everything is low. The glassy countertops in the kitchen are low, the taut bookshelves in the corner are low, and sooner or later, you start thinking the ceiling’s low, too (it’s not). Lowering yourself into one of the blindingly white couches brings you a few more inches closer to the molasses-colored hardwood floor than you originally intended, and placing a glass on the squat matching coffee table in front of you is a leaning affair that tests your reach much like physical education did in grade school.

Then you realize you’re in the house of a tabla player. And it begins to make sense.

At 5'3", 32-year-old Suphala herself is no giant. Her charcoal tresses, chocolate eyes, and brilliant smile demand far more attention than her height. But as a player of the tabla, a popular Indian instrument that is itself a stout pair of drums made from rosewood and metal, Suphala often finds herself seated on the ground more than most, legs crossed and fingers flexed, ready to rip into a flurry of intricate taps that is the lifeblood of her chosen profession. Yet the arrangement of her pristine home, a color-coordinated arrangement seemingly taken from a page in Vogue Living, might be less a physical solution than a mental one. The room’s absence of height, it seems, may bring Suphala closer to the earth in a city where height commands a premium.

She’d have it no other way.

IF HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS, then Suphala’s dwelling is on her sleeve. You could say it’s just one indication of how she wants to be represented. And she certainly has had to represent herself well over the last few years. How else could you successfully reintroduce an instrument in America that last peaked during Nixon’s presidency?

With two albums already under her belt, Suphala has been on a mission to break barriers and educate the uneducated. She’s got her work cut out for her – a female tabla player tends to be the exception to the rule in countries where the instrument is popular and in some countries is simply unprecedented – such as when she performed in front of hundreds of people in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2005 as the first female musician to play in public since the fall of the Taliban. Add that to an already impressive résumé listing collaborations with alt-rock god Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction and actor-singer Antonio Banderas and you’ve got some serious barrier-breaking abilities. Talk about dispelling assumptions.

But first and foremost, Suphala wants you to understand her. Her new album, Blueprint, echoes the sentiment. The monochrome artwork of the CD is at once revealing and voyeuristic: close-up shots of her hands clutching a bayan, the smaller drum of the tabla, form the inside cover. Her fixed glance on the outside, directly into the camera, conveys a sense of startling intimacy – as if you yourself were seated on her floor, cross-legged and listening to the raps of a goatskin drumhead. Queuing the opening track of the album, the aptly titled, “Maybe There’s A Place Where Someday Just You And I Can Go,” and pressing play pulls you into the percussive goddess’ world even further.

We should all be so lucky.

SUPHALA PATANKAR GREW UP in the most unlikely of tabla-friendly cities: Minneapolis. Her father, a mechanical engineer who owns a software company, and her mother, a medical technician and computer programmer, emigrated from near Bombay, starting a young Suphala on piano at age four. At age 17, she was introduced to the tabla, and it was love at first sound: Suphala found herself mesmerized by the intricate rhythms of the goatskin-covered drums, played with brisk taps that seem to reproduce the patterns of human speech.

“It’s something pleasing to the ear,” she says. “It catches you. That’s how it caught me.”

Enraptured, Suphala attended classes by two local teachers to practice her craft, committing countless hours to mastering the instrument. “It takes a little while to actually enjoy it,” she says. “You have to get all of your individual fingers strong. It’s like you’re training your fingers.”

Before long, she impressed her peers. “I think they thought, ‘This kid’s onto something,’” she says. Since music for the tabla is passed down orally from player to player, Suphala jumped at an invitation to study with renowned tabla master Alla Rakha Qureshi and his son, Zakir Hussain in Bombay, India. Known to take offense to poor tabla playing, Suphala impressed Qureshi.

“Every time we had to play for him, everyone was always a little bit nervous because of his presence and what he represents,” she says. “He was teaching continuously the last 15 years of his life, that’s what he was dedicated to doing. It was, but it was exciting too, because I knew I was sitting in front of this great legend.”

She ended up staying in his family’s seaside apartment for three months. “Indian music is a classic art that’s learned at home,” she says. “It became like family.”

Over the next eight years, until his death in 2000, Suphala made annual trips to study with the guru during the winter music season. Suphala says the visits, some lasting as long as six months, were invaluable. “It allowed me to be around him when he was in the mood to teach,” she says. “He’d say, ‘Learn this now,’ and then the next day I’d have to come back and play it for him. That allowed me to catch something special.”

