LAist Interview: Robin Sukhadia and Tablacentric

tablacentric_flyer2-sm.jpg This month, from March 13th through April 12th, the folks at Machine Project are hosting Tablacentric — an entire month devoted to the concept and feel of not the snare drum, not the piano, but yet another form of percussion — the tabla — a majestic drum originating in South Asia.

For the entire month, 12 pairs of tabla will be setup in the gallery for all students and performers to touch and play. A series of classical and contemporary concerts featuring local and international tabla artists will help to present tabla in a performance context. Cooking classes, instrument invention workshops, film screenings and listening sessions will also provide cultural context to tabla and South Asian rhythm as well.

The concept is conceived and developed by Robin Sukhadia, a recent MFA graduate of Cal Arts' World Music Program, who performs and mixes tabla beats, teaches tabla and other instruments, and sets up music education programs in other countries. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area but is spending the month here in Los Angeles as part of Machine Project's artist in residency program.

LAist sat down and talked with Sukhadia about tablas, robots and tablas, giving tablas away to kids in other countries, and Los Angeles.

LAist: Tell us about your musical background, and about the path that led you to performing music and teaching music to others.

Robin Sukhadia:
I grew up mostly isolated from a larger South Asian community in a number of small motels that my family ran in Ohio and Indiana. What little money my father earned, he spent on records and an impressive stereo system. Alongside Neil Diamond, Wings, Elton John and the Beatles, my father constantly played his large collection of Bollywood records. I remember him singing along to the great Bollywood film composers and artists: RD Burman, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bosle…The whimsical arrangements, catchy melodies and romantic lyrics were all I knew of the musical traditions of the land where my parents came from, India. I used to listen to those scratchy records while wearing my dad’s massive old skool Pioneer headphones. Whenever I put them on, I entered a new world…full of unexplainable sounds and sonic structures – far different from anything I had heard before. It took many years for me to realize that the tabla, sitar, santoor, sarode, and all the other instruments being played in those recordings actually had deep, classical traditions behind them. The idea that what I was hearing was simply a popularized form of something much richer completely escaped me. As far as I was concerned, Indian music was only Bollywood music.

That all changed in 1998, I was driving through Chapel Hill, NC., one year after graduating from college there. My best friend put in a sampler cassette tape of Talvin Singh’s debut album release, OK. The cassette had two songs on it, and was wrapped in a cardboard sleeve. We had just found it in the “FREE, TAKE ME” bin at the record shop on Franklin Street. I remember listening to the first track of the two song sampler, “Butterfly,” and literally being unable to concentrate on anything but the crystalline and resonant beauty of the drums, resonating brightly above the richest and sickest drum n bass beats I had ever heard. I had never heard tabla sound that way before. That is when the revelation happened. I was hearing tabla in a context that made sense to me, in a way that made it possible for me to reconcile the tradition of my parents with contemporary times growing up in America. It wasn’t long after that that I began studying with my guru, Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, and tabla became the lens through which I would begin to understand he immense depth of classical north Indian music as a whole.

LAist: I had a similar experience when I heard Nitin Sawhney's "Migration" playing at a used CD shop in Pennsylvania in 1997. Tablas and electronic music and beautiful jazz and my world was rocked upside down in a beautiful, permanent way. So tell us, why the tabla as your instrument of choice?

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Robin Sukhadia: What I love most about tabla is that it is based on an oral tradition, a language of rhythm -- as such, it carries within it a great deal of feeling, melody, history, and culture. Before you can learn to play tabla, you have to learn to speak it, without notes, without notation, and without any reliance on the visual. It is completely dependent upon listening and absorbing. This is a concept that is fast disappearing in the western world, where we have so much emphasis on codification and documentation. Sometimes, we carry an attitude in the west that if something isn’t written down, it is worthless. You can see it in the way that much of the non-written traditions of the world are fast disappearing, mainly because they were not captured in some form of documentation. Does that mean they weren’t rich, full of complexity and depth? Of course not. But, they are being forgotten, substituted by a culture of commodification. With tabla, and with most musical art forms in South Asia, there is still great emphasis on learning through listening, reciting, and absorbing. I think learning tabla is like learning a recipe from your mom -- you have to learn, feel, and remember. Just writing it down is not enough.

LAist: How did this residency at Machine Project come about, and what do you hope to share or achieve during it?

Robin Sukhadia: The residency was born out of a single day of teaching tabla that I conducted at the Gallery back in April 2007. As part of my final Integrated Media project to graduate from CalArts in 2007, my professor and mentor Tom Leeser introduced me to the dynamic and visionary Mark Allen, who runs the Machine Project. I proposed a unique full day approach to teaching tabla to complete beginners, where anyone could come and learn to play the drums and improvise using conduction, a technique using hand gestures to create soundscapes pioneered by Butch Morris. To contextualize the drum, I cooked a full Indian meal and shared pictures and video of my travels to India working with Project Ahimsa and studying tabla…it was 6 hours of tabla improvisation, soundscapes and experimenting within a traditional framework, and it was a huge success. So many amazing people came to Machine, touched the drums, and contributed their creativity to making some amazing music. 90 percent of the participants were complete beginners. So, at the end, Mark asked me…would you like to be Machine Project’s first Artist in Residence? We will give you a full month here to do whatever you want. I said hell yeah! And so, TABLACENTRIC was born…an expansion of that single day, now encompassing a wider view of what tabla is in a contemporary world.

