Tabla player, singer, and songwriter Tina Sugandh wants to be the girl that ignites the Bollywood explosion in America. On her debut album, Tabla Girl, her unerring musical instincts are showcased on 11 radio-ready gems. She combines American hip-hop, rock, Latin, and pop rhythms with the driving Punjabi thump of bhangra, the intricate tabla cadences of traditional Hindi folk music, and the cinematic sweep of Bollywood pop with its soaring strings, multi-layered percussion, romantic sitars, and enthusiastic background singers, which include her sister, father, and mother. Videos of songs from the album have received thousands of YouTube hits, and the advance single, “Break Me,” shot to #4 on Billboard’s Dance Chart last year — but waiting for the official release date is still wearing on Sugandh’s nerves.
“I wish I could say I was an overnight sensation,” Sugandh sighs, “but this album took three years to make, with a lot of ups and downs. I wanted to make sure it had an authentic sound, so before Angelo (Montrone, the album’s producer and the man behind the boards for Matisyahu) and I started work, we went to India for a few weeks and flew back with two huge crates of Indian musical instruments. We brought in people from all over the world — dohl players from London, sitarists from India. Luckily, many of the people we wanted were touring America when we needed them. There is some synthesizer on the album, but all the Indian instruments are played live, on real instruments. I wanted to make sure we got that organic, heartfelt sound.”
Tabla Girl is a pop album and, while the multi-layered levels of Indian and American percussion give it a unique sound, it’s not so far out of the mainstream that it will alienate American listeners. The funk and hip-hop beats perfectly mesh with the drive of bhangra and the propulsive rhythms of the tabla, most of which Sugandh plays herself. “There’s definitely a pop-fusion feel to the record,” Sugandh says. “I’m hoping we can introduce some Bollywood flavor into the mainstream. A few years ago, Latin music made a big breakthrough; now you hear Latin rhythms everywhere and nobody thinks twice about it. Thanks to the success of Slumdog Millionaire, people in America are hearing real Bollywood music for the first time. So maybe it’s good the album took so long to make. The Bollywood sounds may be more familiar to people today.
“Nobody knew what Bollywood was last year, now I’m being called a Bollywood artist, and that’s fine with me. Suddenly there are a lot of Bollywood projects. Even The Chia Girls, a Disney pop group, is doing Bollywood-flavored music. It’s really time for Indian-Americans to make some noise.”
The Indian flavor is obvious from the first notes on Tabla Girl. “Jao,” the opening track, has tabla, naal, dhol, dumbek, and hand drums accenting the sturdy funk backbeat of a Western drum kit played Indian style by Groove Collective’s Genji Siraisi. Sugandh delivers a message of peace, love, and unity over the propulsive bhangra-meets-hip-hop rhythm. The hook and chorus of “Bollywood Girl” features Sugandh singing a bole — a tabla rhythm — on a track that’s pure funk rock, an expression of liberation and empowerment that has a hint of Prince’s sly sexuality in the vocal.
As the album progresses, each track drops a little more Indian flavor into the mix. The salty “Break Me,” blends bhangra with house and features Sugandh delivering a short tasty tabla break. “HisStory” uses a ’60s girl-group groove, tons of tabla, and a vocal from Sugandh full of wordless Hindi melismas to tell the story of Mahatma Gandhi. Seema Sugandh, Tina’s sister, sings a challenging Hindi introduction to “T.here I.s N.o A.lternative” a tough track carried by Indian percussion and Sugandh’s exhalant vocal, while “Love Junky” is pure bhangra with Sugandh’s vocal dancing through the multi-layered Indian percussion. The set culminates with “Stay,” a pop tune drenched in sitar, Indian violin, dholak, and ghatam with an outro of Hindi vocal ornamentation provided by the extended Sugandh family. The album ends with a whispered “Namaste,” a word of greeting and farewell that loosely means, “I bow to you” or “the light in me honors the light in you.”
“I think the next album will allow even more room for Indian fusion, but I make music that’s about what I’m doing at the time. I love pop and hip-hop as much as Bollywood and Hindi music, so this feels like a good mix. The theme of the album is self-empowerment and optimism. We can all use a little uplifting these days, and, for me, music is about sharing emotion with other people. Music enriched my entire life, and I’m doing this because I love it. It would be nice to sell ten bazillion records, but that’s not my goal.”
