Internal Spark – Interview with Tabla/Electronica/Philanthropist musician, Robin Sukhadia
I am speaking today with tabla musician and Fulbright Grant recipient Robin Sukhadia. I open with his video, “Tabla, Turntables and Invented Instruments” to introduce you to his work with high risk youth at Eagle Rock School in Colorado:
Scot: I read that music in India dates back to 5000 years with paintings of tabla drums discovered in Hindu temples around 500 BC. What inspired you to study this ancient instrument?
Robin: I began studying tabla because I wanted to bridge my present day experience of living in America and the west with my cultural roots in India. I remember listening to tabla for the first time through my dad’s vast vinyl record collection. I was completely hypnotized by the sound of the instrument at an early age. After that experience, I always wanted to create that sound with my hands. I found it so intricate and I loved how the tabla rhythms would kind of dance. It was often difficult to pinpoint where the rhythm starts and where the rhythm ends and my ears gravitated toward these hypnotic polyrhythmic sounds. As I got older I started to examine more closely what tabla is and what it is about and it is at that point that I discovered how deep an instrument it really was.
Scot: Did you have any formal music training when your were in school?
Robin: I had studied piano in elementary school and saxophone in jazz band along with all sorts of Western music all the way through college, so I had an understanding of many different types of music. But, with the tabla there was something different. I associated it with my parent’s generation having heard it all those years in the house and as I dug into it more, I started to realize that it was very futuristic and ancient at the same time.
Scot: Did you play the tabla when you were a child?
Robin: Not at all, I was not a percussionist when I was growing up. I loved rhythm, but I spent most of my life studying melody and working with chords and modalities. I think my first introduction to percussion was through my study of piano actually. I believe the piano is really a drum in many ways. You’re literally striking a key that is hitting percussively another string and I feel that piano has that side to it. It is a very tactile and finger and wrist oriented instrument. I didn’t have my first tabla lesson, until I was almost finished with college in 1997.
Scot: So, you’ve come to tabla recently.
Robin: Yes, I consider myself new to the tabla, 11 years of studying is pretty young in this instrument’s tradition.
Scot: You have a proficient grasp of its complexity from the recordings I have heard. With your knowledge of both traditional and modern forms of Indian music, do you find yourself experimenting with different drum tunings and techniques to accompany the newer forms of musical styles you are performing?
Robin: Definitely. I am interested in placing tabla in the context of contemporary art forms and music. For example, I am using Ableton music software right now and experimenting with new tabla sounds and rhythms to perform with all sorts of musicians outside of classical Indian music. I’ve played with DJ’s, flamenco artists, harpists, etc., and I am interested in showcasing tabla as a versatile instrument.
Scot: By exploring the boundaries of this instrument, do you find yourself immersed in higher levels of creativity?
Robin: I think so, yes! To me music is an important way to examine the subconscious through abstract and conceptual thinking, both of which are critical to creativity. You are literally learning to channel energy and that is what creativity is. To pick out that which is conceptual and abstract with a clear channel, leads to a more creative and innovative outcome. When I perform and decide which musical elements to explore, whether it be Western instrumentation or electronic music, it challenges me to think about the traditional classical compositions I have been studying and how I can make them compelling to the listener. I think that musicians from every background should do this to exercise those abstract and conceptual levels of music and creativity.
Scot: I read that you study with a traditional tabla guru. Did you experience any friction with your teacher by your manipulating traditional ragas for a more modern approach?
Robin: Luckily, my teacher Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri is actually extremely traditional, but at the same time has been very encouraging of my experimentation and pushing music in new ways. He is an interesting musician himself. He has been teaching tabla in a traditional way at Ali Akbar School of music in San Rafael, California for over thirty years. He is also a professor at the CA Institute of the Arts, in Los Angeles, which is one of the most progressive environments for learning music in the world. The California Institute for the arts offers everything from electronic music, to people studying music robotics, to Charlie Hayden who leads an incredible jazz program. The students that are coming into Swapanji’s classroom are coming from all of these different backgrounds. They are not coming to him just to be tabla players; they’re coming him to learn what the tabla is about so they can integrate it into their contemporary compositions. The reason I have been able to go so deeply into these experiments with the instrument is because he allows me to take risks and supports me 100%.
