Tabla Breakbeat Science

Update: we’re working on an album. Listen to it here.

Last semester I did a project for my psychology of music class that studied the way people clap to funk/dance music. I was testing to see whether my subjects knew to clap on the backbeats or not. I didn’t give them any prompting as to how they were supposed to clap, and most people did their best to clap to the beat one way or another. The most interesting response came from my buddy Shashank, a classically trained tabla player from Bangalore. There are plenty of Indian musicians at NYU, but most of them are culturally very western — a lot of them play metal, and you’d think they were from suburban New Jersey if you didn’t know otherwise. Shashank, on the other hand, has had close to zero exposure to western music. He attempted to clap tabla patterns over the beats in my study, with strange and interesting results.

After the project was over, I thought it would be cool to hear Shashank improvise on the tabla over various classic breakbeats. We did a couple of recording sessions, and they were a lot of fun.

Tabla Breakbeat Study recording session

Here’s one of our tabla breakbeat studies, Shashank’s improvisation over the beat from “Billie Jean,” which I edited and processed in Ableton Live.

The next thought was to try to write some actual songs fusing western hip-hop and dance music with Hindustani classical and Bollywood. We recruited Rebecca Feynberg, a classmate of ours who combines vocal and production chops with an enthusiasm for Indian music (she and Shashank both revere AR Rahman.)

Becca and NYU's awesome Josephson mic

The closest thing we have to a song in the traditional sense is Saraswati, named for the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, arts and science. The track began life as a Buchla synth piece Becca made. I put a beat underneath it, and then we went into the studio to try to turn it into a song. Shashank wrote a short Hindi text, and then the three of us improvised melodies.

Shashank and Becca with moody lighting

I edited the results down in Ableton to get the results here:

This is pretty raw, and we’ll re-record it more cleanly sometime. But I’m excited by the possibilities.

Tracking in Ableton

During the same session, Becca and I improvised some long wordless tones. Then Shashank played raga Todi from his drone box, and we all tried improvising over it. This track combines the two jams with the beat from “When The Levee Breaks.”

I’m a great believer in improvising into the mic without any kind of plan or discussion, and this track validates me.

Input levels

Our newest track is also based on a Buchla synth composition, this one by our friend Kai Robinson. (NYU music tech students love the Buchla.) I remixed the track, Shashank did his thing on top, and then I added some pre-existing ambient vocals by Becca.

We’re planning to come up with an album’s worth of material, and maybe even perform it. Not bad for the aftermath of a music psych class project.