Tabla Beat Science: Live in San Francisco at Stern Grove (2002)
Two years ago this thing called Tabla Beat Science came our way from the Bill Laswell crew, and Tala Matrix was a sure sign that Laswell had not lost it after a few severe disasters. It brought together four formidable tabla masters (and more) for a hypnotic wash of sound.
Bringing computer production together with Indian music was a great idea. But Laswell's long been a fan of mice, buttons, and knobs... so a live record from a similar group arrived this year with some trepidation.
The 2-CD set Live in San Francisco proves to the world that this unusual combination of East and West very much belongs in the realm of live performance. Before proceeding, a bit about ragas for the uninitiated: there are hundreds, and each one has a core rhythm that every player must respect. This is the tala, which can span time signatures into outer space (as well as the more usual 4/4, used here). Tabla player Zakir Hussain (who's gladly been very active lately in recording lately) takes the lead position in this group, which also includes Ustad Sultan Khan. Khan's message: never neglect the sarangi (a string instrument), which intertwines with the tabla like a snake to network the tala. Interestingly, his vocals often function in much the same way. The rest follows naturally: an extended improvised elaboration of melodic themes, each player pushing the others.
At moments this music is entirely south Asian, and at others it's more American. The concept of Tabla Beat Science is to blend the two sensibilities, in a way that makes them sound like they have been melting together for decades. At the centerand this is crucialis improvisation. This feeling becomes perfectly clear on the second disc when "Gigi" Shibabaw joins Sultan Khan in a vocal interchange that trades American lyrics with devotional vocals, and it works. Now it must be said that Laswell did do some tinkering, but the source material comes through loud and clear. Tablas, sarangi, vocalstogether with synthesizers, electronics, and turntables. The mood throughout the hour and half of Live in San Francisco remains one of elation: gentle, propulsive, and revelatory. It's hard to make that combination work, so hats off to the group. (We could have done with a little less of Laswell's robotic bass; and a better turntablist would have helped, but those flaws are small dots in the big picture.)
Track Listing: Taaruf; Sacred Channel; Nafeke; Ap Ke Baras; Magnetic Dub; Satellite (Show Me the Worth of the World); Tala Matrix; Trajic; Mangedegna; Devotional Dub.
Personnel: Zakir Hussain: tabla; Ustad Sultan Khan: vocals, sarangi; Eligayehu "Gigi" Shibabaw: vocals; Bill Laswell: bass, production; Karsh Kale: drums, tabla; DJ Disk: turntables; Midival Punditz: laptop/electronics; Fabian Alsultany: synthesizer.