Scot: Is this normally the case with traditional teachers?
Robin: I would say that 99% of the traditional teachers would not agree with the things I am doing! I have had some friction in that case where I am asked what I am trying to do with this instrument and their challenging the authenticity of this contemporary form of practice. What I usually come back with is that the actual performance is rooted in the classical sense. I am very respectful of these traditions and compositions. I think there is “fusion” music and there is “confusion” as the great Maestro Ali Akbar Khan often stated.
Scot: Tell me more about that thought.
Robin: You can be a good fusion artist, which is someone who takes the best of both worlds, classical and contemporary, or you can be confused by throwing them together and not being deeply concerned about either one. I haven’t stopped studying classical tabla music and I am continuing to work deeply on its concepts.
Scot: It’s wonderful to see that you have a teacher interested in advancing traditional forms of Indian music with a contemporary spin. Developing a modern approach seems to open up the mind for creative possibilities.
Robin: What you said is important: this instrument needs to move beyond the boundaries of a 5,000 year old tradition of music in South Asia and find a voice and relevance outside of that. This is where the instrument is right now and the crux of the challenge of where tabla is today.
Scot: How do you see the instrument advancing?
Robin: You have to remember for most of tabla’s history, it was only studied by men who were born into musical families of a certain caste. Not anyone could go and study tabla, you certainly couldn’t be a woman and you couldn’t go to a teacher and ask him to show you what he learned. This was a guarded and protected secret language and was pretty much only enjoyed by the aristocracy.
Scot: Elaborate more on that.
Robin: It’s only been in the last twenty-five years or so that this instrument has really come out from that. We have a lot of work to do to continue to open up its potential. Thanks to musicians like Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Pandit Anindo Chatterjee and many, many others, this instrument is starting to open up and become more acceptable to different styles of music.
Scot: I have recorded with a tabla player and found the tone and rhythm interesting and compelling. I learned that it was a mnemonic instrument where memorization of rhythmic patterns and tones are transposed into intricate emotion laden rhythms. Which, like you mentioned has its own language. My question for you, is when you perform with other musicians, what role do you play in evoking the emotions in the song and the musicians?
Robin: Tabla language is the key to that. Whatever type of music I am playing I translate it into tabla language in my head. I am thinking in tabla voicing and patterns i.e., (dha-ge-na, dha-ge-na which translates into, 123, 123.) My mind is conditioned to translate these sounds into tabla language from my studies. When I am performing with others I think to myself, what would be an interesting composition from something that I have learned, or improvised, that could converge the pattern being played and how do I communicate that with the people I am collaborating with. This powerful language makes it easy to distill, by not having to write the music down.
Scot: Explain that process.
Robin: It’s mesmerizing when you hear tabla and you ask the performer what did you just play, they can recite it to you verbally. That is the core of what this music is about and why this instrument is so resilient and surviving and thriving now. I am not spending time having to write down music, which can interfere with the improvisational aspects of music. I listen to the music and internalize it with my breath, which is what you are doing when you are reciting. You are bringing the language of the instrument into your body. In doing so you become more grounded and centered in your spiritual being. You are able to listen and be more active in the music.
Scot: I read that the tabla language you describe is rooted in Sanskrit text rather then musical notation. Do you feel you are able to communicate more spontaneously with other musicians because of this?
Robin: Before I proceed I want to clarify that the language and the drum itself are not entirely rooted in Sanskrit. Tabla is a hybrid instrument, meaning it’s an amalgamation of existing culture in Northern India, which was primarily Hindu but also incorporates Muslim influences. Over a period of centuries, Persian and Turkish (where the Mughals originate) invasions resulted in a culture that was heterogeneous. So, the instrument and language is a mixture of Persian and Urdu influences with Sanskrit. The tabla is not just an Indian instrument, it’s a reflection of the Persian influence in northern India and Pakistan over many centuries in time and also central Asia as well. It is an instrument that developed out of invasion and has been morphing and evolving over time from many different influences.
