Phrase Velocity: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyors of: Tabla rhythms and analog synth interventions
File next to: Autorickshaw, Hoover Party
Playing: Friday Oct. 17 at the Music Gallery for the X AVANT Festival

Tabla player Ed Hanley (known as a member of Autorickshaw as well as for his own music) is interested both in the history of his instrument and in pushing it forward into new sonic terrains. This show (co-presented as part of The Music Gallery’s X Avant festival) pairs him with keyboard dreamologist Jonathan Adjemian in a unit that could be called Drums & Drones, were that not already taken by the night’s headliners. Joe Strutt spoke to Ed and Jonathan via email about traditions, old and new and the idea of “transculturalism”.

Ed, how did you become a tabla player?

Ed: I heard an Alla Rakha tabla solo (on a Ravi Shankar cassette tape) when I was about 19, and it activated my pattern nerd in a big way. My neighbour knew a guy who knew a guy who taught tabla, and I started taking lessons. I studied in Toronto with Ritesh Das, and I’ve studied with master drummers Swapan Chaudhuri, Anindo Chatterjee, Karaikudi Mani, Trichy Sankaran and Suresh Talwalkar in Canada, California, Kolkata, Chennai and Pune.

Can you tell us about your musical practice, and how it relates to “traditional” tabla music?

Ed: No need for quotes around traditional… I play traditional tabla all the time! I work with sitar, esraj, vocal, kathak and bharatanatyam dance and bass veena, and I present a couple of traditional tabla solo concerts every year. I also do fusion work with my band Autorickshaw, and various other projects. As far as my solo work, I’m fascinated by a certain slice of tabla solo repertoire called “kaida,” which is a complex theme-and-variations form, and I tend to focus on that form, and work on presenting it in different ways. Tabla has about four layers of sounds: two different pitched resonant strokes, non-resonant strokes, and a bassline. It’s a complete rhythm section in one instrument, and the kaida form has a long development arc that I’m stretching out to highlight different patterns and interactions. So, I pretty much work within the tradition, in terms of the drumming, but place that drumming in different contexts to see what happens, and who tunes in. This project with Jonathan Adjemian is cool because he’s taking a signal from my drums and running it through his gear, doing all sorts of things to it.

Jonathan, how did you become involved with Ed’s music and how would you characterize your musical role in this show?

Jonathan: [Music Gallery artistic director] David Dacks sent me a message asking me if I’d be interested; Ed & I chatted over eggs and hit it off. I love Indian classical music only in a very amateur-listener sense, so I’ve avoided trying to take cues from it (a Wikipedia session ain’t a substitute for a decade of study), although I do get the pleasure a tambura player would, of sitting close to a very skilled player. I’m using a signal from Ed to control an analogue synth and some computer synth programming — so my sounds are following the rhythm of Ed’s playing, benefitting from those multiple layers of rhythm Ed talked about. Then I’m layering in sinewaves and making slow changes. I’ve always been most comfortable in an accompanist’s role, so this works nicely for me while being different from anything I’ve done before.

So have you been doing a lot of rehearsal for this, or are you leaving room for indeterminacy?

Jonathan: We’ll have done three rehearsals by the time it goes up, spaced out over a little more than a month to give us time to work on what each of us is doing (choice and sequence of material for Ed; patch design and some sequence for me). Rehearsals have gone pretty spontaneously — talk (maybe eat), play, talk a little more.
Ed: What he said. Except there was a cat, and therefore cat petting, at the second rehearsal, which cut down on rehearsal time somewhat.

Tell me about the visual element that’s happening at the show.

Ed: I was in India for 3 months in the past year, and I strapped my GoPro outside various modes of transportation, recording at high frame rates. I don’t want to say anything more… because it’s not finished yet!

Okay, no spoilers! Did you have any other experiences in India that deepened your connection to your music?

Ed: Oh, always! India deepens my connection to everything! I think trains in India are my favourite mode of transportation ever. I befriended the three young guys working the generator car on a Mumbai to Bhopal 14 hour train ride, and got a tour of the engine room. Crazy high voltage action. Shot a *lot* of video on trains.

I spent a week in Bhopal, location of the 1984 Bhopal Disaster, where Union Carbide released 40 tons of highly toxic Methyl Isocyanate gas on thousands of people sleeping near the plant, killing 25,000 of people, and injuring over 100,000. Spent a lot of time at the Sambhavna Clinic — a free, donation-funded clinic caring for survivors, visited the plant itself — which has never been really cleaned up, and spent time volunteering as a photographer during community health visits. I’m playing there with my band Autorickshaw this December, on the 30th anniversary.

The theme of this year’s X Avant festival is “transculturalism,” hinting at the idea of exploding/transcending our staid, and perhaps tired, multicultural tropes. Does that register with what you’re doing?

Ed: It does. I’m essentially a traditional tabla nerd, but I grew up listening to rock and pop and reggae and disco, so that grain is deep in my system. I think tabla can, and should, become as mainstream an instrument as guitar or drum kit. This is an opportunity to present traditional tabla to an audience who may not have heard it, or tuned in in a personal way to it, because of context. In this context, I think tabla will stand up very nicely as a proto-electronic music instrument.

Jonathan: I have a listener’s affection for classical/traditional forms from all over, and the 20th-century experimental musics I’m most attuned to we’re all explicitly transcultural (as are those classical forms, even if the speed of influence has varied with technology etc). The weird-music scenes I know in T.O. are all global-omnivorous in outlook, but I think collaboration with people who are deeply trained in particular traditions is really valuable — it encourages pushing things further, in terms of ideas and technique. The “trans” ought not to just mean bridges between different formed units — it should be transporting us towards further horizons.

Pushing that a little more, in this time of “Wikipedia sessions” and YouTube listening binges, we can all get a sort of base-level appreciation of a lot of different cultural streams in music, which is awesome. But it also lends itself to a sort of superficial dilettantism. What can we do as transculturalists — whether as musicians or listeners — to do better?

Ed: Hmm. That’s a big, big question for 1:06am. As a listener, go deep. As a musician, go deeper, and study a form you want to integrate into your vocabulary and musical grammar rather than just grabbing the easy bits. As a performer, try to educate your audience, though this can be a trap of sorts. Whenever I do a big “this is tabla, from India, this is how it’s made, played, taught etc.” explanation at a gig, I think to myself: does this get boring? Do guitarists do this? Bass players? Drummers? Why not? I don’t know the history of the drumkit… and I doubt most people do. I think the most important thing people can do is support live music. Music is evolving because of musicians experimenting, and musicians need to survive to do those experiments. Go. See live music. Bring friends. Buy CDs. If you’re a musician, push the boundaries. Audiences are braver than you think.

Jonathan: Yup. And maybe don’t worry too much about being “transcultural.” Follow what appeals to you, and see where that leads. Listen to/make good music, not music that’s easy to talk about or classify. What’s normal in one context seems odd in another, and vice versa. Tracing hybrid cultural genealogies is fun (and can help take apart racism), but it’s never been a requirement for taking art seriously or enjoying it fully.

Thanks for your time!

Ed & Jonathan: Thank you for excellent questions!

– Interview by Joe Strutt