Learning Panjabi through music is a key part of my teaching style at Funjabi Tuition. Introducing my students not only to wonderful Panjabi nursery rhymes and songs but also to the instruments that our Panjabi/Indian heritage offers. Over the past weeks, we’ve bashed the dholki, strummed the tumbi and this week will be exploring the tabla. Hence, I am super excited to share this week’s interview with world famous, tabla maestro Kuljit Bhamra.
Firstly, what was it like growing up with Mohinder Kaur Bhamra Ji as a mum? As in, growing up in a musical family. Did she ever take you to her gigs?
Our family moved to England in 1960. Mum had studied ‘Giani’ (proficiency in Sikh Scriptures & Punjabi) in India, and we soon realized that our newly-built local Gurdwara in Stepney Green didn’t have a regular Granthi (Sikh priest) who could recite the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh Holy Book). Mum very quickly became much in demand as one of the local experts – both in reciting verses from the holy book, and also in singing Shabads (hymns).
Initially, she played the temple’s Dholak (small log drum) while she sang shabads, but later moved to accompanying herself on the Harmonium (small reed organ). At that time, I was about 5 years old and watched my father learning to play the Tabla drums in his free time. He was keen to learn so that he could accompany mum. However, I noticed that he struggled in keeping a steady rhythm going!
Mum tells me that shortly after my father’s tabla lesson, I would sneak into the living room where the drums were kept and beat out rhythms in a sort of natural and intuitive way!
By the age of six, I began to accompany mum at the Gurdwara and at evening social gatherings where she sang songs. By the age of 9, I was fluent in playing the drums at a basic level and began to realize that I enjoyed playing them – rather than just performing to make my parents happy - I had become something of a ‘party piece’ !
We moved to Southall when I was ten years old. I remember performing with mum at Tarsem Purewal’s wedding. He was a leading community figure and editor of a well know Punjabi newspaper called Des Pardes. Mum conducted the wedding ceremony (Lamwas) and then sang songs at the reception party afterwards. The wedding was attended by dignitaries and other community leaders, and thus Mum began to be in great demand at Sikh weddings around the country soon after. At that time, there was no dance floor and DJ. Guests at weddings just enjoyed eating and mingling.
Which instruments can you play and do you have a favourite?
I play the Tabla, Dholak, Harmonium and some piano keyboard. Tabla is my favourite. It has a unique sound and unusually expressive quality. The tabla is more than just a drum – it has a musical tone and pitch in addition to its percussive quality. I have a vast collection of drums – about eighty! The Harmonium is my second favourite instrument.
From what age do you feel children should be introduced to instruments?
Children should be introduced to instruments when they are as young as possible. I believe that playing an instrument (even if it’s beating out a rhythm on a toy drum!) helps to exercise the brain and develop dexterity.
It is an outlet for creative energy and allows people to learn social and collaborative skills by playing together in groups and bands. Music, of course brings people joy.
What would be your top tip for learning the tabla?
The tabla is a drum – anyone can have a go! Start experimenting with just striking the drums to make simple sounds. You will find that the drums don’t need much energy to sound. Then start to practice the individual techniques by studying hand gestures and positions. There aren’t that many – perhaps 3 or 4 per drum. Even if you learn two simple techniques (open sounds and muted sounds), you will be able to play a simple enjoyable rhythm.
Recently, I launched a tabla notation system and books to help students learn at home on their own. There is a website resource with videos and support material. With this system, the learner is able to learn by Reading and Playing – just like they would if they bought a guitar and a book.
The website (keda.co.uk) also contains backing tracks that you can play along with, so you can have fun whilst practicing each technique.
Finally, do you think it’s important for children to learn Panjabi?
It took me quite a while before I could give up my embarrassment to speak Panjabi in front of my family. My father was always of the mind that ‘when in England, speak English!’. As youngsters, we spoke only English at home as our main language. I understood Panjabi, but replied in English if anyone spoke to me!
Later, when I began to compose music for song lyrics, I would ask mum to explain the meaning of some words. I began to understand more about the language and also about Panjabi culture. It is this aspect that I feel is important whilst learning to speak Panjabi. I found out about the culture and therefore my own roots.