Scot: Thanks for the clarification.
Robin: Most people think that it is an instrument from India, but don’t realize that it developed from influences from Afghanistan, Pakistan and connections to Turkey and Iran. Therefore, it has Muslim influences and Hindu influences. And sadly, there is this huge movement in India to claim this instrument as a Hindu instrument. It is a consequence of rising Islamophobia in India right now. There is a drive to own every Indian classical form as Hindu.
Scot: Please elaborate on that subject.
Robin: There is a narrative in India saying that these instruments came from the temples and were only played in temples and that’s simply not true. These instruments were also played in the courts of the Mughal emperors, for and by courtesans as well. We have to realize that some of the historical references to these instruments are being revised because of the current political climate.
Scot: How does recitation apply to the classically trained musician.
Robin: Unfortunately, I think a lot of Western classically trained musicians cannot play without a piece of music notation in front of them.
Scot: I have found that as well when recording with orchestra members. Most classically trained musicians are unfortunately not taught to improvise in their studies.
Robin: I think that it is a detriment to the idea of playing music, “playing” being the operative word. Play music, have some fun by being active in enjoying the experience, rather then trying to make it an articulate intellectual exercise!
Scot: That’s the difference between interpretation and creation. Classical musicians are interpreting composer’s music that is written out, whereas the improvisational artist is using the free flow of creativity to connect with their spiritual nature and the instrument itself to create a voice and tell a story.
Robin: That is true.
Scot: Earlier in our conversation, you mentioned the influence of Persia in the hybridization of the tabla. Persia is well known for their poets. Did their poetry influence the language of the instrument in any way?
Robin: Absolutely. Poetry is a critical part of Persian and Sufi culture and you can hear that influence in tabla compositions. You can hear it more so in the compositions of Northern India as opposed to southern India. You have all these aesthetics that come in from Persia including dance, recitation of poetry, with an emphasis and focus on grammar and structure. In listening to these intricate compositions, they are beautiful not only in the musical sense, but also in a mathematical sense. There is a lot of focus on math and symmetry with counterpoint and rhythms that take the listener on a musical journey. When you hear some of these masters reciting, they play with the ear and time in such a way that they parallel the way poems are recited in Udu.
Scot: Many tabla devotees believe the instrument is a divine connection to God and practice the passage called “Chilla”, in which they play in a solitary room for as many as forty days. Have you ever experienced this exercise?
Robin: I have not done a “chilla” myself. I am still young in my study of tabla and I think that it is worth exploring once you spend more time with the instrument and are ready. It’s not a requirement and as a matter of fact, my guru has not completed one and he is a world master.
Scot: If you decide to do a Chilla, what would you expect from the experience?
Robin: I think that it is an important part of the practice. The idea of isolation and going really deep internally and cutting off communication with the outer world and finding communion with your instrument would be a powerful thing to do. I hope to do it one day in the future when I have the time to devote to it.
Scot: It sounds like a journey that takes much preparation and devotion.
Robin: Yes, there are stories where tabla artists have gone into a deep practice of 12 to 15 hours a day. I have heard of people tying a piece of string to their head so that when they began to nod off, it would wake them from their sleep to continue.
Scot: That is quite the devotion.
Robin: There is still a tradition of this spiritual austerity practiced in India to this day. The idea of putting your body through a sacrificial experience that is rigorous, allows the artist to concentrate on channeling their creative energy. Like the fire coal walkers, the Chilla is another form of that.
Scot: This is similar to the teachings of the Buddhist way of eliminating the ego for spiritual enlightenment.
Robin: That is true. I have practiced this concentration in my own way when I was in India and here in the states by spending many days practicing my tabla by myself in isolation. Without this devotion and discipline you cannot progress. There are no short cuts and I don’t know anyone who is proficient with an instrument who has not devoted the time to this solo practice.
Scot: I agree with you. It is an important aspect of a professional musicians life. Which brings me to the chapter in your life that lead to your work with the Fulbright sponsored Project Ahimsa music program. How has the power of music changed the children’s lives who participated?
