The security dude with the unkempt Afro was starting to freak out. Surrounded by a mob that desperately wanted to get past him, he had the thankless job of trying to stop it. His voice seemed to rise half an octave with each refusal, and he held his clipboard above his head as if he were fording a river full of piranhas. All around him people eyed the aluminum police barricades and considered dashes through the bushes, while inside the crowd roared a greeting as the band took the stage.
It was June 5, 2001, and 13,000 fans of Tabla Beat Science had mobbed Stern Grove’s outdoor concert area, the biggest throng the park had ever seen. Inside was at capacity, with every available seating space taken, including the precarious eucalyptus-covered slopes at the back of the glade.
Just moments before, the sun had broken through drizzly San Francisco skies, and the sudden light and color lent a mystical quality to an already hyped debut. Spirits were high and everyone was smiling, undaunted by heat, muddy asses, or the runaway drink cooler that careened down a hill, burst open, and sprayed a woman in a sundress with fruit salad. “Nothing’s gonna ruin this day,” she said as a woman in a sari handed her a paper towel. “The vibes are just too strong.”
The vibes were strong, indeed. The popularity of TBS’ first release, Tala Matrix, and the group’s well-received live debut, was the biggest surprise in electronic music last year. To date, the album has sold 35,000 copies, an impressive amount in independent-label terms, where selling 10,000 units is considered a big success. This week TBS returns to the Fillmore in conjunction with the release of their recording from that debut show, Tabla Beat Science Live in Stern Grove. And though the group has made only a handful of appearances in the intervening year, it has managed to deliver heady, exotic rhythms onto the popular radar while at the same time blowing away any bad patchouli smells hovering over the “World Beat” genre.
The group’s hybrid sound — traditional Indian tabla played alongside the sarangi (an Indian stringed instrument that sounds something like a violin) and backed by a modern drum kit, bass, and electronic beats– has found tremendous crossover appeal. TBS’ polyrhythmic drumming and stoned-out atmospherics attract a young, ethnically diverse audience with roots in the “Asia Massive” dance scene, as well as wonky devotees of bassist Bill Laswell and his post-rock/funk noodling. An older generation of NPR types, people who are more accustomed to Zellerbach performances and tend to favor traditional ethnic music over electronica’s machine-driven rhythms, are drawn to the group’s acoustic element.
The idea for TBS began as a spark in the eccentric mind of Laswell, whose career has been a long succession of sonic experiments in which he fuses traditional music forms with studio elements and his signature dubby bass lines. Attracted to the Indian instrument’s tonal versatility, Laswell based the project on a simple notion: Juxtapose the tabla with electronic sounds. “The tabla is probably the only hand drum that can make so many different sounds that it’s actually melodic,” he explains. “In a way, it’s like a sampler because it can play lots of subtle sounds and nuances and it has a very wide range. There’s really nothing else like it in the world.”
Laswell then approached Zakir Hussain, the Bay Area-based tabla master who’s widely recognized as one of the world’s best, about showcasing the instrument against an backdrop of electronic pulses. The project was supposed to spotlight Hussain’s drumming, but as the two artists discussed the best ways to showcase the tabla’s versatility, the record began to take on a broader scope. “We felt we should involve people from different generations and different places,” says Laswell. Hussain brought in traditional artists like tabla player Trilok Gurtu and Ustad Sultan Khan, whose sarangi added melodic depth to the mix. Laswell then solicited contributions from DJs and producers Karsh Kale and Talvin Singh. “Talvin was a kind of pioneer in bringing tabla and other traditional sounds to electronic music, and Karsh is a relatively new artist who’s combining these sounds into dance music, so it was a natural step to include them.”
While Laswell worked with Hussain, Sultan Khan, and others, Kale and Singh put together their own cuts that featured the tabla but that also reflected a more electronic sensibility. Inspired by what they heard, Kale and Laswell got together and produced even more material. “I’d heard most of the other tracks that were going to be on the record, and I wanted to approach things differently,” says Kale. “I wanted to come in from a reverse angle and play electronic music with acoustic instruments, like my drum kit.” The final product was an album that presented the tabla as never before, a rhythmic experience that is at times ghostly and exotic, bass-y and electronic, ethereal and euphoric.
All the artists involved felt that the creative momentum in the studio carried the potential for a live act, which Kale describes as being less a promotional effort then simply the next stage in the group’s development. “Basically, we wanted to create a repertoire and context for ourselves to just improvise,” he explains. “When I play the drum kit, I approach it like a producer would, and I wanted to be able to lay down a foundation for things that Zakir was doing with the tabla. And conversely, he wanted to play things that freed me up to play things more intricately on my drum kit.”
As they rehearsed for the Stern Grove show, it was clear that TBS was indeed more than the sum of its parts. Laswell’s deliberate style meshed well with the other musicians, despite some detractors’ criticisms of his work — people have been known to deride what they all call the “Beret-ass line,” a reference to Laswell’s trademark beret and the perceived tendency of his bass lines to sound the same, regardless of the project. Laswell’s own studio projects are often eclectic experiments in sound that rarely make it out to tour, and as live events, they tend to be a mixed bag. This time, though, the collaboration works wonderfully. “Sultan Khan and Zakir are extremely versatile, and they stretched our abilities as much as we stretched theirs,” says Kale about his and Laswell’s work with the masters. “I honestly feel like I become a better musician each time I play with them.”
After forming and practicing, all that talent finally came together live at Stern Grove, minus Singh who had bowed out sick at the last moment. ” ‘E’s a selfish bastard, that one,” groused one of Singh’s large, sweaty countrymen when news of his absence circulated through the crowd. “He’s a fool for missing this.” But the band carried on without him, and with each number, the crowd expressed its approval with an intensity normally reserved for stadium bands and slickly marketed pop acts.
In performance, the band bears more resemblance to a quirky band of Muppets. Anchored by the impassive presence of Laswell, the wild-haired Zakir Hussain grins and trades spiraling percussion riffs with the mop-topped Kale, while Sultan Khan kneels and plays bittersweet melodies that weave in and out of the mix. Guest artists MIDIval PunditZ, barely visible from behind their laptops, bob up and down, adding electronic beats. Ethiopian singer Gigi and the gnomish DJ Disk have also made brief appearances. Set pieces evolve into improvisational jams (bearing no resemblance to the insufferable white-boy blues variety) and are centered around Hussain’s tabla playing, which ranges from frenetic to languid and spacey. The other players vibe off him and each other, as the elastic sounds of Laswell’s bass keep things from spinning out of orbit. During moments of intense improvisation, there is a cycle of exchange in which the performers graciously share the spotlight. “I think it starts with that concept of a lot of respect and a lot of generosity,” says Laswell, “where everyone can give space to everyone else while keeping with the concept of the tabla as the main focus of the sound.”
“The idea is just to go out there and make something happen,” adds Kale. “It unfolds in a very organic way, because it’s really about the day and the people and the vibe.”
As TBS readies for its second swing through the Bay Area, there’s a sense that, while the spontaneity and energy of the Stern Grove show can never be duplicated, it was the start of a process of evolution. “I think that after playing for two hours in front of a crowd like that, we saw the doors we can open, and this time around we can explore those places even more deeply,” says Kale. “It’s really about erasing borders, because when that happens so much more can come grow out of it.”