Ahmed Jan Thirakwa
Simla House (www.simlahouse.com)

The late tabla master Ahmed Jan Thirakwa dominated Hindustani music's rhythmic dimension for over fifty years, influencing every tabliya in India until his death (aged approximately ninety) in 1976. It was he who made the first tabla solo records on 78 rpm discs, and his lp recording from the sixties is still considered one of the finest examples of the form. Thirakwa, a recording of the master in a 1964 Bombay concert, is a document of enormous beauty and great importance.

The tabla have achieved ubiquity in world music circles. African, Arabic, Latin and Irish musicians routinely incorporate the paired Indian drums, and tabla superstars like Zakir Hussain and Swapan Chaudhuri draw large crowds to their concerts. However, Hindustani music is intellectually, technically and emotionally among the world's most complex traditions, and learning to listen to it in a powerfully informed way is no easy task.

CD liner notes and books are available and invaluable, but by far the best way is to go to concerts and watch listeners who know the music well. By gauging where in the music they react, and how strongly they respond to different musical initiatives, you'll get deep and useful training in music appreciation. The next best thing is to listen to live recordings where there is clear feedback between audience and performer. Indian listeners are not passive. Rather, by contributing vocal applause after well-executed passages, they encourage the musician in new and imaginative directions. Many Indian artists feel they cannot give their best without such feedback, which often makes performing for Western audiences an experience disorienting in multiple senses of the word.

The listeners on Thirakwa are sensitive, intelligent and enthusiastically participatory. The result is just over an hour of inspired music: one of India's greatest drummers at the absolute peak of his form performing for a sympathetic and informed audience whose spontaneous appreciation makes a delightful course in the aesthetics of Hindustani drumming. Accompanied by several instrumentalists who play a sustained melodic line over and over (providing a melodic "anchor" for his rhythmic excursions in the popular "teental" rhythmic cycle), Thirakwa pulls off one percussive coup after another in a tour de force of stylish, intelligent and utterly engaging music.

This is one of the most important recordings of the year, of the decade. An artist like Ahmed Jan Thirakwa is a once-in-a-century phenomenon, and we are fortunate that producer Ray Spiegel undertook the loving restoration of this extraordinary document. - Warren Senders

Audio: Tabla Solo in Tin Tal (exceprt from the section "Madhya Laya") © 1999 Simla House

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