But it was in San Francisco in 1996 where Suphala first broke into the contemporary scene. Enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute, Suphala had been playing cozy shows in the local club circuit – that is, until former Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell dropped by at one of her performances. He liked what he heard and extended an invitation for her to join his conceptual art-rock project Porno For Pyros on the road. You could say the adventure rocked Suphala’s world.

“It was a great way to see the rock and roll lifestyle,” she says. “It was so early on – I had just been playing a couple of years. To go on a big tour like that was pretty fascinating. It was like traveling with a carnival. It was a lot of behind-the-scenes madness.”

By 1999, Suphala found herself newly planted in Brooklyn. Once only a pit stop on her flights to Bombay, the Big Apple become her newly adopted home after she increasingly networked, and then collaborated, with musicians in the area during her layovers. “It was just a different pace,” she says. “I just felt like New York was happening.” The phenomenon continues to this day, supplying her latest album with guest appearances by Vikter Duplaix, Mazz Swift, Edie Brickell, Harper Simon, Furor Thin, and others.

“That’s how I met [Living Colour’s] Vernon Reid,” she says. “That keeps on happening, and that’s great.”

The downside?

“Getting the same musicians every time in New York City,” she says. “The good ones are always busy.”

In 2002, Suphala attended a show at New York’s Knitting Factory by a then lesser-known Norah Jones, daughter of sitarist Ravi Shankar. After the show, Suphala introduced herself and asked Jones to come over and sing on a few of her tracks, one of which would eventually end up kicking off Suphala’s 2005 album The Now. The timing for the collaboration was just right – the following year, Jones capped her breakout year by winning six Grammys.

“I like her, she’s a really nice person,” Suphala says. “It’s nice to see that happen to someone who’s really down to earth. She’s much busier now. In that way, I’m lucky that I had a chance to work with her.”

But time flies on. By 2004, Suphala counted Salman Rushdie, Sean Lennon, and Brickell – who is married to Paul Simon – as fans and friends, a testament to her ability to straddle two cultures and make each accessible to the other. Within a short amount of time, Suphala’s address book became more star-studded than she ever imagined. “It’s happened very organically,” Suphala says. “It’s cool to open up the phone and see all those people.”

In February 2005, Suphala struck a major career and personal milestone – unbelievably, without even knowing it – by becoming the first female musician to play in public in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. The experience was life changing. “Our instruments and the music they play is the same, so I was very interested to meet them and play with them,” she says. “It was just something that happened. I had no idea I was the first person to play there since the fall of the Taliban. It was really fascinating to be there and have this common language and move beyond these barriers – okay, so they’ve never seen a girl play. [But] I was able to find out what life was like for them, to be in a place where music was banned. How can living musicians survive without being able to play? You’re not even alive [at that point].

“Music is your life when you’re a musician. They took me all around and showed me the old city where the old masters played. There were these blown up holes in the ground. All of the musicians gathered and played for us. It was touching.”

AT FIRST GLANCE, IT’S DIFFICULT TO RECONCILE the sharp contrast in Suphala’s home studio. A small space adjacent to her living room, the studio is lined floor-to-ceiling with plush velvet curtains and padded with muted woven rugs. To the right, her drums are arranged in a loose semicircle; set in such a comfortable, organic manner that they recall the way a leather baseball glove conforms to a ballplayer’s hand. Conversely and to the left, the sharp, metallic lines of her widescreen Apple computer monitor cast a greenish glow through the shadows. This scene is symbolic of the distinction in Suphala’s music and her life as an artist – a musician who plays a handmade, Eastern instrument with a 1,000-year pedigree and records it with an icon of Western modernity.

So it may surprise listeners that Suphala spends several weeks holed away in her private studio programming before she ever lays her fingers on the drums behind her. In some ways, she’s the Steve Vai of the Indian classical music world – part technical virtuoso, part goddess from another planet, and thoroughly sensual. “I get the meat of the track done before I put the tabla in,” she says. “I like it to have an organic feel, a human feel. I kind of zoned in on the parts that I needed.”