Robin: This is a big part of my life and creative process. All the years of going to India to study music especially in Calcutta where my teacher is from, I would go to class and I would walk home and see one of the most powerful parts of being in that culture.
Scot: What did you see?
Robin: You are experiencing face-to-face what life on the streets is really like for many of impoverished people worldwide. There is a lot of dignity there, it’s not jut about pity and sadness, it’s about life. I would study this incredible music information in tabla class and I felt privileged to be learning it and having the resources to come to India and study there. So, I had to do something more with the information I was learning than just perform. I wanted to apply my music in a way to empower people, not just entertain them.
Scot: What is it like on the streets in India?
Robin: I would see children who are homeless and families that are struggling to survive. At the same time, I would see their talent and talk to them about their hopes and aspirations. A lot of the children would be singing and banging on buckets with their hands. I would think to myself, if they had access to what I had, they could go much further than I have. That is what inspired me to connect music to the people around me in India. I hated to think that I came to India as a person who took what I needed and left.
Scot: I can understand your wanting to help bring music to the lives of children there.
Robin: That pattern can be easy to fall into, where you study tabla in India and take it back to the West to make something of it there. That paradigm didn’t sit well with me. So, every time I traveled to India I would take a few instruments back with me and offered to teach what I knew about tabla to the people there.
Scot: How did that work out?
Robin: I started to research local non-profit organizations that would appreciate music education as a supplement to their core work and it was if I had discovered an entire unmet need. Most of the people were bringing in free clothing, shoes, medical supplies and water but nobody was offering music. Of course, they need their basic supplies, and I’m not denying the importance of that, but it was so refreshing to be able to come in and offer the poorest children an opportunity to learn music. This was the essence and mission of Project Ahimsa.
Scot: What does the word Ahimsa mean?
Robin: It means non-violence in Sanskrit. It’s a term borrowed by Gandhi in his work against the British for non-violent protest. Project Ahimsa applied that term to show how music can serve as a vehicle to address non-violence and teach creativity to empower young people.
Scot: How long has the organization been running?
Robin: It was founded by a group of my dear friends over 10 years ago. I became involved in 2002 when I went to India with a few instruments and it has been evolving ever since. I would take pictures of the kids there with their new instruments and show them to friends here in the states. They were all be inspired and ask how they could get involved.
Scot: How did you raise funds for your organization?
Robin: Initially, we produced big music events in San Francisco and New York to raise money. After five years, we were able to raise enough money not only to buy more instruments, but also fund teacher’s salaries to teach the kids music. What good is an instrument if there is no one there to teach them!
Robin: This continued to the point where we were able to give away up to $65,000 a year in grants all across the world. Once people saw the money we were able to raise in India, we had non-profits from other impoverished nations come to us to help out with music programs for children on the streets and in the slums.
Scot: Which led to your Fulbright grant?
Robin: Yes, the Fulbright grant allowed me to spend an entire year and half in India and evaluate all the programs we supported over the last ten years to see how well they are doing and how we could make them better.
Scot: How did you get the funding for your grant?
Robin: I applied with a proposal that I had been doing this work in India and never had a full year to really see how music was impacting the lives of these kids. I wanted to get to know the children and the teachers better, really capture and feel their talents first hand over a substantial period of time. We were funding them from remote places like San Francisco and I would only be able to visit for a month or two and I wanted to make a more tangible impact. The Fulbright selection committee loved the idea and funded it.
Scot: What did you find out about the programs success?
Robin: I spent every day with our program leaders traveling all over India and Nepal and came back with some powerful realizations that validated our model.
Scot: Give me an example.
Robin: There was one young boy in a program in Ahmedabad, at Manav Sadhna, an NGO based there who was attending a public school that we were providing basic music classes to. You have to understand that his school classroom was cramped with 40 street kids all-vying for the attention of an under supported reading/math teacher. It is a tough place to learn anything if you are poor. So, I found out along with the music teacher who was teaching this young boy in the fifth grade that he could not read.
Scot: How did you find out he couldn’t read?
