Posts Tagged ‘Tabla’

I remember once telling my old tabla teacher, Taranath Rao, that I had wrestled in high school. I recall being quite surprised to find out that he too was a youth wrestler! I’ll never know whether I could have out-wrestled guruji; but I surely know that it would take me another hundred lifetimes to become even one thousandth the tabla player that he was.

I also surely know that I was very blessed that a man in the direct lineage of the Farukkhabad Gharana of tabla masters would be willing to take, as a student, a 20-year-old composer of electro-acoustic music who had neither the tenacity nor the aptitude to become an accomplished hand-drummer. The fact is, I began studying with Taranath because I “wanted to learn something non-Western” and because my friend Amy (who was an accomplished percussionist) was going to study tabla – and I thought Amy was cute.

Over the years that I knew Taranath, he became far more that just a path to “something non-Western” and a reason to hang out with Amy. He became one of the great influences on my life. This is not because I would ever become a particularly good drummer but, rather, because knowing him led me to both my interests in India and to a realization about what a truly joyful human being could be and how precious it was to know one.

Taranath Rao was born one hundred years ago today, March 6, 1915, in Mangalore India. His uncle, A. K. Rao, was an accomplished Indian violinist and his own father, Ramarao Hattiangady, was a percussionist and an actor. Because of these family members, Taranath received some very early exposure to musical genius. Taranath first studied tabla with Vishnu Goakar. He learned mridangam from his own father.  Ultimately Taranath studied with Shamshuddin Khan, who he first met while on tour with the great master Abdul Kareem Khan. There is an old story about Shamshuddin Khan that says his hands were so light, and his drumming so effortless, that anyone sitting behind him could not even tell when his hands were moving and when not. Clearly my guru learned this lesson well; sadly, I did not.

Taranath moved to Bombay around 1932 to study art. Shamshuddin Kahn didn’t have time to take on new students so, first, Taranath studied with pakawaj master Subbarao Ankolekar who also player tabla in the style of Delhi gharana. It was not until almost 7 years later that, in 1939, Shamshuddin Khan could make time for Taranath. He had found his guru.

Though having begun to master the Delhi gharana, his discipleship under Shamshuddin led him to another stylistic lineage. Through a history that I honestly do not know well, my guru Taranath, is directly in the discipleship lineage of the fathers of the Farukkhabad and Lucknow Gharanas.

I studied with Taranath from 1979 or 1980 through 1982. He taught me a tremendous amount about drumming and about the theory of North Indian rhythm. He also taught me about joy, love, and humor.

We used to joke with Taranath because he had difficulty pronouncing the letters W and V in English. He once told us how important rhythm is to Indian music by saying that “Music contains rhythm like the waves are in the ocean.” We kept asking him to repeat the word “waves” as if we did not understand. Finally he said” “WAVES! WAVES!… V-A-V-E-S!” He was just awesome!

Taranath had some physical problems by the time I knew him. That is actually what brought him to the US. He could no longer play 5 or 6 hour-long concerts. He could still, however, perform at a world-class level for our American-style 2 hours shows. Because he did not drive, one of his students would typically pick him up and bring him to school. Of course, that left us open to a variety of alternative plans. One of these was to show up, as a group, to pick him up. This could result in quite a wonderful dining experience when we would, just by the stroke of luck, be invited to dinner.

Once, on his birthday, Taranath received from his students, a 1/2 gallon bottle (I think) of Chevas Regal. This was an extra entertaining evening because we had not only the joy of Tabla lessons and dinner, but also the great Joy of watching Taranath’s wife (who we all called “Mami”) walk around offering up whiskey from that big bottle. What do I remember that made that so entertaining? Well… Guess what LETTER the word “Whisky” starts with? That right! “W“! Mami, like guruji, couldn’t pronounce the letter W! So, she walked around the room offering us “‘Ski?” “‘Ski?”, “‘Ski?”

Those were some fun times. But there is one memory that cemented the memory or Taranath in my mind, for life. Not long before guruji died I was in Los Angeles and went to visit CalArts, where I had studied with Taranath. This was either 1990 or 1991. I was walking the halls, giving my wife a tour, when I met Taranath with one of his newer (younger) students. I had not seen him in something like 7 or 8 years. When he saw me, he got the most priceless smile on his face. He nearly ran up to me and embraced me. He turned to his student and then back to me. With one of the most genuine smiles I have ever seen, the great Pandit Taranath Rao, direct descendant of the the leaders of the Farukkhabad and Lucknow Gharanas, looked at me and said “Look at you!” and turned to his student and said of me “HE was one of MY STUDENTS TOO!!!” Rarely in my life have I been so warmly embraced.