And meaty they are. Some of the compositions on her latest, Blueprint, stretch to more than 30 tracks. Recorded largely using Logic, some tracks ring as lush enterprises while others are sparse and poignant, evoking Björk or Aphex Twin if they took a quick overnight in Mumbai. Suphala says the natural feel – that is, the unabashed sincerity of her approach – is the very premise upon which the album is based. “The music is authentic,” Suphala says. “I want it to be myself, to look like myself, and to feel like myself. There were a lot more people involved in the last album. All those factors come into play, and this time around I didn’t have anyone interfering with my vision.”

As Suphala’s third album, Blueprint marks a minor milestone for the artist – it is the first album the composer has created with a theme in mind. “The last album was a collection of tracks I did over various periods of time,” Suphala says. “This time, I was making decisions based on the concept of thinking of it as a whole record.”

Inside the case of Blueprint, she defines the album’s title for her listeners: “A prototype; something intended as a guide for making something else.” For Suphala, the album is intended to be a starting point – a compositional foundation on which she can elaborate and embellish in a live setting. There’s no structure here – each performance is a unique set piece.

“When I go play a show, I leave it to whatever happens when I sit on stage,” she says. Case in point: In a recent gig, Suphala invited beatboxer Taylor McFerrin – the son of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” a cappella performer Bobby McFerrin – on stage to accompany her. The two had met previously by accident when they appeared on the same bill at a show, and content with positive chemistry, cooked up an impromptu jam to bridge their individual sets. The attempt was successful, much to the delight of the audience. This time, McFerrin was working their chemistry by triggering live sounds and beatboxing alongside Suphala’s acoustic tabla playing. The audience couldn’t get enough. Suphala sees the incorporation of the new sounds as an extension of her own music. “It’s really all the same thing,” she says. “We’re playing with rhythm.”

In fact, Suphala harbors a love for improvisation, and she and her band regularly depart from the material – spontaneously, of course – to explore new directions. Live, Suphala recreates the new album’s material in a multitude of ways, assembling a motley crew of accompanying musicians for each performance. Suphala says using the tabla this way is a unique challenge: “There are different levels of improv within a set structure. For the tabla, improvising within the traditional structure in Indian classical music is the most difficult thing.”

Add beatboxing, spoken word or some live strings, and you can see how things start to get complicated.

Suphala recounts her most memorable live performance to be only two years ago, when she played the 20th anniversary of New York City’s Central Park SummerStage, an annual showcase of performances by world-famous artists. Set to perform on a stage fit to handle a full dance company or improv comedy troupe and flanked by her accompanists – not to mention in front of a crowd that numbered in the tens of thousands – Suphala said she felt more connected with her audience on the oversize stage than she ever had before. The irony was startling to her. “It was very intimate,” she says. “I could actually see people’s expressions.”

Of course, Suphala revels in life’s contrasts.

IT’S SAFE TO SAY THAT SUPHALA IS IN A PERIOD OF TRANSITION, and it’s clear that her new album is a self-reflecting attempt to develop as a composer and as an artist. But transition knows no bounds, either – With Blueprint, Suphala also marks her foray into being a full-time independent artist, sans record label. It’s been an educational experience, she says, “I’m giving it a go. I learned a lot by being on a label. Some things make a lot of sense now that maybe before weren’t relevant.”

Suphala is also in the process of diversifying her musical portfolio, looking deeper for the niches that her distinct blend of music can fill. As a composer in the 21st century, Suphala has a wealth of options for her plugged-in music – ringtones, commercials, and so on – and she says movie soundtracks may be her next step. “I’ve been speaking to a couple of people about doing film scores,” she says. “I’d love to do that, and my music lends itself to doing that sort of thing. Most definitely.”

The immediate future, however, is filled with Suphala’s bread-and-butter callings: more live performances, as-yet-undetermined collaborations, sabbatical in India, and a fresh trip to the recording studio. “All of the same, but in new ways,” she says. “I haven’t been doing that in a while so I’m now itching to create some more.”

And, of course, practice. Lots of it.

“For me, it’s being able to continue learning and getting better,” she says. “I want to see how good I can play the instrument, how fast I can play this rhythm. I’m not there yet.”

Above all, Suphala says she’ll continue to shatter the creative and cultural barriers that restrict the music – and instrument – that she loves so dearly. A generational shift in acceptance is apparent, and Suphala is at the forefront, whether she knows it or not. It’s no matter – she’s clearly not afraid to be the lone girl on the front lines.

