The still above, taken from Dholak (1951), is sort of a false beginning to this post. I am starting off with this picture because I would have liked to post about Indian female drummers from the early ’50s, which would have fit well with most of the things that I post on this blog these days. But as it turns out, I couldn’t find any female Indian drummers from the 1950s. Though all the drummers in the film scene are women, I would bet that the playback drummers were men. (Also, the part of the song that actually focuses on the drumming is quite small and the rest of the song is something else entirely, which would have stood out in this post like a proverbial sore thumb – which is why I’ve decided not to post the whole song.)
I can only conclude that back in the old days, there were no female Indian drummers. I could be wrong and I would like to know if I am but it seems that there were some pretty strong taboos about women playing percussion on the Subcontinent. For the most part, they were not allowed into that musical tradition, and that is why I have ended up writing a different kind of post.
So for this post, I’m going to take (another) one of my occasional trips out of the past, to focus on some great contemporary female players of Indian drums. But even now, it seems difficult to find female drummers who actually live in India. In fact, none of the women I’m posting about here come from India, and one doesn’t even have Indian heritage. Maybe even in recent times, it has been necessary for most of these taboo-breakers to come from a place far away from India or Pakistan. That is one reason I have not called this post “Indian female drummers.” They are not necessarily Indian female drummers, but they are women playing Indian drums.
I know about a few more than the ones mentioned here, but I wanted to share my enthusiasm for these three artists in particular. The first one I wanted to talk about is someone who’s appeared in this blog before, Aminah Chishti, also known as Jessica Ripper, the drummer for Fanna-Fi-Allah Sufi Qawwali. Jessica’s story is quite remarkable. Originally from California, where she still lives for part of the year, she converted to Sufi Islam and became the first female tabla player granted permission to play in the great Sufi shrines in Pakistan. But obviously, she is far from Indian or Pakistani in heritage.
In the prior post where I talked about Aminah, I included some good information about her as well as a few great video clips. But now I have a couple more things to add… For one thing, there is a newer YouTube video that highlights her tabla talents beautifully:
In the prior post, I also included a trailer for a film called Beneath the Veils. The clip below is a longer version, which I take to be the complete short film – although it is also part of a larger documentary, which hasn’t come out yet (as far as I know). This short film is much more about qawwali than about tabla playing, but it’s also a great autobiographical introduction to and by Aminah, herself.
Suphala is a tabla player and composer who hails from my town, New York City. But she is the daughter of Indian-born parents, and she has been learning both Indian and Western forms of classical music from a very young age. Her classical tabla training has included two very impressive musicians, Ustad Alla Rakha and Zakir Hussain. (By the way, I saw Zakir Hussain live a while back, and he certainly was good!) And Suphala’s public tabla performances have included not only concerts with traditional musicians but also collaborations with a wide range of well-known pop music artists, including Yoko Ono, Norah Jones and Edie Brickell.
I looked at a bunch of videos by Suphala, and I think my favorite might be this one, in which she collaborates with several guys playing a variety of other Indian percussion instruments. I don’t know much about this and can’t really find out much, either. I just know that I really like it.
And here is a very nice Suphala solo. I hope she’ll do solos like this when I see her live (which will be soon, probably this coming September).
Since I started this post with a picture of a group of women playing the dholak, I thought it would be fun to conclude with someone who’s the queen of the similar, larger instrument called the dhol. Rani Taj is marvelous. She first became noticed by the world through a YouTube video of her playing her dhol to a pop song by Rihanna in the streets of the UK in 2010, when she was 17 years old. (She is a native of Birmingham, England, although her parents came from Kashmir.) In more recent times, she has concentrated much more on playing traditional Indian/Pakistani music, especially within the Sufi tradition. So like Aminah Chishti, Rani Taj also has good connections to the subject that I wrote about last month, the celebrations of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. And here’s something to prove that point:
[Note from below the YouTube post: Shoulder to shoulder with Ustads Gunga and Mittu Sain, Rani Taj performs at the Jashan e Sham e Qalandar 2012.]
Rani Taj is not only a good dhol player but a good educator as well, as she shows in this video made in a radio studio in New York. After a nice modern bhangra session, she explains and demonstrates different styles played on the dhol, including the Indian and Sufi dhamals.
I like ending this post in an educational way, but in addition to learning a little about styles and traditions, it would be nice to get a little more history. If anyone does know about women who played Indian drums in days of yore, please let me know, and I’ll be happy to add the info here. Meanwhile, I am still glad to grace this blog with these excellent contemporary musicians.