I

f the Latin music explosion claimed Shakira and J-Lo as its female ambassadors of sultry salsa rhythm, then Indian sound will soon boast of Tina Sugandh, better known as “TablaGirl.”

The 26-year-old Rutgers grad has been performing with her family since the tender age of five, and that lifelong training has finally paid off. Hollywood Records, home of artists such as Hillary Duff and Los Lobos, will release her debut album early next year. The set is studded with an arsenal of well-known music producers such as Lester Mendez (Shakira, Enrique Iglesias, Jewel) and Track & Field (Nelly Furtado). Featuring Sugandh’s trademark tablas, the album will fuse traditional Indian sounds with modern American pop. And that’s not all that’s keeping Sugandh busy—she recently recorded the theme song for TV’s Hope and Faith and serves as the host of cable TV’s Asian Variety Show.

It was great to hang out with my sister and parents. It kept me very grounded and family-oriented. I had a beautiful childhood.

But Sugandh has hardly allowed the prospect of a bright future as a rising star go to her head. She sounds like a bubbly, optimistic yet down-to-earth girlfriend as she gushes over the phone, “Getting the record deal was exciting. Every day in the studio is exciting. This interview is so exciting for me!”

A family affair

While you might dismiss that statement from any other entertainer, with Sugandh, you really believe it. Perhaps that’s because, despite her young start on the stage, her family has kept her grounded. Her parents, who moved from Bombay to New Jersey when Sugandh was just 5 months old, turned their love of music into regular performances at concerts and community events. Her mother, a marketing director, would sing; her father, a professor, often played the dhol, sang and served as the master of ceremonies. “My parents taught me a beautiful ghazal when I was five,” Sugandh recalls. Soon, she and big sis Seema joined their parents on stage, and the Sugandh family was “doing informal shows on the weekends,” she says. “It was great to hang out with my sister and parents. It kept me very grounded and family-oriented. I had a beautiful childhood. I feel really blessed.”

Find the Music

Tina Sugandh’s album isn’t due out until next year, but this songstress has already released several songs on various compilation albums and for TV and film:
“Haule Haule” on Sugandh, her family’s album
“River of Dreams” on the Around the World in 80 Days soundtrack
“White Christmas” on the Christmas with the Kranks soundtrack
– “Lift-off” in the Hilary Duff movie Raise Your Voice
– Theme song to ABC’s Hope & Faith starring Kelly Ripa

It was clear the young Sugandh had beats in her bloodstream. At age 7, she tried her hand at the instrument her father normally commanded. “I was at a show, and my father was feeling under the weather. I asked him if I could play the dholak, which is what he played then. He said, yeah, go ahead. I played fairly well for a 7-year-old,” she recalls. “My father wondered how a 7-year-old could have a sense of rhythm like that. That’s the day my parents decided I should play the tabla. It’s far more intricate; it takes diligence,” she says of the two-barreled percussion. Lessons for the tabla followed, alongside the guitar and drums. Soon, Sugandh became a skillful master of the tabla, an instrument primarily played by men, earning her the nickname “TablaGirl.”

Despite her family’s busy performance life on the weekends, Sugandh was raised to be conscientious about her academic life. “My sister and I were encouraged to be diligent. It was a very disciplined life, in a fun way. Our parents said if our grades dropped, then our performances would drop and we’d have to slow down. That encouraged me to get straight As,” she says. But while Sugandh enrolled at Rutgers University, majoring in biology and graduating on the dean’s list, her love of music kept tugging. Between hitting the books at Rutgers and performing with her family on the weekends, Sugandh started driving down to Washington, DC, to work with family friend Sean Harris on her own entertainment career. Harris, a screenwriter and Sugandh’s creative mentor, helped her arrange photo shoots, get studio time, and encouraged her to write her own music.

“It’s a great time to be Indian, right?”

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A star is born

The result of her hard work was a demo and promotion package featuring Sugandh’s work, a blend of pop, rock and Bollywood sounds and original lyrics. But her ride was just beginning; Sugandh then spent hours sending out her demos and calling record labels. In a rapid chain of events, she was signed to Rebellion Entertainment and spent another year developing music and creating new demos. That led to a meeting with Bob Cavallo, chairman of Hollywood Records’ Buena Vista Music Group and former manager of music legends such as Prince and Alanis Morissette. Cavallo was instantly impressed with Sugandh, and signed her to Hollywood Records on the spot. “Tina’s exotic musical influences coupled with her artistry maker her very special. There is nothing like Tina in the music industry today,” says Cavallo. Sugandh herself is a bit more glib: “It’s a great time to be Indian, right?” she laughs. “I played the tabla, guitar, and some songs I’d written. They recognized the Bollywood trend. [My music] was different.”

“I wanted to make it as relatable to someone in the middle of America who could really care less what a tabla is, and just think, that’s a cool sound. I didn’t go overboard with the South Asian flair.”

It’s been two years since that fateful meeting, and Sugandh is just now putting the finishing touches on her album. She admits she’s spent a long time on it, only because she’s committed to getting it just right. “We wanted to find the exact mix of South Asian flair mixed with mainstream pop. I did grow up playing mainstream music for my friends,” she confesses. “It took two years to find that balance, and I wanted to make sure it was genuine. It’s everything I grew up with mixed in one album. Eleven of the 12 tracks have tabla on them.” But she’s quick to explain that though there are South Asian sounds on the album, she’s ready to share it with mainstream America. “I wanted to make it as relatable to someone in the middle of America who could really care less what a tabla is, and just think, that’s a cool sound. I didn’t go overboard with the South Asian flair.”

“I think balance is very important in life,” adds Sugandh. She’s clearly adhered to the mantra, blending her devotion to her family with her work. Her father’s vocals are featured on the only Hindi track on the album, “Aja” (“Come My Way”), and her sister opens the album with spoken words in Hindi. Her nephew even says “namaste” at the end of the album. These smaller touches, alongside her traditional instrumentation, pay tribute to both her family and her heritage. “It’s mainly through music that I’m so attached to my culture. Every week I’ll see a Bollywood movie. My cousins are always making fun of me, they say, you’re such a FOB! And they’re straight out of India,” she chuckles. And, despite her busy schedule and her soon-to-be fame, the TablaGirl insists she’s just a family girl at heart. “The best memories of my childhood are when my mom would spread a chador on the floor, we’d lay down with pillows, put on ghazals and relax together. That’s what I want to give my children as well.” She adds, coyly, “Years down the road.”n

Ismat Sarah Mangla petends that she can play the tabla.
Published on November 1, 2004.
Photography: Courtesy of Tina Sugandh.
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