Phat Funky Fusion

Ritesh Das of the Toronto Tabla Ensemble talks with Andrew Sun
By Andrew Sun

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Ritesh Das has a strange idea for summer vacation. "I'll probably go to California and get my ass kicked," says the Toronto tabla player.

No, he is not referring to some resortforthe recreational masochist. He is talking about recharging his tabla skills wth a visit to his mentor, Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, who resides near San Fransisco. Even though Das has been teaching for almost a decade now, a little bootcamp refresher from his master every now and then is his favourite way to stay sharp and prevent any chance of a head swell.

Staying in touch with his roots is also an important part of the Calcutta born Das' character, a fixture on the Toronto music scene. Yet, it is his pursuit of new possibilities for his percussion instrument that has propelled him to public attention. Sticking to a disciplined foundation while transcending it is the basis of Das' Toronto Tabla Ensemble's success.

From the modest support of the local Toronto community to national touring gigs (they've been invited to the Vancouver Folk Music Festival twice in three years), the unit has now put their unique sound to disc. A self-financed, self-titled CD of original compositions, no less. What do they think they are, a rock band?

It's a balmy July afternoon. Das and the Ensemble has just returned after touring Western Canada. His puny bacherlor apartment is still in down mode. "Sorry, I can't offer you anything," Das apologizes. "There's nothing in the fridge." The apartment is efficiently sparse and functional with no furniture per se, just a few throw rugs and large cushions on the floor. A broken down laser-printer is now the TV stand. The only hint of Das' significant responsibilities is a phone that doesn't stop ringing.

"You know, tabla is an instrument that you always can mature on," he starts. "I guess it's this way with every instrument. The longer you do it the better you get. I don't think you can get to a point when you can say, 'OK, I'm a professional now.'"

Das came to Canada in 1987 with Kathak dancer Joanna Das. (The two were married but since have had an amicable separation.) They soon opened a small studio to teach Indian music and dance. A small group of young, ethnically diverse tabla enthusiasts was nurtured and they form the foundation of the tabla ensemble.

In the traditional Indian performance no more than two tablas are employed at the same time. Das' group use up to five, and it gets even more progressive. Das has taken the concept to the cross-cultural. He has collaborated with Caribbean/African drummers, Chinese flautists, Toronto-based ex-Kodo drummer, Gary Nagata, and currently plays with jazz musicians on Jane Siberry's newest CD. According to Das, "The primary goal of the group was to build a better understanding between cultures. That's the whole idea and it's never changed. We live in Canada and we share our lives with so many people of different cultures. What a perfect opportunity to share it."

A Tabla Ensemble doesn't mean it's only classical or it's modern bhangra music. It could be any kind of music. It's totally Canadian music, with a mix of here and there.

As for exploring his tradition with non-Indians, Das says, "To have someone from a different place be interested in my culture is a real honour, I think."

Looking at Ritesh Das' musical lineage, however, you never would have guessed it would yield such a progressive thinker. Almost all his mentors and role models have been purists and traditionalists. Das' parents were the first people to open a music and dance school in Calcutta after the British left India. Taking up the tabla at 14, a very late age by Indian standards, Das started an apprenticeship with tabla maestro, Shankar Ghosh.

"It was a bit like the film, The Karate Kid," Das recalls. "I would hang around his house and he would send me to do this, do that, but constantly there was a tabla class going on. One day he said to me, 'Play!' and I just picked up this heavy composition which was for senior students without him showing me the strokes. I didn't even realize I was picking up all this knowledge."

Next, it was off to Southern California, specifically the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music. Located just outside the Bay area, the school made San Fransisco a hotbed for South Asian culture. First, he trained under Zakir Hussain, the young tabla sensation whose star began rising after his work with jazz guitarist, John MacLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra and Grateful Dead drummer, Mickey Hart. The erratic schedule of lessons made Das turn to another teacher. That person was Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri.

Where Hussain was flashy and energetic, Chaudhuri was stoic and rigourous. A true maestro of the North Indian Lucknow tabla tradition, Chaudhuri instilled in Das a resolute philosophy based on solid groundwork and artistic purity. As witnessed by Das' vacation plans, to this day, Chaudhuri remains an important influence.

After landing in Toronto and seeing the void of traditional Indian music on the scene, Das started to teach tabla. Besides the Indian parents eager for their kids to appreciate their heritage, Das also found musicians including Alan Davis, Programmer of Toronto's Music Gallery and Donald Quan, producer and collaborator with Loreena McKennit.

Soon a dedicated group of young player emerged—both Indian and non-Indian—and the Tabla Ensemble became a reality. But in Das' vision, it would not just be a copy from something in Calcutta, New Delhi or San Fransisco.

"Tabla in India and here is different," Das says. "In India you hear tabla all the time and you have musicians whom you can play with. There's always a sitar player to play with your tabla. It's like jazz and rock n' roll here, you have mentors. But...(tabla here) is different. The masters come once or twice a year. It's not part of the main culture, so if you play tabla, you have think about what you're going to play.

"I come from India but my way of thinking has changed too. I have to say, 'Hey, I'm here so (I) gotta be more open.' I talk to the guys in the Ensemble all the time because I hope they set an example for the younger students. The new kids are looking up at them. So if they do something, then the kids will think, 'Oh, it's OK to do that, too.'"

Most notably, they challenge is to incorporate the diverse artistic opportunities around him without sacrificing his Indian-based milieu. So far, the Ensemble has created a successful and innovative blend. The mix of some Indian rhythmic systems and other influences is captured on the CD. Some of the world beat experiments on display include the infections raga-based composition Funky 10 which inherits the phat energy of a James Brown 4/4 jam and a reworking of Beethoven's Ode to Joy as an Indian melody in seven beats. In addition, there is an African/Indian summit with steel drums and a powerful rumble between tablas and a Japanese taiko drum. But significantly, nothing is done for the sake of novelty. Instrumental and musical discipline remains the priority.

"It's like a bowl of rice." Das compares his music to the flexible food staple. "It's up to you whether you want to add butter or salt or anything else to explore the flavour. And eventually it might become fried rice. Eventually I want to take it to another level, but what that is I'm not sure yet.

"A Tabla Ensemble doesn't mean it's only classical or it's modern bhangra music. It could be any kind of music. It's totally Canadian music, with a mixture of here and there."

On tap this fall, Das will be assisting Joanna Das on her collaborative dance project with a flamenco dancer. Plus the Ensemble will also perform concerts with bagpiper Craig Downey ("I've always wanted to do it. Seriously, there's a lot of connection between the Celts and the Indians.") and then with jazz scat singer, Julie Michels.

Yeah, things are going very well for Ritesh Das. He hasn't had to sacrifice integrity for success and he's making an impression on audiences with a very distinctive sound. And being part of the centuries old apprentice/ master tradition keeps his well-checked humility intact. "Things are very good. But sometimes when things are good, you also get scared. It doesn't matter how good you are. If your attitude sucks, you're gone."

As long as he makes plans to get his ass kicked, Das has nothing to worry about.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
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Ritesh Das
Ritesh Das is a tabla player who has been teaching and composing music since the early 1970s. He is the founder and artistic director of the Toronto Tabla Ensemble.
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Andrew Sun
Andrew Sun is a Toronto-based freelance art journalist.
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