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Monday, April 15, 2024

An insight into some of the drums of South Asia

How the instruments play an important role in community-building


By RUMA POUDELL — arts@theaggie.org


In Western culture, drums are often connoted for their use in bands and other musical organizations. But within many South Asian communities, various drums play a much more intimate role, often responsible for bringing people together in different ways.

To start, there are the tabla, dhol and madal. These drums all belong to the regions of Nepal and Punjab.

The tabla is a hand-drum played in pairs using the pressure of palms to produce different notes. The smaller section of the drum, also known as tabla or dayan, is used to produce treble and tonal sounds. The larger section, known as dagga or baya, is the bass. 

Tarnpreet Singh, a professional Punjabi dhol and tabla player from Sacramento, explained the historical significance of tabla in the Punjabi region. 

“The word tabla is originally an Arabic word and instrument,” Singh said. “It entered India through Islamic invaders, and over time, it was taken over entirely by the Indian and Punjabi regions.”

Throughout the invasions, tabla was used as a way to take power back from the invaders and empower South Asian people as they used it to connect with religious beliefs for the purpose of hope.

“In our community, music is attached to religion, as we sing the praises of God,” Singh said. “We call it kirtan — the main attraction for our holiest temples and a pathway to be acculturated to God.” 

These traditions have lasted to this day; Singh himself learned to play tabla at the age of four, and similarly, many others are raised surrounded by kirtan. Even in communities formed by immigrants outside of Punjab and broader South Asia, the tradition of playing tabla and kirtan has been kept up. According to Singh, playing one of the instruments is considered to be very prestigious, and “parents want their kids to learn kirtan and tabla.”

The dhol is a single, larger, double-sided drum played using the power of your wrists and two sticks. The sticks are called dagga (bass) and tilli (treble). It is worn with a strap over your neck or shoulders and can be played while standing. 

South Asian weddings are known for being extravagant, and the dhol is one of the many reasons why the function is so lively. When the bride and groom enter, a line of dhol players is typically playing to welcome the couple. Later on in the reception, different beats, such as chaal, are played.

“You know it’ll get everyone to dance,” Singh said of the beats. “Dhol is the way you get everyone’s attention.” 

Even in formal settings, “if there is an announcement to be made, in India that was the way to do it. You have four to five dhol players playing, everyone would hear from far away, and then they would come gather around,” Singh said. 

Then, branching out of India and Punjab and into Nepal, there is the madal. 

The madal, like the dhol, is a double-sided drum, but it is much smaller and often played while sitting. Like the tabla, the player uses their hands, but instead of just palms doing the drumming, it involves the whole hand and fingers. 

The madal is used casually in gatherings to sing folk songs. It is also a staple in the religious and traditional events of Dashain and Tihar, where you play games such as Dhusure (a game of forming songs). 

Dinesh Pokhrel, a Nepali doctor and madal player in the Sacramento Nepali community, has been familiar with the instrument since he was a young boy. 

“I randomly learned without any coach or books,” Pokhrel said. “I watched other older people play and learned that way.” 

In his life, “the madal has been a source of great fun and entertainment with family. It always brings harmony to the community as we gather for these folk songs and beats.”

The ways that the madal, dhol and tabla are used show the different roles music can play in our lives — from delivering hope to war-torn communities, bringing the hype at an event and calling for everyone’s attention to having some good old karaoke sessions with your family — these drums showcase a wealth of tradition in South Asia.


Written by: Ruma Poudell — arts@theaggie.org

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled “madal” as “nadal”. This article has been corrected with proper spelling.