Aloke Dutta, the world's foremost solo tabla player, lives in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Studio City.
far the most important spot in the apartment is the one occupied by the
rug on which Dutta practices, composes and teaches. In the 15 years
that Dutta has lived there, the rug made a slow circuit around the
living room until it settled in its present location in the corner
opposite the kitchen. It is a smallish rug, 4 by 6 feet, made of
hand-woven red and green wool, slightly faded with age. Dutta bought it
for $80 in India back in 1986.
Today, people offer to buy the rug
from him for thousands of dollars because of the many famous drummers
who have sat on it while taking lessons: Simon Philips of the Who, Danny
Carey of Tool, Pat Mastelotto of King Crimson, Mike D of Les Claypool's
Fancy Band. Dutta also has hosted a small army of Hollywood session
drummers, including Mike Fisher, percussionist for the films Memoirs of a Geisha, Avatar and American Beauty, which featured Dutta's compositions.
drummers sit cross-legged on the rug while Dutta teaches them how to
tap the fingers, or slide the heel of the hand up the skin of the drum
to change the pitch. The tabla is an incredibly complex instrument, he
explains, one that's been studied by physicists.
The tabla is actually a pair of hand drums, one slightly bigger than
the other. The smaller one is roughly the size of a human head; the
other is about the size of a pumpkin. Dutta estimates the tabla is
approximately 300 years old. Legend has it that the emperor of India was
an early fan, though which emperor exactly remains a subject of debate.
In any case, it caught on, and it remains the country's most popular
There is no other drum that can produce as many harmonies on
a single head. “It sounds like 20 people playing,” Dutta says. Tabla
beats can sound like rain on a rooftop, or the mournful bellowing of a
Until Dutta, tabla players have mainly been accompanists.
As far as he knows, Dutta is the only tabla player who plays it to
express an emotion or to tell a story.
He also refuses to jam with
anyone. Other percussionists regard this as snobbery, but Dutta regards
it as artistic purity. “Solo drum player, it doesn't even exist in the
world,” he says. “People think the drum is not an independent
Dutta spends a lot of time alone on the rug.
Currently, he practices the tabla on it for two hours each day. (He used
to practice 15 hours daily, until his skill and technique matured.)
first touching the drums when he was 21, Dutta knew right away that he
was playing his music. In the Indian classical music scene, where most
players choose their instrument as children, taking one up beyond
kindergarten is considered a late start. But his father was a drummer,
so Dutta had been listening to tabla pretty much since birth. Earlier,
probably. He suspects he heard it beating while still in his mother's
womb as she listened to his father practice.
His father played the
drums as an offering to the deity Madan Mohan, an incarnation of
Vishnu. “It is a submission,” Dutta says. “The ability to do that is an
extraordinary quality for any human being. Making the sound not to
please anybody but just to make the sound. That is Kant's
disinterestedness in art. Pleasure without desire. My father had that
nature. In his music, there was never trying to show off. His entire
attitude was submission.”
Dutta's father, however, was unhappy in
his profession, teaching ancient drums at a university 100 miles north
of Kolkata. He did not want his eldest son to follow in his footsteps.
“He was in pain,” Dutta says, with a shrug. So Dutta studied accounting,
business and electronics. In the mid-'80s emigrated to the United
States, got a job in semiconductor processing at the University of New
Mexico in Albuquerque and played tabla more or less as a hobby, flying
out to gigs on weekends with visiting Indian bands.
though, the voice of the drums was speaking louder to him than the voice
of semiconductor processing. At 36, he quit his job, gave up his house
in New Mexico and eventually settled in Los Angeles in the tiny
apartment to devote himself to tabla. “My inner voice was so strong. My
inner voice said, 'Go for it,' ” he says.
Initially, people were
puzzled and worried for him. “It is the world's responsibility to pay my
bills. Not mine,” Dutta says, pauses, then laughs, a hearty belly laugh
at the seeming ridiculousness of it.
So far, the world has lived up to its responsibility. His needs are modest.
is not worried. He knows exactly when the world will stop paying his
bills: “When I stop practicing,” he says without hesitation. “The moment
I won't think deeply about my music. The moment I think I am a great
musician. That is ego talking. Oh, man, that is the end of me.”
is a talented drummer, though he does not believe in talent. He
believes, rather, in discipline and hard work and knowing what you want
to do and sticking with it. People often remark on how fast he plays, on
how his hands flutter over the drums. But, he says, “Pretty much every
tabla player plays fast.” What he has learned to do, however, is to
sense and manipulate the infinity of micro-beats between beats, as a
skilled painter sees the many gradations of color between red and pink.
goal is to help people understand the special power and beauty of pure
drum music. “If what I'm doing has even a little value,” he believes,
“you will find me.”
Somehow, people have, although Dutta does not
advertise, and rarely performs onstage. When NPR came to interview him,
they asked him that very question — how do people find you?
“Why are you guys asking me?” was Dutta's response. “I did not contact NPR. You guys contacted me.”
laughed, he recalls. “It is like how the Buddha is saying, if the
student is ready, the teacher will show up. Why it is only student? When
the teacher is ready, students show up. When performer is ready,
opportunity will show up.”
When not cross-legged on the rug, he
sits, as he does now, in one of two plain wooden chairs lined up in
front of the dining table. He sits spine-straight, one ankle over knee,
arms clasped at the hip like a Victorian gentleman. At 59, he is so
slim, he practically swims in his T-shirt and shorts, which reveal the
surgery scars running up his leg from a quintuple heart bypass some
years ago. The heart attack happened right here in his apartment, and
the rug was nearly the last thing Dutta ever saw. He felt the terrible
throbbing in his head, the pain radiating down his arm. Luckily, a
student, a drummer for Cirque du Soleil, arrived for a lesson.
times Dutta's students are nervous before a show. He tells them don't
try to play well. Just play. Focus not on the audience but on your
sincerity. “Because how good is good enough? Does it depend on how many
girls loved it? Or how many people in the audience screamed?” It is as
if you are performing for a reward, he admonishes, and the reward draws
more attention than the art. “And then you stink.”
Let's say 2,000
people know about your music, Dutta continues. “Is that fame? Or do you
need to be known by 2 million people?” Perhaps just one is enough.
young man wrote to Dutta not long ago. He'd cried for half an hour
after hearing the song Dutta composed for his father shortly after he
died. Never in his life, the young man wrote, had he felt so moved by
any piece of music. Titled “Great Soul,” the song begins with a
pitter-pattering treble beat, tentative at first, like a child's first
steps, then skipping, then running steady alongside a deep bass. In the
end, only the treble is left. The bass simply, subtly, fades away.