Music In The Blood. Sugandh’s goal is to communicate her love of music and performing and add some positive energy into a world sorely in need of some peace and light. Tabla Girl is the culmination of a long journey, and while it’s been fun, it hasn’t always been easy — beginning with her decision to play tabla.
“Tabla isn’t considered a feminine instrument,” Sugandh says. It’s a perception Sugandh’s been trying to change since she was a child performing with The Sugandh Family band. The homemade quartet she grew up performing in included her mother, Geeta, on harmonium and vocals; her father, Kanaiya, who played percussion, sang, danced, and did comedy routines; and her sister, Seema, a singer and dancer. Tina sang and danced as well.
“Weekdays were for school and work, but we played Friday nights and weekends for the Indian community,” Sugandh recalls. “Folk songs, Bollywood songs, devotional songs, pop music, we did it all. I was always on stage as a child dancing, but I wanted to sing, so my mother taught me a ghazal, a poetic love song. It was a very slow, mature song, the kind I remember elderly ladies singing. I didn’t really understand the words. There are about 15 languages and dialects in India, so I learned it phonetically. I was only five, but I was very serious about wanting to give a good performance. I asked my mother how I should feel when I sang it and she said, ‘It’s a very sad song.’”
The young girl gave her all when she sang and knew immediately her life had been changed by her performance. “I loved how warm the audience was, and I showed my parents I could handle myself on stage. [My parents] were surprised when they saw me trying to steal the spotlight, but they were glad I shared their love of performing. They told me as long as I kept up my grades, I could sing on stage, but I didn’t start tabla and guitar until I was eight.
“One night, my father had a slight fever on stage and he was about to do his most vigorous number, singing and dancing and playing the dholak, a two-headed Indian folk drum. I asked him if I could [play the drum], so he could concentrate on his singing. He said: ‘Okay, little girl, you can play the drum.’ I’m sure he was thinking I’d mess up, but I’d been watching him play for years, how he held the drum and how he hit it, so I picked it up and played. He was as delighted as the audience.”
Kanaiya Sugandh let his daughter continue to play dholak and suggested tabla lessons. “He was impressed with my rhythmic ability, and I started lessons.” The discipline of tabla training was daunting. Sugandh had to keep up her grades and attend family band rehearsals between lessons, but she was fierce in her dedication to the instrument. “I started at eight. I was about eleven before I could get a good solid tone. I had little hands.”
The Sugandh Family shows often started with Tina walking out and sitting down behind her tabla. “I was tiny, and looked even smaller behind the drums,” she recalls. “The audience would give me odd looks, thinking I was just tuning the drums for my father — then I’d start playing and they’d be shocked.
“My teacher taught me basic theory and some classic taals, but since we performed every weekend, I had to rehearse every day after school. The performing and singing on stage interfered with the time I had to study, so I didn’t have much formal training. Since everything we played was more pop, I developed my own style, although I don’t know what you’d call it. The main family rule was that we had to keep up our grades if we wanted to play on the weekend.”
Sugandh usually managed straight A’s and eventually enrolled at Rutgers, where her father taught, to get a degree in biology. She also absorbed the music of her new homeland — Latin, rock, and heavy metal. “There was a boy next door who was teaching himself drums on a Pearl Export kit. I asked him if I could try to play and he gave me his seat.” After Sugandh beat out the pattern he’d been trying to master, he asked her if she wanted to buy his kit. She did. She also took up electric guitar and taught herself licks off Metallica records. “At home it was Indian music, but at school and in my room, I soaked up Sade, Christina Aguilera, Ludacris. My head is all over the place musically — that’s why my album is so diverse.
Still, a career in music was not high on Sugandh’s to-do list. “My parents came to the U.S. from Mumbai (Bombay) so my father could teach, but they were homesick. Playing Indian songs at home led to the family band, but we didn’t think of ourselves as professionals. We had offers from people who said they could manage us and get us better gigs, but my father said no.”
