er name means “giver of good fruit” in Sanskrit, and it seems that 30-year-old tabla player Suphala is doing just that. After studying with tabla masters Ustad Allarakha and Ustad Zakir Hussain, Suphala has come into her own. Her latest album, The Now, infuses the traditional tabla beats with sensual electronic sounds to create a sublime sound that is uniquely her own. It’s difficult to classify her music—and Suphala wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I think it’s very difficult to categorize,” she says. “I like to keep it very organic … I think of it as a soundtrack to my life.” And so far, life has been good. Born to Indian immigrants in Minnesota, Suphala began studying classical Western instruments. But at age 16, her love affair with the tabla began. Since then, Suphala has apprenticed with the great tabla masters and has since become a skilled and respected player herself. Earlier this year, she became one of the first foreign musicians to visit war-battered Afghanistan for a concert.
I’ve actually spent more time in India than my parents have in the last decade or so. I was always aware of the fact that I had these two cultures, but the tabla has given me a deeper understanding more than anything.
Nirali chatted with Suphala about her life and career.
You grew up in the West, so why then was it so important to you to immerse yourself in this art form vs. another?
Well, I did like playing piano, which I started when I was four. As I got older, I started to explore other instruments. The sound of the tabla was something I really zoned in on. When I started learning it, it was only natural to become more immersed in Indian culture. It was really the sound of the instrument that drew me in, and the rest followed.
It’s rare to find women tabla players. Have you faced any challenges or raised eyebrows?
Soon after starting to study the instrument, I decided this is what I wanted to do. It wasn’t just a hobby. That in itself was unusual for many people around me. The fact that I was a woman doing it wasn’t really the issue—it was that I wasn’t becoming a doctor.
How did you get the opportunity to train with such great tabla masters?
My parents are Indian immigrants. I grew up in Minneapolis listening primarily to Indian classical music. Whenever possible, the took me to hear Indian artists in concert. From a trip to India, my mother brought me back a set of tables. I found an American musician who had studied tabla with a guru in India. After a couple of months of lessons, he called Ustad Zakir Hussain, who was giving a workshop in California, and said he had a student who would like to come to his class. Zakirji was very welcoming.
As my passion and dedication to the tabla grew, I began devoting several months a year to the instrument, traveling to India every year to study with my gurus, Ustad Zakir Hussain and his late father, the master Ustad Allarakha. They took me into their home and treated me as a daughter. Being in India where I could hear the tabla being performed regularly and be present during music season—when all the masters are touring and performing—has represented a huge part of my learning experience.
Playing live, you’re dealing with your audience right there on the spot. I enjoy the communication and seeing what happens with the listener.
So did you always have a strong sense of Indian culture growing up, or is it something you have developed?
Of course I had a sense of it, being first generation Indian in America. I went through all the same experiences anyone else [who is first-generation Indian America] would. But the tabla has taken me to India much more often than I would have gone otherwise. I have spent every winter season in Bombay for the last 10 years. So I’ve actually spent more time in India than my parents have in the last decade or so. I was always aware of the fact that I had these two cultures, but the tabla has given me a deeper understanding more than anything. Oftentimes people who move here from India spend time with other Indians from their own communities. But music brings all sorts of communities together. All those types of musicians are playing together. So it has broadened my education of India.
What kind of music have you grown up listening to? What does music mean to you?
I really grew up listening to everything. We attended Indian concerts. I also listened to whatever was on the radio—pop music, I got really into reggae, and rap, you know anything. When you study music, you start listening to it with a different ear. I would start listening to it with that kind of ear. So that way I tried to learn from everything.
Your latest album on Rasa Records is called The Now. Why did you choose that title?
I chose The Now because that’s the best moment to be in—when you’re in the moment, living in the moment. Music is a vehicle to get to that state or mind or place.
You are involved in all the technical aspects of your music, and you also frequently perform live. Do you enjoy one more than the other?
I do write, produce and engineer everything. It’s two different mindsets for me. In the studio, you’re alone a lot. You’re going inward more, thinking about all these ideas. Playing live, you’re dealing with your audience right there on the spot. It’s the communication I enjoy and seeing what happens with the listener. Right now I’m more in the mode of playing out live.
What’s next for you?
I want to just keep studying tabla. For me, all this other stuff allows me to have more time with Zakir, my guru, learning more about Indian music. That’s the most complex for a tabla player—the classical tradition.