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Meet Sam Evans, Australia’s first doctor of tabla

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Sam Evans’ love for the tabla is one that grew out of exploration. He began playing the drum kit as a six-year old and by the time he finished school was playing it professionally.  But he was nagged by an urge to discover a musical instrument that had a bit more history, complexity, and a bit more emotional depth. So he went travelling. It was the late 1990s.

Evans left rural New South Wales where he grew up. He sold everything he owned and rode a bicycle all the way up the east coast of Australia first and then spent years travelling in Asia, Africa and Europe studying different drumming traditions.

The breakthrough came when he found the tabla in India. “There was an amazing complexity to the instrument, incredible virtuosity, and a really beautiful sound,” he says. Evans was just 18 at that time but had already been to different parts of the world and found nothing else like the tabla anywhere. He would end up spending 10 of the next 15 years living in India, most of the time in the eastern city of Kolkata.

In Kolkata, Evans started learning to play the tabla from anyone who would teach him and gradually upgraded his teachers as his skills developed. Eventually, he became a student of Pandit Anindo Chatterjee of the Farukhabad gharana, who is regarded as one of the most versatile tabla masters performing today. Evans’s association with Chatterjee began at the same time he was completing a Bachelor’s degree in music from Australia. That study took him regularly to India to study the traditional music with Chatterjee in Kolkata.

He also went to America and studied with renowned tabla maestro Zakir Hussain for a little while. “Learning with Zakir was mostly about listening to Zakir,” he admits candidly, adding, “Zakir was busy, it was difficult to be his student. But he is a great master and a beautiful player.” Evans liked learning in America but unfortunately did not get to perform with Zakir. However, he had numerous performances with Chatterjee and other accomplished musicians in festivals across India and Australia.

Back in Australia, after completing his Bachelor’s, Honours and Master’s degree in tabla, Evans bagged the prestigious Sir James McNeil Scholarship at Monash University and studied the role of the tabla in today’s contemporary intercultural music in the context of multicultural Australia for his doctorate. This year, he became Australia’s first Doctor of tabla for his innovative performance research on the tabla. His PhD is the first performance-based doctorate in Australia on an Indian instrument.

Evans explains that most of his work has been about integrating the tabla in intercultural music here in Australia, so the PhD was an opportunity to develop that. The performance component in his PhD has been released as a CD titled ‘The Tabla Project’ (2018) and is available on iTunes, Bandcamp and Spotify.

Other albums of his include The Slide Project (2015), Barlines and Beyond (2015), Blueprint (2014), Red Mountain (2009), Charukeshi (2007) and Madhu Mahal (2007). Evans is also part of band called Fine Blue Thread, comprising the Javanese inspired vocals of Ria Soemardjo, the contemporary cello of Helen Mountfort and his own melodic multi-tabla style. Since 2007, the trio have been regularly performing in Melbourne and around Australia. Some of the highlights include performances at the Elizabeth Murdoch Hall at the Recital Centre which was broadcast live to air on ABC Radio National, the Famous Spiegeltent at the Sydney Opera House Forecourt and Melbourne Arts Centre as well as the Melbourne International Arts Festival and many world music festivals in Australia. “Our music is now featured on a compilation CD by the BBC in London alongside Ravi Shankar and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Beginners Guide to India),” says Evans.

For the past 15 years, Evans has been teaching music at Monash University. He has always been immersed in studying the tabla and working towards integrating Indian instruments in Australia. Ten years ago, he founded the Melbourne Tabla School and in 2011, he had the tabla accepted as part of the VCE curriculum. “Now young tabla players perform traditional tabla for the final high school exams, which contributes to their university entrance score,” says a proud Evans. He also established a pathway for musicians playing Indian instruments, such as the tabla and the sitar, to earn performance degrees at university level in Australia. “It’s great to see Indian instruments beginning to be accepted in our formal education systems these days, it shows the systems are now becoming more representative of the society we live in.”

As an Australian, Evans says he imbues the tabla with different music not only Indian ragas. For instance, at the recent tenth annual concert of the Melbourne Tabla School, his students played tabla music with ragas and other traditional Indian music with professional accompanists.  “Sometimes I play traditional concerts with sitar players or bansuri players, sometimes I play with a band or with an orchestra. I have run the World Music Orchestra at Monash for 13 years now and every week I get to play music from different cultures in that; it’s a different approach for me, but there is also the Indian system on my mind as well.”

Asked what it is about the tabla that he found so unique, Evans says there are so many things. “I love the emotion of the vocabulary of the tabla. I love the depth of expression possible on the tabla. I also love the history of the tabla. It comes from a percussion history that is over 3000 years old; in comparison the drum-kit is just 100 years old.”

But more than anything, Evans believes his love for Indian culture aligned with his love for the tabla. Growing up in a small town in New South Wales, Kolkata with its 25 million people, was incredible to him. He loved being in India and there were a lot of things that suited him. “I loved that everyone sat on the ground and played the tabla. I loved that the instrument is integrated in the music. The tabla is very important in Indian music, whereas in western music, the drum-kit is seated at the back of the band, it’s not as integrated and important in the music. There is a very complex and beautiful repertoire for the tabla that is similar to the western piano canon, there is huge amount of music composed over hundreds of years that is very complex and expresses a lot of human emotion. It is amazing that you can play hours of solo music on the tabla unlike other percussion instruments anywhere in the world. For me those things differentiated the tabla from all the other percussion instruments anywhere that I looked at,” reflects Evans.

Today, Australia is a growing market for tabla players, believes Evans. That market is divided into people who are interested in contemporary world music on one side and those that are interested in Indian music on the other. “On the whole, I think it’s a growing community of people that are interested in Indian music.”

Over the years Evans has taught hundreds of students, and on an average trains about 70 students a week. He believes the tabla is on a similar journey as the guitar. “The guitar was originally only played in Spain and had only Spanish repertoire. Eventually it got integrated into jazz, western classical music and rock. Now you get to hear the guitar in everything, including Indian music. The tabla is on a similar journey, it is starting to becoming integrated in the diverse music of the world. We are at the beginning of that process.”

But no contemporary artist tries to so gracefully bridge the cultural divide as Evans. He has integrated the tabla in formal education here in Australia. However he feels there is a long way to go in terms of cultural change. “Australian students learn music in school and if they become professional players they all go through the music system in university. But we have a little bit of a divide in terms of Indian instruments as lots of students don’t get to perform with Indian instruments in school. There’s a long way to go but we are getting there. We need cultural change in this country which can be assisted by integrating non-Western instruments in schools from the beginning. If kids see the sitar or the tabla being played at school from early on, they become culturally aware. There is a lack of that now.”

Clearly, Evans has been instrumental in introducing Australian audiences to the brilliance and intricacies of the tabla. While his musical training was in an extremely classical Indian tradition, he has gone beyond traditions and opened up to diversity of sounds, one that allowed him to comfortably converse with varied artistes that represents multicultural Australia.

Going forward, Evans recognises that an integrated, multicultural, intercultural society is great. “If we can integrate this beautiful heritage that we have from India, it will be a beautiful thing for Australia,” he sums up.

By Indira Laisram

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