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Traditional or Modern "All-fingers-style" Techniques for Tabla
By Eric Peterson

A modern style of Tabla playing has been taking the Middle East and Europe by storm for years now and has even been labeled by some devotes as "the only way to play." The techniques and scale of this style of playing have created a whole new perspective on the art of Middle Eastern percussion, and it's transforming the way we hear Middle Eastern rhythms.

As with anything new, people choose to take sides. I've already taken my side when I decided to compose this article. But I'm clear in knowing that my choice is "not the only way to play." This article is only my individual perspective. To say one form is better than the other is to say that the trunk is better than the limbs or leaves on a tree.

The "all-fingers-style" is one term used to describe this technique of playing Tabla, is a technique pioneered by an incredible Turkish percussionist named Misirli Ahmet. His name translates as "Ahmet from Egypt." I've been told, he chose this name in honor of some masters he'd studied with in Egypt. Ahmet's influence has set ablaze a multitude of honorable students. For example, the wonderful Turkish percussion group "Harem" are ex-students of his, I'm told, and have taken this new style, fused it with electronic dance or house beats, and have taken it to dazzling and innovative new heights. Many of these new style players, Ahmet included, have studied with the brilliant Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain, who has completely launched Indian percussion into another universe.

Why I stop after my first initial appreciation of the modern style is because to my ears it owes more to Indian Tabla styles and rhythm structures than it does Turkish or any other Middle Eastern style, save Persian with it's unique finger technique. What I'm getting at here is style treatments using "all of the fingers" on both the right "and" left hand to execute multi-noted accents and trils in a super-fast phrase of complex rhythm. AND IT IS IMPRESSIVE when you first hear it, believe me, even more so when you see somebody play in this style, and I have. Because it sounds SO Indian, to my ears it no longer sounds Middle Eastern. In my opinion, with the new-style, there's so much going on in a flurry of notes that the rhythm starts to sound mechanical, like a bunch of type-writers clicking away at 90 miles an hour. It becomes a wash of sound.

I miss the beauty and crisp clarity of the Doum and Tek or snaps like the way they are executed in old Turkish Gypsy Rom music, Egyptian Cabaret, or Debke from Lebanon. I still freak out over the sometimes simple grooves of village drummers, the Fallaheen of Egypt. The old way of playing gives shape and excitement to the music, instead of competing with it in ways I hear in the new style. There's a funk, detail and character and energy to older forms of Middle Eastern drumming. Listen to village Berber musicians from North Africa, Bedouins from Saudi, or the Davul at a wedding from the Black Sea area in Turkey. I get real excited about this stuff!! Old ways are not museum pieces, they are art forms to continuously be savored and appreciated.

All over the world people are desperate for advancement and often are too quick to toss aside what came before to make way for what is seen as new and exciting. Music or technology in any culture illustrates this perfectly. I say yes, make way for new things, but don't toss out the foundation or tradition. To have a love for tradition or old ways doesn't mean that one is clinging to museum pieces or unwilling to change. There's plenty of room for everything, and that's what makes music enjoyable is being open to what gets you excited. Here's where we come to my personal choices, and which players ROCK my world. Now, my two favorite drummers of all time are Hossam Ramzy of Egypt, and Souhail Kaspar from Lebanon. Everything that I love in Tabla playing is happening at full force in the way that these two masters perform.

These two are very different drummers with individual philosophies and styles of playing. Yet both embrace the contours of rhythm, the depth and peaks of a phrase, and a total commitment to serving the musical composition in ways that are most pleasing to me. The tones and separation of notes executed by these two is to die for. One tek from Souhail Kaspar makes the hair on my arm stand up. The man is totally about good taste in his playing, and his divine solos can put you on the moon.

The lyrical phrasing and rhythmic fire of Hossam Ramzy sends my pulse into over-drive, his playing is always superb, pure joy. This is how I get excited for Tabla!! I hear their personalities in their playing, and I always want to hear soulfulness in a drummer, not the mechanics that cover him up. These guys got SOUL. To mention that these guys are masters of tone, is an understatement. The way that they work tone into the composition of rhythm, is like a master painter's canvas infinite with color. The Doums, Teks, slaps, snaps and rolls, there's so much flavor going on here I'm amazed that the stereo doesn't melt during one of their solos. It's not to say that I prefer Arabic style to Turkish either. I dare not to forget master Turkish drummer Burhan Ocal, whose style uses a different kind of all-finger-snaps, but does not sacrifice tone for technique, who is not old-school nor modern, yet has his own style and mix of Middle Eastern, jazz and his own special blend of magic. Hearing the sounds he gets from his instrument, you'd swear he's using an effects pedal!! And he totally swings, the groove is always FAT. Other drummers I love include Steve Kouyoumjian, who used to play with George Abdo, a beautiful player and the first to inspire me. Also, Ali Hafid, a Moroccan who used to play on the old Feenjon records. Not to forget all of the many unknown drummers I've heard on tons of field recordings. We've got mind, body, and soul happening here. My favorite drummers play like singers with a story to tell. Maybe that's one good reason I respond to them and love them so much.

I do appreciate the "all-fingers-style" I admire the amount of discipline and hard work that went into mastering it. Also, I'm impressed by the skill and accuracy of the notes, in addition to the complex variations of rhythm. By my own tastes, I can't go any further than this with the modern style. Maybe I prefer a familiar taste, a language closer to a definition I can understand easier. So be it, but in the end, everyone's got to listen and play with what ever rocks their soul. This is what my point of view is towards listening, as well as playing music. Go with whatever moves you, it's all good. Whatever moves you moves those you play for.


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