Robin: The teacher asked him to read from his musical notebook and the kid said he could not read it. If it wasn’t for the smaller one on one music classes we provided through our music classes, no one would have known that this boy was basically there for five years and not learning anything in that distractive environment. Finally, because of our focused music classes, we were able to identify there was a huge a systemic problem with kids coming to public school and that music programs helped identify those problems.
Scot: Great to see that music opened the door to better understanding children’s needs.
Robin: That to me is the power of music, you are working and listening in a one on one, or small group situation and being very sensitive to identifying deeper problems with human development and child development in particular. It’s not just about turning out musicians in our programs, but about identifying deeper problems that need to be addressed.
Scot: Project Ahimsa also spawned both the Global Lingo music CD and Ekatva dance and art tour you put together. Describe to me the feeling you get when you see these kids perform.
Robin: It’s hard to describe. I get chills and I can’t contain the expression I have on my face when seeing these kids using art and particularly music in a way that is helping them realize their highest potential and to see their confidence grow. Their self confidence seems to exude when they are praised for their talent, since for some of the children, they have been conditioned by society at large to feel insignificant, invalidated, and disposable. Unfortunately, begging on the streets, or working to earn money for their families results in being abused and exploited.
Scot: Is Slumdog Millionaire an accurate description of life there for the children?
Robin: It actually is fairly accurate. Police brutality, gentrification and being abused physically, sexually and emotionally is all very real for children on the streets in India or anywhere in the world. When I see a kid who comes from that type of environment performing and sharing their art with everyone in the room who is completely mesmerized, it makes me emotional and humble.
Scot: That must be reaffirming for the work you are doing.
Robin: When people ask what is the progress of Project Ahimsa, I like to share these personal stories along with the hard numbers, for they are what makes the program special. When I was in India last year I celebrated my birthday there. As a present for my birthday, one of the kids we had helped fund around five years ago was invited to give a performance. After he was done performing, he described to me how music literally saved his life. Up to the point when he enrolled in one of our music programs, he had a lot of talent, but was never taught formally. After our program, he was able to earn money for his family by playing music and had performed for many dignitaries. He was so humble and I was completely moved by the organization arranging this party and bringing someone I had worked with back in the day to see where they are now.
Scot: What an experience for you!
Robin: It’s really a team project, there are a group of people and many teachers who make Project Ahimsa happen. The one thing that I help with is facilitating the transaction of energy between people here in the states who want to help out and people in India who need it. The situation in India, is that in many instances money disappears in people’s pockets. It’s hard to find accountable people there, but our grantee organizations, like Manav Sadhna at the Gandhi Ashram, are doing great work in a transparent and ethical way.
Scot: Tell me about the Ekatva tour your organization sponsored.
Robin: We sponsored Sixteen talented kids who had never been out of the slums of Ahmedabad and traveled as a musical dance and drama troupe to the United States and UK. It was transformational for them. They sold out Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley (over 2500 seats) with a standing ovation for ten minutes. Everyone in that hall felt it and they wouldn’t let the kids leave the stage. This validates the importance of music and art and empowering kids to imagine themselves as global citizens. Here is a video of the Ekatva experiment for your readers to view:
Scot: Quite a wonderful experience, wish I could have been there to see them perform! The subject I would like to discuss next with you is your thoughts on the future of tabla. I read that you worked with Macarthur Fellow and Renaissance instrument builder, Walter Kitundu.
Robin: That’s right. Kitundu and I have been friends and music collaborators for over ten years. We really enjoy improvising within the taals (rhythmic cycles) of tabla. Here is a video of us performing together:
Scot: Walter has created a lot of innovative musical instrument designs and by working with him do you foresee the tabla adapting to new areas of technology in the future?
