Ravi Naimpally: Tabla For The Masses

The sound of Tasa marries complex Indian classical music and jazz improvisation by way of Toronto, but it’s hard to imagine its founder and tabla virtuoso Ravi Naimpally as a kid in Thunder Bay, back when he played with a band that specialized in J. Geils covers.

“Well, our singer only knew their songs, so what could we do?” he laughs.

He was in elementary school at the time, so it’s been a while since he put his sticks aside, dumped that drum kit his parents had bought from Consumers Distributing, and got down to business on tablas. His family was probably relieved: They’d left India when Ravi was just one year old but remained devoted to its culture. His father, a mathematics professor, even sponsored performances of Indian music in Thunder Bay, bringing in outstanding artists and putting them up as guests at home.

“I remember coming back from high school at lunchtime one day,” Naimpally says, “and there was Anindo Chatterjee, who was on tour with [flutist] Hariprasad Chaurasia, sitting and practicing tablas in our living room. It blew my mind. I’d never heard anything like the stuff he was doing.”

With just 13,000 people in Thunder Bay, almost none of them from India, there were no tabla instructors in the neighborhood. So Ravi’s parents worked out a plan: Each summer they sent him to India for sadhana, or music study that goes far beyond doing a few rudiments between weekly lessons. He had two teachers during these years: Anindo, known for his eclectic range within the technically demanding Farukhabad style of tabla performance, and Ravi’s uncle, Nikhil Ghosh, a master of pure classical tradition.

“When I was with Nikhil in Bombay, it was 24 hours of music every day,” Naimpally says. “Just waking up and hearing him practice each morning was part of the lesson. He was born in 1919, so he’d seen a whole other era, when people were riding in horse buggies. He’d played with all these legendary figures in Indian music, who were all dead by the time I was born. Just being with him, I’d get transported back into this other era.”

Each Fall Naimpally would return to Thunder Bay and practice on his own before going back to India at the end of the school year. “It was a weird routine,” he admits, “but even as a kid I really loved to practice. It’s like a meditation: You forget the outside world. You focus on your instrument and merge with it for a few hours. When I finish I always feel like I can handle anything that might happen.”

Practicing up to three hours each day at home and for two three-hour sessions each day in India, Naimpally built sufficient command of the tablas to start playing professionally. He eventually moved to Toronto, whose sizable Indian community offered plenty of opportunities. He did sessions and local gigs, and he toured with the Thomas Handy Trio, whose lineup included guitar and violin as well as tablas.

Yet even as he moved forward, an irresolution that Naimpally had felt since childhood lingered. “When I was growing up, it felt like I lived in two cultures,” he explains. “Inside, I spoke my mother tongue — Konkani, a Kashmir dialect — and ate Indian food. Outside it was … Canada. I didn’t think about it much until I was a teenager, and then it started to bother me that I had these separate lives.”

Eventually it occurred to him that music could bridge and even unify these worlds. “One summer, when I was studying with Anindo in Calcutta, it hit me. I’d met all these great musicians in Toronto — really open-minded guys who had absorbed all kinds of influences. Suddenly I realized, ’Man, I’ve got to put them together in a band … now!’ It was like a vision of bringing the Western with the Eastern. Sometimes you need to get away from where you live to get a perspective on things, so it was in India that I came to know what I had to do.”

These musicians — Ernie Tollar on saxophone and bansuri, John Gzowski on guitar, dobro, saz, and oud, bass guitarist Chris Gartner, and drummer/percussionist Alan Hetherington — became Tasa in 1999. They weren’t the first Western group to cross cultural borders, but from the start their approach differed significantly from what Mahavishnu Orchestra, Shakti, Weather Report, and others had already done.

“A lot of the players in those bands are super virtuosos,” Naimpally explains. “Their music reflects that; it’s very technical. That appeals to musicians, but I wanted to do something that was based more on nice melodies and grooves that everyone can appreciate.”

Their third album, this year’s release Urban Turban, is faithful to Tasa’s mission. It impresses most in its details; in place of the blinding runs that define John McLaughlin’s sprints through Indian territory, this music grows from a steady yet spacious pulse, with thoughtful rather than speed-demon solos. The uniqueness of Tasa’s groove reflects especially in how the bass and the drum kit accommodate the tablas.

“The challenge is in the bottom end, between the bass, the kick drum, and the bayan,” Naimpally says, referring to the lower-pitched of the two tablas. “On one track in particular, ’Chatting With God,’ we had to work hard to make sure the parts didn’t clash. You’ll find that Alan’s kick drum never hits the 1, for example, because that would fight with the bayan.”

These arrangements, which place the bass guitar into spare, non-Western patterns or send jazzy improvisations weaving through classical Indian rhythms, is undeniably exotic. But to Naimpally, they represent a long-delayed resolution, a falling of pieces into a pattern he’s sought all his life. “I’ve always loved the depth of Indian music,” he says. “Tasa is about putting that into a new context while keeping the tradition intact. If I couldn’t do that without losing that richness and depth, then I wouldn’t be doing Tasa at all.”