Miles Shrewsbery and the Cultural Context of the Tabla

One of the most important things students do in Miles Shrewsbery’s music classes at the Museum School and at Hawking Charter School is take off their shoes.

This is no ordinary music class. An American tabla artist and teaching artist for the Center of World Music, Miles instructs students grades K-5 how to play a North Indian percussion instrument called the tabla. An essential part of studying the tabla, like many traditional world music instruments, is the passing on of the symbolic meaning and special significance of the instrument and its cultural origins. Miles teaches the geography of North India, its language, and the stories about the history and masters of the instrument. Students also learn the various customs surrounding this musical tradition.

“These elements are inseparable from the music. The context of music is what creates the unique feelings and expressions from a given culture,” says Miles.

MIles SchoolMiles teaches his students that playing the tabla is more than the physical act of playing the drums. It’s also about understanding a worldview — something that Miles came to realize through his own study of the tabla in India and the US.

From the moment Miles first heard the tabla at age 17, “it was love at first sound.” He had an immediate connection with the instrument, even though he knew nothing about India and its culture.

Miles’ teachers, Abhiman Kaushal and Pandit Nandkumar Bhatlouande of Hyderabad, India, educated him about the rich context in which the tabla originates. “In addition to practicing, I studied the language, values and the cultural practices. For example, I learned about respect  and responsibility for one’s family, one’s teacher and to the tradition of the tabla — the whole interchange.”

Removing your shoes before playing the tabla is one of the practices Miles encourages in his students. He explains, “we remove our shoes just before playing the tabla. Why? On the practical side, most activities in India are traditionally done sitting crossed legged on the ground, so this is a way of keeping the space clean. On the spiritual side of things, the idea comes from within Indian music. We believe that the instrument is a pathway to God, so in a sense, removing your shoes signifies both respect and cleanliness to the instrument and what it represents. We also never step over the instrument, much like the Indonesian gamelan, because it is disrespectful to show the bottom of one’s feet toward something as sacred as an instrument.”

The students of the Museum School and Hawking Charter School are exposed to many of the most important skills, knowledge, and wisdom Miles has gained from his years of dedication to the tabla. Each student is now part of a long continuum of musicians who have passed down the artform within one of the oldest musical traditions in the world. Not bad for an elementary school music class.

“We really underestimate how much children can register when it comes to developing a broader cultural understanding,” Miles says. “I’m always amazed at how much children can master, both at the level of playing the instrument and of understanding the cultural nuances of the tradition. I wish adults were such quick studies!”

 

Profile picMiles Shrewsbery is an American tabla artist and disciple of Sri Abhiman Kaushal and Pandit Nandkumar Bhatlouande of Hyderabad, India, as well as a co-owner of Avaaz Records. Miles is trained in the Farukhabad Gharana of his teachers and is a respected performer of its rich, aesthetic repertoire through his years of dedicated study and practice. Miles has performed all over the world in prestigious venues such as the Symphony Space (New York City), Smithsonian Museum (Washington D.C.), Tokyo Museum of Modern Art (Tokyo, Japan), Royal Horticultural Hall (London, England), and St. Paul Cathedral (New York City). He has performed with top musicians such as Shujaat Khan, Deepak Ram, Googoosh, Cheap Trick, and Yusef Lateef. Some notable soundtracks and recordings where Miles’ tabla and percussion can be found are: Sinbad (Dreamworks 2003), The Rundown (Columbia 2003), The Riches (FX 2007), Yusef Lateef and Adam Rudolph – Into the Garden (Meta Records 2003), Dave Stringer – Divas and Devas (Spirit Voyage 2007), and Dave Stringer – Yatra (Silenzio 2011). In 2004, Miles earned a B.A. in ethnomusicology from UCLA, and in 2009, he earned an M.A. in ethnomusicology from UCR. In 2012 Miles was awarded the American Institute of Indian Studies’ Senior Performing Arts Fellowship, which supported Miles to further his studies and practice in New Delhi, India for one year. Currently, Miles is a teaching artist in residence for the Center For World Music in San Diego, California.

 

To see video of Miles performing, please visit these links:

Traditional:

House Concert in New Deli, India

Tabla Solo – Delhi Kaida

Contemporary:

Eight Dollar Watermelon

Chasm

World Music Instrument: The Banjer, aka the Banjo

We continue our series of reports on the fascinating variety of world music instruments with an article by Curt Bouterse, Ph.D.

