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World Music Features

Swapan Chaudhuri

By Derek Beres
Published May 5, 2006

Accompaniment is nothing new to the 59-year-old legend Swapan Chaudhuri. He has worked alongside the greatest names in Indian music, including Ravi Shankar, Asha Bhosle, Nikhil Banerjee and countless others.

Where two masters meet, one sound emerges. The gorgeous interplay between the kamancheh, an Iranian spiked fiddle, and the Indian lute-like sitar bind two distinct folk traditions into a seamless creative core. Kayhan Kalhor and Shujaat Hussain Khan formed the now infamous Ghazal in 1997, learned craftsmen devoting their passion to the interpretation of cultural songs with a new twist. Two years later, on 1999’s Moon Rise Over The Silk Road (Shanachie), a third maestro joined. Tabla player Swapan Chaudhuri accented this ingenious project gorgeously.

Accompaniment is nothing new to the 59-year-old legend. Chaudhuri has worked alongside the greatest names in Indian music, including Ravi Shankar, Asha Bhosle, Nikhil Banerjee and countless others. When his foremost teacher and friend, Ali Akbar Khan, invited him to become the Director of Percussion at his San Rafael College of Music (AACM) in 1981, Chaudhuri came, never leaving. Today he continues a manic teaching schedule while performing over 200 concerts annually. 

Born into a Brahmin Bengali family of 60 members (comprised mostly of doctors), Chaudhuri began studying tabla with Pandit Santosh Krishna Biswas in 1950. The discipline was geared for meditation, not performance, and the idea of playing tabla as a career wouldn’t be born until graduating from Jadavpur University with a degree in economics. Prepared to pursue the financial life, Khan asked the 24-year-old to perform with him in 1969. Thus began a long series of concerts in India and abroad, forever changing Chaudhuri’s life. What occurred, essentially, was the understanding of a new language; his family had spoken a particular dialect separating life and music, and Chaudhuri learned the lingo of union.

“When you listen to it, you can understand,” he says, well rooted in his California residence. “In order to understand you have to learn the language. The great thing about tabla is when you hear other rhythm instruments, each immediately transcribes into tabla’s phrases.” His partnership with Khan continued until 1981, when the sarode master convinced Chaudhuri to move to America to take over as Director of Percussion at AACM. There he expanded his rhythmic repertoire, already versed as accompanist for string instruments like the sitar, sarode, sarangi and santoor, as well as vocalists, flutists and dancers. He continued as a solo tabla player, releasing numerous recordings such as 2004’s Eternity (BD Trading), joined by sarangi player Pandit Ramesh Mishra.

Branching out from the Indian/Persian soundscape, Chaudhuri furthered his trans-tabla initiative by working with flamenco musicians on a project combining Andalusian folk with Indian Kathak dancing, as well as a percussive record tracing the heritage of dumbek