And so… on this 100th birthday of one of my favorite men of CalArts, I think of Taranath Rao with the same warmth and love that he last embraced me, those many years ago.

Jai Guru!

One thing that sucks about getting older AND being a “people person” is that I care so much about so many people who are also getting older. I also pride myself on my relationships with amazing people. It’s a blessing and a curse; knowing amazing people who get older, and older, and like all of us, eventually die. Today, I’m tired.  I have to admit it: I’m getting tired of writing memorials to great men and women who pass away. But, I have to do this because something in me wants to help keep memory alive. It’s sort of my “thing”, I guess.

In the Autumn of 1978 I sat on the floor of the Main Gallery at the California Institute of the Arts. I was a surprisingly unworldly 18-year-old.

I had just started college, working toward my degree in music. I had managed to take solfeggio placement tests that confirmed I did not even need to take ear training classes. I was hard at work with Theory, composition lessons, music history, and critical studies. I had yet to meet John Cage or Morty Feldman. Aaron Copland had been (or was about to be – I forget) my first “guest composer” experience. I had a good ear, I knew a lot about the “new” discipline of electronic music, and I was studying my way through the annals of Western music theory. About anything “non-western” I knew absolutely nothing.

Sitting before me, on risers, at one end of the Gallery were 4 men. Amiya Dasgupta on Sitar, 2 students on Tambura, and a short bearded white guy on Tabla. I grew up in California in the 60s and 70s but I had never heard real Indian music. I’m almost embarrassed to say this but the problem with a Alap and 22 shrutis for a guy who did not know what the hell I was listening to is that I did not even know when they stopped tuning up and started playing the “real” music. Still I was mesmerized. The Sitar was a million times more amazing in the hands of Amiya that in the intro to “Norwegian Wood”, that was certain. It was astonishing. But even more amazing was the bearded white dude. He did not get to play much at the beginning. But by the end, his fingers moved so fast I could barely see them. His name was John Bergamo.


It goes without saying that I was changed that day. I knew that I needed to learn about things that did not come from the west and did not have voltage controlled oscillators on them. I knew that I had to know the bearded white guy and to learn at least a little of what he knew. John Bergamo was the reason that I spent 3 years studying tabla with Pandit Taranath Rao, the reason I wrote a solo percussion piece for Amy Knoles, the reason I could get 3 absolute percussion masters (the “Antenna Repairmen”) to play my percussion trio, the reason I got to take “independent study in percussion” with one of the greatest living percussionists, and the reason I fell in love both with India and with percussion.


John Bergamo was also the owner of the coolest percussion instrument I ever got to play. David Tudor was supposed to come to town and we were going to get to study with him. But something happened and Tudor could not come out. I was honored, however, to be able to work with a really amazing group of fellow students to create an homage to Tudor which we called something really creative like “An Environment for David Tudor”.  John loaned us some instruments, one of which was the front cowling from a 747 jet engine! I remember exactly where we hung that thing, although I have not got a clue how we did it.

In case you did not know John personally, you may not know why I call him a Renaissance Man of percussion. So, consider this: In his long career, John Bergamo worked with some of the most diverse composers and performers in the known universe, Just to name a few: Lukas Foss, Gunther Schuller, John Cage, Ringo Starr, Charles Wourinen, Lou Harrison, Ali Akbar Khan, John McLaughlin, Morton Feldman, Herb Albert, Percy Heath, Robert Shaw, Max Roach, and Frank Zappa. He played with several other friends of mine (and my beloved mentor Lucky Mosko) in the Repercussion Unit and he played on the soundtracks of 18+ Hollywood films. He did a lot of percussion overdub work for ‘The Mothers of Invention” and, after studying with him I know I’ll never listen to Zappa’s “The Black Page” without thinking of him. Finally, after all of that, in 2012 John’s dedication to percussion and to education earned him election to the prestigious Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame.

I suppose I need not really say this but I’m very sad that the world of percussion, the CalArts community, and my personal circle of friends has lost the great John Bergamo. I’ll miss him.

John Bergamo was born in Englewood, New Jersey, May 28, 1940 and passed away on October 19th 2013.