Big sounds, new CD emanate from Park Sloper

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Most Brooklynites don’t mind a little noise. Then again, most of them don’t live in the apartment above drumming goddess Suphala Patankar. The rising tabla star and Park slope resident - known by her first name - practices in her home studio, and she admits she’s not the quietest of tenants.

"Neighbors have complained about the noise," Suphala told GO Brooklyn. "I need to get better soundproof­ing."

But for Suphala, playing the tabla (a pair of classical Indian drums) has become more than a pastime and path towards musical stardom - she’s fallen in love with it.

"To me, music is very spiritual," she said. "It’s my religion. But you don’t need to sing words about religion when the reason you play is spiritual."

The daughter of South Asian immigrants, Suphala (who declined to reveal her age) has been studying and performing music since she was 4. Trained in Western classical piano, she was first introduced to the tabla at 17, when her mother brought a set home from their hometown of Mumbai, India. Suphala took to the tabla immediately.

She began training with two of India’s most revered tabla players, the late Ustad Allarakha and his son Ustad Zakir Hussain, and regularly traveled to India during "music season" - three winter months during which music masters tour and perform - to perfect her skills. Suphala was often the only one or one of two girls in a roomful of men learning how to play the tabla.

"With drums, in general, men are the more prominent players," said the petite musician. "I was always pretty much outnumbered as a girl, but I never focused on that."

Although the tabla is an ancient Indian instrument dating back thousands of years, learning to play it hasn’t gotten easier over time.

"In the beginning, it requires much patience," said Suphala. "The rhythmic complexity is very great, and you have a lot to deal with. You really have to fall in love with it." The right drum, or "dayan," is often carved from a single piece of wood and produces a higher-pitched sound than the "bayan," or left drum, which is usually made from metal and produces a bass tone. Although tablas can cost as much as a few hundred dollars in the West, the instrument can be bought for much less in its native land.

"Spend the money on airfare," Suphala recommended jokingly. "Go to India and you’ll pay only $30 for a great set."

Either way, to become a tabla expert requires an investment of both money and time.

"The tabla isn’t a drum you can just beat with your hand or a stick and get a great sound out of it," explained Suphala. "You have to learn its language." She means that literally. The language is composed of different rhythmic sounds, or "bols," and the player must learn how to express those sounds both vocally and manually. When spoken, "bols" roll off the tongue like a series of melodic clicking noises; when played, they define a player’s unique musical voice.

Even after years of practice, Suphala continues to study the art of the tabla with her guru, Ustad Zakir Hussain.

"It is a continual learning process," she said. Traditionally, tabla players will study with their teachers "as long as they’re around," she said, so that the teacher can pass along his or her particular style. After the teacher passes away, the student becomes the guru, incorporating personal style with traditional teachings.

"The basic language of the instrument is the same," said Suphala, "but there are different dialects."

Because many students can study under one teacher, players from different areas can communicate via the language of tabla, even if they can’t communicate in words. Thus, on a recent trip to Kabul, Suphala was able to connect with Afghan musicians via the tabla despite the language gap.

"Their main tabla teacher had sat with my guru, so we were playing the same base," she said.

Although she didn’t know it beforehand, Suphala was not only the first woman, but the first foreign musician to play music in public in over 20 years in Kabul, Afghanistan, since the oppressive rule of the Taliban took hold.

"I didn’t expect such an historic event," she said. "It made me happy, because it’s important to that community to have someone come and acknowledge them."

Now back home in Brooklyn, Suphala gives lessons to fellow musicians if they are seriously interested in learning the art of the tabla, and leads her own three-person band with violinist Mazz Swift and trombonist Dana Leong. She has also worked with numerous musicians hailing from very different musical backgrounds, including Michael Bland (the drummer for Prince) and jazz vocalist Norah Jones.

In 2000, she produced her own album, "Instru Mental," and her latest CD, "The Now," will be released by the Rasa Music label on May 11. It’s a trance-inducing amalgamation of echoing vocals and the frenetic but meditative thumps of Suphala’s fingers and palms on the tabla, mixed with glossy harmonies and synthesized beats.

"My first album focused on mutating beats and rhythms, and it was a little more crazy," she said. "’The Now’ is about compositions and harmonies, and it’s more melodic and cinematic."

Listening to "The Now," one can feel the organic connection between artist and instrument, and the passion Suphala pours into her craft. The music she brings forth from the tabla is as rich in depth as the tabla itself. And while her neighbors may be less amenable to its presence, the music world is starting to take note.

"The tabla is now being used in all forms of music, from hip-hop to jazz, and it’s making people’s ears perk up," said Suphala. "Its time has finally arrived."


Suphala’s CD, "The Now," will be released in stores by the Rasa Music label on May 11. For more information, visit "The Now" record release party will be held at Le Souk, 47 Ave. B between Third and Fourth streets in Manhattan, on May 11 at 7 pm.

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