Tabla Beat Science @ The Vic

March 6th, 2003

Went to see Tabla Beat Science at the Vic Theater last night. For those who don’t know, the tabla is a pair of tuned percussion instruments, played with the hands. Sorta like an Indian version of the bongos, but with a greater potential for playing a leading role. TBS is mainly a collaboration between Zakir Hussain (apparently considered the greatest tabla maestro in the world) and Bill Laswell, and mixes classical Indian music with modern electronics and Laswell’s bass playing.

I enjoy their album (“Tala Matrix”) well enough, but not quite enough to immediately justify a $40 ticket price. But then my Indian friend heard that Zakir Hussain was part of this thing, and she wasn’t about to pass up a chance to see him, so I figured I might as well go along too. And wow, I’m sure glad I did, because the performance blew away everything that’s on the CD.

The musicians on this 4-date tour are Hussain on tabla, Laswell on electric bass, Ganesh Iyer on violin/vocals, Karsh Kale on a standard drumkit, Sultan32 on keyboards/effects, DJ Disc on the turntable, and Ethiopian singer Gigi does vocals on some songs.

I had just been to the Vic a few weeks before to see the Nile/Napalm Death show, so it was quite a change to see the stage covered in greenery and flowers, four video screens, and no security fence. As expected at a fusion event like this, the crowd was quite an interesting mix. There were hippies (both neo- and paleo-), Indians (both ABCD and FOB), pretentious art-music posers (like myself), an abonormal number of lesbians (both real and wannabe), and even a few Gigi fans (presumably Ethiopian?)

The show began with only Hussain and Ganesh onstage, improv-ing off each other for fifteen minutes. This was a chance for Hussain to show off his mad skillz, with his fingers literally becoming a blur for extended periods. The mood was pretty playful, as he inserted some well-known bass licks from time to time, which seems to be a pretty impressive thing to do with one hand on a single drum. I’ve only seen one tabla player before in my life, so I probably don’t even have the experience to judge his greatness, but I did get the same feeling watching him as I’ve had when watching Hellhammer or Gene Hoglan.

Eventually, the rest of the band showed up, and they started laying down some serious groove. One of my problems with the record is that it’s pretty one-dimensional. It’s very rhythmic, repetitive, and there aren’t a lot of parts that stand out. Live, each non-tabla instrument became much more prominent, although I never got a sense that anyone was trying to outdo or overpower anyone else; they all gelled perfectly. Compared to the album, there was far more violin being played, Kale’s drums were omnipresent (sometimes jazzy, sometimes very intense and “electronic”), and Laswell’s bass was all over the place; he had a whole set of switches and pedals that changed his sound to everything from standard rock bass, to funkified chirping, to rolling fuzzballs of distortion.

Most of the 2-hour performance had the improv feel of a jazz combo, and although not many “solos” went around, the tabla did some pretty cool back-and-forth exchanges with the violin, drums, and most notably, the DJ scratching records on the turntable. Things would ebb and flow and build and fade; I’d often close my eyes for a few minutes at a time, and upon opening them, I wouldn’t be sure if three minutes had passed, or a hundred years. And that was without any drugs.

So all in all, quite a memorable event that far exceeded my expectations.