The banjo (its city name), or banjer (its traditional country name) is often thought of as a uniquely American musical instrument. And that is true, as far as it goes. But, like almost everything that wasn’t already here before the Europeans landed, its origins lie elsewhere. When Africans were brought to the New World as slaves, they brought the knowledge of a wide variety of instruments with a neck and a body covered with skin. While there were similar ancient instruments elsewhere in the world, it is clear that the African pattern, especially the akonting, from the area of Senegal and the Gambia—even its style of playing—was the inspiration for the evolution of the banjo. The most likely crucible for such development was the Caribbean: the earliest observers and extant examples come from there. One of the distinctive marks of the instrument was the short, high-pitched string played as an intermittent drone.

A painting, before 1790, is perhaps the earliest depiction of the instrument in the United States.

A painting, before 1790, is perhaps the earliest depiction of the instrument in the United States.

Early chroniclers in the United States included Thomas Jefferson, who characterized it as a distinctive instrument of the slaves in Virginia. Somewhere along the way European influences such as tuning pegs and a flat fingerboard were added. Probably for practical reasons, the usual gourd-bodied construction was superseded by a drum-like shell and transformed into its modern form; early 19th century instruments are clearly recognizable as the banjo as we now know it.

A genre painting by William Sidney Mount, 1856, showing its early modern form.

A genre painting by William Sidney Mount, 1856, showing the instrument in its early modern form.

Follow these links to see videos of musicians playing a modern gourd banjo & fiddle, the author playing a small gourd banjo of his own making, the akonting (the banjo’s most likely ancestor), and the ngoni, another West African instrument.

Curt Bouterse, Ph.D. is a member of the Center for World Music’s Advisory Board, and is a historical scholar, organologist, traditional musician, and instrument maker widely respected for his deep knowledge of Early and Medieval Music, World Music, and American Folk Music. For much more information about this instrument, visit his fretless banjer website.

Fond Farewell to Putu Hiranmayena

We are pleased to share that Putu Hiranmayena, Balinese gamelan musician and much loved teaching artist for the Center for World Music, will be pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in Ethnomusicology in the fall of 2015.

To help bid Putu a happy journey we asked Phil Beaumont, Director of the Museum School and David Harnish, Ph.D., Chair and Professor, Music Department, University of San Diego, to write a few words on their experiences working with Putu.

When one walks into the classroom, whether young or old, one can immediately feel the essence of Putu’s passion for Balinese gamelan and, in particular, teaching it to children. HIs smile is contagious, and sets a tone for our students to learn to love the intricate music they play. Putu understands that music is meant to be enjoyed and to be a part of who we are. After teaching students the many possible variations of a piece, he allows them to take ownership as a group and develop their own arrangements for performance. In doing so, he has captured them as musicians, and they can then capture their audience. A true gift.

— Phil Beaumont, Director of the Museum School

 

For me, I Putu Adi Tangkas Hiranmayena just showed up. I had no idea that other parties (e.g., Alex Khalil, The Museum School, the CWM, and his father [I Made Lasmawan]) had played a part in bringing him to San Diego. Putu contacted me out of the blue, told me he was the son of Pak Lasmawan (a good friend), and volunteered to join the USD Gamelan Ensemble, which I had just started the previous year. What a stroke of luck! Putu had not done a lot of work directing ensembles before coming to San Diego, but he was a skilled musician and drummer and knew a number of tunes. I immediately arranged a stipend for him, and later asked that he direct our gamelan (Balinese gamelan angklung), which he did for two years.

I saw him blossom into a fine and dynamic director, adding his own innovative ideas here and there to the repertoire. He communicated well with our students and got everyone excited about playing as he increased the tempo. He also demanded that students play with precision. We at USD will really miss him and I will personally miss him a lot, but I am very proud of his accomplishments and know he will be in good hands at University of Illinois, where he will team with I Ketut Gede Asnawa and the ethnomusicology faculty. His ideas of metal and gamelan and contemporary music may come further to fruition. Hopefully, we will all see him again some day back in San Diego. I intend to visit him in Bali as well and to meet him at ethnomusicological conferences.

— David Harnish, Ph.D., Chair and Professor, Music Department, University of San Diego

 

putuhiranmeyaWe always knew Putu would one day continue his formal education in ethnomusicology and experimental arts academia. The Center for World Music bids him the best in all of his future endeavors, and thanks him for his contributions to our musical and cultural efforts in San Diego.

While pursuing his Ph.D., Putu will continue work in Balinese gamelan, improvisation, and high adrenaline activities. This includes development of theories in embodiment and creative practices. He hopes to start a gamelan ensemble emphasizing real-time composition.