Robin: This is an interesting area. Let’s talk about the material side of the tabla now. It’s goat skin and wood with a black spot, which is iron filings and water and rice paste. The sides of the drum are a wooden barrel and on the larger drum, copper covered in nickel, chrome, or a brass coating. Tabla today is nothing what tabla looked like a hundred years ago. Before the advent of the microphone, the tabla was a much bigger instrument. It was much taller because it had to be louder and the bass drum would sit in the drummers lap, rather then on the floor. It was made of clay back then, because they either didn’t have the metal science, or the technology to manufacture a copper kettle easily and affordably. With tabla today being an international instrument, clay is out of the question for traveling purposes, so I foresee the drum becoming smaller and more sophisticated.
Scot: How so?
Robin: Manufacturers are starting to develop microphones inside the drums itself and the bass drum is being refined for the new sound systems that can capture the subtle nuance of the instruments frequencies. The goat and cow skins are becoming more precious as resources and to find good quality skins is becoming a problem and more expensive. This has led to experimentation with fiberglass and synthetic materials to replace the goat skin. The Remo drum company has been trying to create a synthetic replacement for the goatskin head and black spot, but unfortunately has not been able to successfully duplicate it.
Scot: Why is that?
Robin: The main reason is because of that black spot on the drumhead, which is made up of a mixture of metal particles, rice and water. It is such a vital component of the sound where you are literally hitting a bell when you are tapping the top of the head. That black spot is made of metal and how it is glued to goat skin, rice and water paper has been elusive for replicating its sound with newer materials. Remo has tried for ten years and has not been successful at it. The handmade quality of tabla will be around for awhile, but it is only a matter of time before some one figures out how to synthetically upgrade it. The tuning of the tabla has also been a major problem as well.
Scot: Explain that for our readers.
Robin: You have wooden pegs that you have to use a hammer to tune the instrument. Sometimes during a live tabla performance, the musicians will take a long time to tune, disrupting the flow of the music. So, having materials and a system of tuning that is more stable and less vulnerable to temperature is going to be an area of innovation for the instrument. More and more people are touring with tabla and it is the most popular Indian instrument out there right now. I have so many people contacting me saying that they have to have tabla on their hip hop track, or in their film score. The movies, “Life of Pi” and “Slumdog Millionaire” are both indicative that South Asian themed films and their scores are becoming more and more viable.
Scot: What about the music side of the instrument?
Robin: When you think about the composition capabilities, people want more fireworks, more dynamism. They want to see tabla presented in more intricate ways rhythmically. It’s almost like the ear is becoming more used to tabla, therefore people want it represented more uniquely in every performance. This forces a lot of the tabla players to innovate on their existing platforms and come up with new ideas to explore.
Scot: What about Ragas?
Robin: Ragas are being modified to be more focused on tabla as well, much to the chagrin of instrumentalists. Fifteen years ago, a tabla player would maybe get one solo in a tabla concert. Now, tabla players have multiple extended solos, threatening to overshadow the melodic nuance and beauty of the raga. This has caused a lot of friction in the music. I credit Ravi Shankar for the notoriety the tabla has today, because he really showcased the instrument’s beauty and depth within the framework of the ragas he performed.
Scot: He was an amazing virtuoso.
Robin: Tabla players have always been considered second class citizens in the Indian music world. Now that this is changing with its current popularity, there are more opportunities, which means the music has to evolve and musicians need to go deeper into their compositions.
Scot: When I hear the tabla I get a unique innate connection to the earth and I am immediately drawn into its unique tone structure. I think it is a powerful tool for music communication that dates back to the beginning of music and that we are genetically attached to the power of its sound. You have a big road ahead of you to advance the tradition!
Robin: That’s why I took the name Tablapusher. Tabla is pushing music in general overall and this is the progressive trajectory for this instrument. There is an electronic musician you may know who goes by the name Squarepusher you may have heard of.
Scot: Yes, I have heard of him. Here is a video of Squarepushers “Dark Steering”:
Robin: I am a big fan of his work, so that is why I took the moniker Tablapusher. It harkens back to the importance of some of the electronic influences I have. I grew up listening to Bollywood music and a lot of electronic music which influenced me and my wanting to push the instrument forward. Thinking critically about this instrument and how it is going to have a voice in the future is important to me.