“It is changing,” she says. “There are more and more women playing. Each time I go to India, in a batch of boys, you see a girl now. I guess it’s something that’s a big deal to other people, but for me, it’s just something that I happen to love to do. My teacher never differentiated or gave me or anyone else the impression that there’s a difference. If you’re capable, you’re capable.”

Zakir Hussain on Suphala

Having studied under two of the greatest tabla masters that ever lived – the father and son team of Alla Rakha Qureshi and Zakir Hussain – Suphala stepped into the limelight armed with an ironclad resume and enough chops to dazzle the pants off of the contemporary music world. But that kind of training also carried the burden of great expectations, those of the overseers of Indian classical traditions in general, and of her teachers in particular. Alla Rakha passed away in 2000, but DRUM! caught up with Zakir Hussain during a pause in the tabla icon’s notoriously busy global touring schedule, and asked him to weigh in on Suphala’s commercial success.

“For me to give an interview for my tabla student would be for me to talk about tabla as an instrument coming from an Indian classical music field,” Hussain explains, choosing his words carefully. “In that sense, she is still a student. She’s not yet in a place where she could get on stage and do a classical Indian performance. [But] I think she has worked very hard and found a place for herself in this world where she’s able to utilize the knowledge that she’s received, and the technical ability that she has as a tabla player.

“I have told her, ‘Look Suphala, if you’re going to try and do these kinds of things, obviously you’ll want to be able to use the tabla in a different manner than trying to play traditional classical music. Because for you to go out and play traditional classical music you still need a little more time. So she’s done that, and that’s commendable.”

Of course, Hussain is speaking as one who’s achieved success on both sides of the divide. Much of his name recognition can be attributed to his work with a stable of genre-bending Western artists like Mickey Hart (on Planet Drum) and the fusion group Shakti (with John McLaughlin), as well as George Harrison, David Garibaldi, and Van Morrison, to name a few. Although those collaborations were the second act in a life already steeped in strict, classical training. “I’m basically an Indian classical tabla player who’s played with some jazz musicians, and done some electronica stuff,” Hussain insists. But his own experience living in America for so many years has given him an appreciation for what it takes for a tabla player to make it outside of India.

“When you’re living in India, you need to be accepted by the fraternity there,” he explains. “So you need to do what is expected of you as a tabla player there to be accepted. Here you have a choice. You can break away and do other types of things. [Suphala] has consciously tried to find her niche here, in this world, as opposed to living in India and working there and playing classical music and being accepted in that world. And I think that her records are quite nice for what she’s doing.”

Suphala continues to study with Hussain at least once a year; and for him, she will always be his student. But as a modern teacher of a 1,000-year-old art form traditionally passed from father to son, Hussain can’t help but speak of Suphala’s future with a tone of paternal hopefulness. “The kind of stuff she’s doing now, having studied however many years she has studied, I feel that she’s a little over-qualified for,” he admits. “But I think she’s doing this to keep her creative juices flowing while she still focuses on her classical training. Even though she is always doing all this other stuff, every day her practice of classical tabla is going on. She’s always been a diligent student.”

Suphala’s Suggested Listening

Each of the following CDs contains top-notch Indian classical tabla solo playing from some of the world’s greatest maestros. All are packed full of information to decode and enjoy. I’ve picked recordings by players of varying styles, although any CD by the following artists is bound to be good.

Selects by Zakir Hussain
This is Zakir Hussain’s 2002 release, which features his own picks from his live solo concerts. I recognize some of the compositions and marvel at the way he plays them.

Together by Ustad Alla Rakha and Zakir Hussain
This CD was recorded around the time of Ustad Alla Rakha’s 75th birthday. I knew him then, and it was amazing to hear him play at that age. Hearing the two maestros play together sounds like a loving conversation between father and son.

The Best Of Shakti by Shakti
Shakti is one of the first and greatest bands to bring north and south Indian classical music together with jazz. Guitarist John Mclaughlin and Zakir Hussain, the leaders of Shakti, still get together to tour with what is now called Remember Shakti.

Tribute by Swapan Chaudhuri
Swapan Chaudhuri is from a different school of tabla playing than my gurus. Each maestro has something special that they do, so I love listening to them all.

Anindo And His Tabla by Anindo Chatterjee
Here’s another solo tabla CD from another maestro of a different style. I heard this album years ago and still go back and listen on occasion.

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