Lessons in Japan with Glen Kniebeiss were inspiring and challenging. I would arrive fresh off the train or bike and settle into either the tiny music room or in the light-filled, airy, high-ceilinged living room. Each lesson would begin with some tea- Japanese or Indian, usually accompanied with an audible exhalation from either one of us. Then we would begin.
Time would fly by, and by the time we tapered off, it would easily be an hour and a half or two later.
The first couple of weeks we covered basic strokes. We learnt their names, refined fingering techniques, and internalized tone production.
As a means to put these strokes into practice, we learnt a theme and variation compositional form, called the kaida. Learning the kaida form enables students to learn the tabla holistically. This is because of the many requirements when it comes to playing a kaida. While non-Indian classical musicians may practice scales or particular rhythms and work separately on a performance piece, the tabla player can utilize the kaida form to practice both performance and "training" repertoire. Ongoing practice of kaida polish the musician's ability to achieve both consistency of sounds and clarity of tone production, to exercise restraint when playing, and to maintain a constant tempo.
For me, I particularly enjoy the kaida form for the mental clarity implicit to its successful unfurling.
When I play, I like to have my head empty- Glen Kniebeiss
Milking subtleties within variations, the tabla player can influence the kaida's character in minuscule ways. A skillfully played kaida produces a soundscape akin to a snake unfurling itself with each variation and coiling itself with each return to the theme. For the listener, this emotional undercurrent is something that repeatedly takes them to different edges of a precipice and brings them back to solid ground.
Aiming to achieve sufficient proficiency in order to share the magical quality a kaida possesses, the student acquires consistency and fluidity that form the foundation of tabla playing. While other compositional forms help deepen and expand the tabla player's technique and tone production, I think the kaida incorporates the most benefits in both structure and playing requirements to the beginner tabla player. One of my Glen's gurus in Benares, Pandit Ishwar Lal Misra, would practice the kaida form for an hour each day. Despite having many compositions to choose from, Ishwar Lalji preferred the kaida form. Interestingly, he would practice what is known as the beginner kaida, DhaDhaTeTeDhaDhaDhinNa (particular tabla syllables), substituting TeTe with the intricate TeTeKeTe, going double time during that section when already playing at a speedy tempo.
As much as kaidas can lead the listener into a trance, this privilege is only privy to those already familiar with tabla syllables. For the unexperienced listener, the tabla's magic can come alive at either end of the tempo spectrum. Really fast or really slow playing possess the keys to engage the green listener on an emotional level.
Once, Glen and I were in the car with Minamizawa-san, a Kyoto-based sitarist. MInamizawa-san had an old school Toyota van, a hunk of metal, sturdy as a rock. He drove down from his little shanti abode in Northern Kyoto to pick us up for a Great Japan Earthquake memorial concert. In the car, Minamizawa-san hooked his phone up to the sound system and played several things he had ripped from cassettes. After listening to some Beatles, a hippie band, and one of Minamizawa-san's recordings, we got to a Zakir Hussein tabla solo. Seated in the middle compartment, I leaned back and closed my eyes while the sound washed over from the back speakers. We had heard the first half of the tabla solo on the way to the concert. Now as we were driving through a dimly lit Kyoto, dusk settling into the mountainous horizon, Zakir Hussein launched into a rela- a flood. The tabla sounds conjured up a teeming bubbling and frothing of water. Slowed down, the sounds would loose the magical flood-like quality. Once past a certain tempo, the syllables start to form a wall of sound, enabling a synesthesia of auditory to water-based sensations. Seemingly endless relas are like heavy rainfall tapering off into the gentle pitter patter lulling the brain's chatter to sleep.