Scot: Speaking of push and moving forward, your projects with impoverished children and your film composition credits suggest to me an interest in the use of music to empower people and help remove prejudice in the hearts of man. Do you see music as a means to bring together cultures after the tragic attacks on the Sikh’s and people of South Asian descent after 9-11?
Robin: I do and I’ve seen it in action. In Gujarat, the city of Ahmedabad witnessed a series of really violent protests and riots in 2002 between Muslims and Hindus. There was a lot of communal riots, which is ironic since this is the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi. After the riots, the only thing that brought the people together was music. They were able to communicate once again without having to say a word. The EKATVA tour was about that as well. We focused on encouraging communal harmony and fighting Islamaphobia trends that were happening there and worldwide. To me, if people loved the tabla so much, then they need to understand that a big part of it is the instrument’s connection to different cultures. There is beauty that comes out of symmetry that focuses on the primordial sound you spoke of that is spiritual in nature, regardless of your denomination. By saying tabla is an Indian instrument denies the trend that music can bridge cultures. Once we see that, we can respect others’ contributions to humanity and mankind.
Scot: How does that apply to musicians from other cultures?
Robin: I think music allows people to speak in harmony together. We all work together, like this conversation, when you ask a question and I listen and answer. We can’t talk at the same time! And the thing about music is that 50 people can communicate in harmony through a universal language that touches the heart of man. They can all “speak” together at the exact same time. That is what makes music so powerful and awesome.
Scot: The great equalizer…
Robin: That drives much of my work as a musician, it helps me connect people and help build bridges.
Scot: I read in Sikh culture there is a celebration of both the saint and the warrior. I see a little of this with your interest in empowering others through music and your seeking out justice for those less fortunate. Does that philosophy apply to your life as a musician and your philanthropic contribution to society?
Robin: It has gone both ways, the word warrior is complicated and problematic to me. Sometimes the word warrior can be someone who sacrifices themselves for the greater good and I think that is important. I draw deeply upon a spiritual practice and the idea that the warrior who completely destroys them selves in service to a larger goal also needs to be balanced with taking care of his or her core. I do believe in justice and empowering communities and I do it every day in the things that I am involved with. But, if I were to become a warrior 100 percent of the time, I feel I would lose my grounding in my music, my health and my core. That is why Project Ahimsa is so interesting to me. It enables me to stay true to being a musician, performer and teacher of music and at the same time have an impact on addressing some deep issues without destroying myself.
Scot: How has that affected you?
Robin: I’m trying to understand some of these issues like the massacres we hear more about in the news each day, and especially the hate crimes directed towards Sikhs and other misunderstood communities. I may not have all the answers, but I can offer my perspective so that we can try and address the problems together as a community and in a constructive and creative way. That is the role I take with the experimental programs I have worked with like Ahimsa, Ektava and at Eagle Rock School. I call them experiments, because I know that we don’t have all the answers. We are trying different things that portray the importance of music and art in healing.
Scot: Music is a powerful healing force that helps create a mutual respect for one another. It’s great to see musicians like yourself that are empowering children through music, sharing a positive message and bridging the gap between the old and new school to create a more compelling musical experience. Which leads to me to my last question, what is on the horizon musically for you?
Robin: There is a lot I am working on. I am part of a duo called SADUBAS that is a fusion of electronic, Indian classical music and Pakistani Sufi music. I am learning Ableton software and applying it to tabla which is a big goal for me this year. I am also working with a jazz group called PremaSoul, an interesting convergence of jazz and devotional music from India with tabla, flute, bass, drums and trumpet featuring Sheela Bringi and Clinton Patterson. They are both musicians I went to school with at Cal Arts and they are great artists. I also am teaching a lot. Every year I teach a tabla immersion program in Eagle Rock Colorado for kids that have dropped out, or in danger of dropping out of high school. A lot of these kids are from gangs and the impact is great and very tangible. I am also working hard on my classical studies. To hold a raga with a sitar player for over an hour takes a lot of stamina and dexterity, so I am playing a lot more with classical musicians.
Scot: I really appreciate your time. Learning about your work has been very interesting and insightful.
Robin: I wish you the best with your project and I am glad to be a part of it.
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