Musical savants like Ritesh Das and Kiyoshi Nagata are always in pursuit of cerebral pursuits that confront them into taking journeys that test their craft and creativity.
Ritesh, a tabla maestro and director of the Toronto Tabla Ensemble, through his inquisitiveness and aptitude for all things percussion, has helped bring the tabla into centre stage of mainstream music here in Toronto.
Whereas, trailblazer and innovator, Kiyoshi (taiko soloist and artistic director of Nagata Shachu) has likewise resurrected the powerful sounds taiko, a Japanese drum, in North America and elsewhere to stand irresolutely on its own.
So when the duo decided on a cross-cultural percussion undertaking, it became one for the history books.
On Saturday, April 15 the walls at Greenwin Theatre at Toronto Centre for Arts 5040 Yonge St., will reverberate (hopefully, the theatre has strong insulation) with sounds of tabla and taiko (Japanese drums) in a never-seen-before Toronto collaboration.
Imagine, the massive taiko—a mostly barrel-shaped percussion instruments made with hollowed tree trunk tautly tied with cowhide—and the diminutive, but strong and pure sounds of two skins meeting in ether and forging a harmony of notes. The history-making concert starts at 7 p.m.
“You can play the tabla with any instrument in the world,” said Ritesh, a tabla maestro that has learned with Ustad Zakir Hussain and Pandit Swapan Chaudhari. “The tabla and taiko are two instruments with different sounds. The challenge then was to figure out how one can compose music based on their sound vibrations without losing the integrity and spirit of both.”
That serendipitous meeting:
When Ritesh met Kiyoshi (more than 20 years ago), it was a meeting of two brilliant minds.
The two artistic heavyweights’ musical partnership started in 1994 when they performed as part of Kiyoshi’s world percussion ensemble Humdrum. Then, in 1996, they came together to compose the piece Asahi.
This upcoming concert however marks the first time two eastern ancient musical heritages—the tabla and taiko— will interact in such a large-scale on the stage.
“When we first rehearsed just a couple of weeks ago, it really didn’t seem like some 20 somewhat years had passed,” Kiyoshi remarked.
Seeking to create an elusive “something” through the combination of two percussion sounds required Kiyoshi and Ritesh to look beyond their individual musical sight lines. And boy, does it work (check the videos).
Clash of the titans
At the concert, the audience will experience the sounds from different taikos (some are huge and placed on upright stand, while others are flat-bodied) and the several artists playing the tabla.
“In order to compose a music (that will be true to both) you have to have a strong background of understanding your art form first before you start collaborating with someone else,” Ritesh observed. “Imagine the spinal chord as the taiko and the tabla as the ribs that encase it. There was a whole of exploration with the culture and tradition (of the instruments) that went into the planning of this concert.”
The five-and-a-half challenge
The tabla-taiko concert will feature 10 artists bringing the strength of two percussion instruments steeped in history, heritage and the ancient science of Nad (sound) yoga.
“The taiko is a very loud instrument compared to the tabla,” Kiyoshi said. “How do we achieve those balances? I was totally up for the challenge of working on a piece in five-and-a-half. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy but, when you get down to the bare bones and understand the foundation of music, then we can translate that into our own taiko language and that’s where the true collaboration starts.”
OK, here’s quick refresher on what the “five-and-a-half” reference here is.
“Saade paanch (“five-and-a-half” in Hindi) is a rhythmic cycle,” Ritesh explained.
The collaborative piece between the two ensembles is set in a rhythmic cycle of five- and-a half-beats, which is rare in Indian music, but unheard of in Japanese music.
So, how did the two maestros pull off the incredible feat? I guess, you will have to watch the show. Also, a single from Ritesh’s upcoming album, Bhoomika will be released that day.