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World Music Features

l to r: Karsh Kale, Bill Laswell, Ustad Sultan Khan and Zakir Hussain

Tabla Beat Science

By Derek Beres
Published September 9, 2005

New York-based musician and producer Bill Laswell and tabla master Zakir Hussain, along with a cast of guests, have come to define South Asian electronica. 

South Asian Electronica

The world is getting smaller. It’s a cliché dominated by images of fiber-optic DSL connections and phone company rhetoric, but the message is clear: Technology affords people the opportunity to communicate with distant corners of the earth, click on a few web pages and learn about diverse and exotic cultures, send a message to Japan in mere seconds. Within this technology a new science is emerging, and humanity finally receiving the tangible proof that all of us, regardless of flesh tone or religious association, are one culture, united by kindred spirit as much as telephone cable.
     Congruent to that science is art, and with music being the epitome of solidarity, respected musician and producer Bill Laswell has put melody where his rhythms are. Uniting east and west in astounding proficiency, the creation of Tabla Beat Science has left a permanent mark on South Asian electronica. A techno-savvy gathering rooted in organic structure, this creation of Laswell, Zakir Hussain, and Karsh Kale, as well as guests Talvin Singh, Trilok Gurtu, and Gigi, is bringing the sounds of classical electronica to a brave new world.
     Returning after its 2000 release Tala Matrix, the new double-live album, Live in San Francisco August 2001 (Axiom/Palm Pictures) is a two-hour surreal journey through musical forms balanced between east and west, old and new, in congruent mastery. One wonders how these distinct genres ever survived apart; one is gladdened by the fact they’ve finally met.
     “The idea of Tabla Beat Science was to juxtapose the classical style of playing with repetitive electronic music, which in some cases has the same tempo and syncopation,” Laswell says of the project. “If you look at tempo and syncopation and the sheer repetition of it there is already a relationship. We’re fortunate to have a situation where we have a couple of the master musicians involved and not just sampling and incorporating, but actually interacting.”
     The result of that interaction is sheer auditory bliss. A low, roving bass line underlies the sudden explosion of tablas, the only instrument with the ability to keep rhythm and melody at the same time. Add on top of that Karsh’s drum kit, keyboardist Fabian Alsultany’s vibes, and Ethiopian singer Gigi’s dynamic vocals, and you have a world of sounds meeting on common ground.
     “I think I’m adding my two bits into what the cultural history of America will be in the future,” says Zakir Hussain. “America will be a unique place because it’s going to have a concoction of so many different cultures coming together. What we’re doing is just adding, and that’s going to define what America’s going to be.”
One definition the troupe may not agree with, however, is the term "fusion."          
     Terming this a marketing gimmick devised by record companies searching for a bin in which to place eclectic genres, Hussain believes the idea is to lead the listener astray from the actual relationship between musicians. Elements of individual resources lend potency to any project, and this particular sound is a meeting of sacred minds. This open-minded dynamic affords the musicians the opportunity to create without bias, an ideal that may send purists into fury and fans into ecstatic dance.
     “I never see dangers of classical tradition because I don’t come from a tradition,” Laswell admits. “I don’t have a problem because I don’t have a culture, and I don’t have a school that taught me that this is how it is. I just mutate and destroy things and make a mess and people either like it or they don’t. My culture is on the other side, it hasn’t even happened yet.”
     Laswell knows reconstruction well, having completely altered and modernized classics by Bo