The Sugandh Family traveled up and down the Eastern Seaboard and the Caribbean, “We sang in seven languages. Each region of India has a distinct sound and culture, so we’d do songs from as many as we could each evening: love songs, folk songs, and pop tunes. Growing up in America, it can be hard to retain your own culture, so having an education about all the different cultures of India was great. It kept me close to my roots.”
Going Pro. When she was 15, Sugandh met Sean Harris, a friend of her cousin, who had helped other people find their way in the world of show business. “He told me I had a fire in me and I’d never be happy doing anything but music. But I was an Indian. I was going to be a doctor, like I was meant to be.” Throughout high school and college, Harris phoned Sugandh several times a year, asking her when she was going to become a full-time musician. “I was in college when I finally let him take me to a studio to record a song, and I realized that [music] is what I had to do.”
Sugandh started making demos, first of cover songs. When Harris suggested she write her own material, she did. “My cousins knew a bunch of producers in Washington D.C. who were just starting out. We made demos on spec, and started sending them out. That’s when I appreciated the work ethic my parents had given me. I’d get up before class, address envelopes, send out demos, do follow-up calls, make detailed notes on each conversation, and then go to class. On the weekends, I’d study and play in the family band. When I was taking my finals, I’d bring my notes on stage and between numbers I’d memorize formulas.” Sugandh graduated with honors in biology, then dove into the music business.
A few years ago, she connected with Rebellion Entertainment, the company run by Sean Sullivan and Jay Jay French (Twisted Sister, Sevendust). “At first, they didn’t accept me as a client. They were only going to work with hard rock bands — they didn’t want a little pop girl. They said they weren’t impressed by my demos, but wanted to see what I could do live. Jay Jay was scowling and had his hands folded on his chest. I did 13 songs and a Bollywood dance number and sang my own song, ‘I Spit Fire.’ Jay Jay finally said, ‘I can’t believe you have all this going for you. Let’s start working on something.’ I didn’t even play tabla for them until I knew them for a while. They asked me why the heck I hid it from them, but I was thinking about pop music and I thought they might be put off by a weird Indian drum.”
Rebellion got Sugandh a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell Music and Creative Artist Agency for acting and touring. She made more demos and got a high-profile job hosting Asian Variety Show (AVS), the Entertainment Tonight of the Indian film industry, which goes out via syndication to millions of Indian viewers around the world. “I’d been on stage since I was eight years old. I’d done media and shopped demos, so I walked into the studio thinking it was going to be a breeze. But being a VJ and a newscaster was completely different. I was stiff and unnatural. It was horrible. But somehow they let me have the job. I hosted off and on for about three years. That helped prepare me for what I’m doing now.”
The next round of demos got Sugandh a meeting with Hollywood Records chairman Bob Cavallo. She sang, played guitar, and showed off her skills on tabla. Cavallo signed her on the spot. “I worked with a lot of producers at the top of their game. We had the record done, although it was a lot more pop than Tabla Girl. It was ready to be mixed when the CEO of Disney got fired and the label restructured. They let me have the masters, but they didn’t want to do anything with it.”
Sugandh went back to playing live, this time with her own band. Michael Caplan and Angelo Montrone caught her act and signed her. Caplan had just left Or Records — where he’d discovered and developed Los Lonely Boys and Matisyahu — for a position with Columbia. He signed Sugandh and they started working on what was to become Tabla Girl with Angelo Montrone producing. They were well into the process when Caplan left Columbia for Razor & Tie. He brought Sugandh with him.
“We worked for three years, and it was an intense process,” Sugandh says. “Angelo is very methodical. We worked seven days a week, 14-hour days, for months on end. He’d spend a day testing mike placement on a drum. Move it an inch and see what happens. I worked with producers who could do a song in three hours, so this was amazing. I played tabla, dhol, acoustic guitar, and sang most of the vocal harmonies, and was there to watch the Indian musicians play their parts, which was really inspirational.
“The album is a reflection of everything I grew up with. Bollywood soundtracks, singing pop songs with my family, and heavy metal. I like soft rock and hip-hop too. The first time Angelo asked me to sing, I tried to ‘do’ Christina Aguilera and he said: ‘I like that Indian thing you do with your voice.’ It’s so much a part of me, it comes out even when I’m not trying.”