LAist: Here at LAist, we love musicians who like to share the love of music and make positive social change with it too. So tell us, what is Project Ahimsa, and in what capacity do you work with the organization?

Robin Sukhadia: Project Ahimsa is an organization based in San Francisco that is focused on providing musical instruments and music teachers to children affected by violence worldwide. The word Ahimsa is derived from the concept of non-violence, and is rooted in the philosophy Mahatma Gandhi practiced in his work to lead India towards independence from the British. We really believe in the healing power of music, and have donated over 2,000 musical instruments of all types to children in India, Argentina, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Mexico, Cuba and the United States. For many of the children we reach, music returns a lost childhood and a vehicle to express their pain, suffering, beauty and creativity. We partner with organizations that provide healthcare, education, sanitation and more to communities in need. These are the essentials for a healthy humanity. But it is creativity and expression that comes out of the musical opportunities that Ahimsa provides that brings the biggest smiles to the children that we serve. I have served as the organization’s International Grants Program Director for the past 6 years which means I regularly travel to India to distribute instruments and set up music education programs - damn fun work!

LAist: That's absolutely beautiful and so inspiring. Thanks for the work you do. Speaking of inspiration, who are your biggest musical and spiritual inspirations?

Robin Sukhadia: Foremost, my Guru Swapan Chaudhuri, one of the greatest living tabla players and more importantly, teachers. There are many great performers in the world, but very few that can teach…and who teach with consistency week in and week out. This instrument takes a great deal of time to learn and truly understand, and so without a patient teacher it is damn near impossible to learn. I also listen to Ali Akbar Khan, the great sarode maestro, and Nikhil Banerjee, one of the greatest sitar players. I mix it up with bansuri, especially G S Sachdev and santoor, the great Shiv Kumar Sharma. Outside of north Indian Classical Music, I love LTJ Bukem, Kings of Convenience, Postal Service, Steve Reich, Neko Case, and Fela Kuti. Spiritually, I feel most connected to Gandhi, Ramakrishna, and the goddess Kali.

LAist: We like Robots and Tablas. What do you think the role of technology is in the future of music, and how have you negotiated a mix of classical traditional instrumental work with electronic music?

Robin Sukhadia:
I think that the nature of tabla, the fact that it is an oral tradition and that it is so versatile, makes it an incredible technology in and of itself. It is highly portable. It is malleable, in that the rhythms can be shaped in so many ways to create feeling. It is both melodic and rhythmic at the same time. It also presents rhythm in a 3D kind of way…when you listen to tabla and learn how to listen to tabla, it can unlock your ears to hear all rhythm in ways that are so much deeper than what we may have been taught through a western paradigm. On a simpler level, when you hear tabla played well, it possesses a technical precision and intricacy that sounds so ancient and advanced all at the same time. So, robots playing tabla represents all of that…the idea that the ancient and the advanced are really one in the same, and that sometimes traditional things are the most technological. My friend Ameet Mehta drew the robot playing the tabla…it is a badass rendition. Also, Ajay Kapur, professor at CalArts, will be presenting his own tabla playing robots on April 4, 7PM at the Machine Project. Come check it out. It's FREE!

LAist: What’s your favorite thing about LA?

Robin Sukhadia:
Having lived in the Bay Area for a long time, I fell in to the trap that many Bay Area people fall into, hating on LA and cynically resisting it…but having lived down here for over 2 years, and having been able to interact creatively with the city, I sincerely feel that there is a creative momentum here that can enable a musician to be focused and multi dimensional at the same time. There is an artistic momentum here that is liberating and dynamic, and is truly global in scope. LA is international, and for artists seeking an international audience, it is either LA or NY. I like LA, because it is really California…and California is the future. Places like Machine Project could only exist here in LA, I feel…it nurtures artistic endeavors in such an unpretentious and open way, all in the spirit of making art and complex things more accessible to everyone. I think it symbolizes Los Angeles, and the idea that you can be anything here and find a community.

LAist: Now, we've heard your name in association with Mr Hyphen. What's this all about?

Robin Sukhadia:
Hyphen Magazine is a rad magazine that aims to share what is creatively best about Asian America. It is 100 percent volunteer run, and so it is madly independent and irreverent. Each year, they run a contest called Mr. Hyphen, which essentially aims to highlight the “Sexiest Asian American Male Activist Alive”. The idea being that Asian American men don’t have many positive role models or representations in mainstream media…we are often caricaturized or desexualized, and so Hyphen magazine decided to look at heroes in the community. So, I entered in 2006 and won the crown and $500 for Project Ahimsa. It was really cool, and campy at the same time.

LAist: What other projects are you working on?

Robin Sukhadia:
Right now, I am working with Project Ahimsa to release a CD of voices and performances of the children we have reached over the past six years. We are working with a number of international artists including Cheb I Sabbah, Karsh Kale, and J Boogie’s Dubtronic Science to take original recordings and remix them, to highlight the immense talent of the children we serve. All the proceeds of this album will go back into supporting music education programs around the world.