Instruments | Tabla | Percussion

Tabla are a pair of asymmetrical tuned small kettledrums played in northern Indian classical music. The left-hand drum, or baya (27 cm/11 in diameter and 30 cm/15 in long), is a hemispherical drum made of copper or brass, and produces a deep sound. The right-hand drum, or daya (18 cm/7 in diameter and 30 cm/15 in long), is a tapering wooden cylinder and produces a higher sound.

The tabla are tuned to the tonic note (sa) of the rag (scale, melody) being played by the vocal or instrumental soloist. The drumhead is laced to the drum with a single long leather strip running in a ‘W’ formation between the top and bottom of the drum. Short wooden dowels are wedged under the leather strips on the daya and hammered down towards the base or loosened to tune the drum. The rim of the baya may be hammered to tighten the skin further.


The head of each drum is constructed to create a range of different sonorities. Each drumhead comprises two goatskin membranes, the upper being cut away in the middle to leave an outer ring about 7 cm (3 in) wide. Striking the skin on the outer ring and exposed lower skin produces different pitches. In the centre of the skin of the daya, and slightly off centre on the baya, is a circle of hardened black tuning paste (siyahi or gab). This is made from a combination of iron oxide, ash, glue, flour and copper vitriol, and makes a dry, unpitched sound when struck.

Tabla Sounds

Indian musicians use a system of mnemonics to vocalize rhythms, based on seven basic tabla sounds. Sheila Chandra (b. 1966) performs vocalizations of tabla drumming on her album Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices. On the baya, the sound ghe describes sliding the heel of the hand to make a glissando, and kat is a slap. On the daya, the sound ta or na is played on the outer upper skin. Tin is played on the exposed lower skin, and tu is played on the black spot. Combining ta with ghe creates the sound dha, and combining tin with ghe creates the sound dhin. Ta, tin, dha and dhin are the most common strikes in tabla playing.

Indian music organizes rhythm into cycles of stressed and unstressed beats, which provide a framework (theká) to the music. In the rhythmic cycle tintal, 16 beats are subdivided into a pattern of 4 + 4 + 4 + 4. The tabla player embellishes the theká according to the pattern of the stressed beats, and will include increasingly more complex improvisations or tukrá immediately before sam returns.

Introduction | Percussion Instruments
Instruments | Djembe | Percussion

Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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