Different drum

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playing the tabla

Mastering the tabla is a lifelong pursuit that Dr Stephan Kantharajah of Dental Sanctuary in Neutral Bay, NSW, is happy to undertake.

“A tabla is a percussion instrument that is predominantly played in the north of India. The famous sitar player, Ravi Shankar, was often accompanied by a tabla player. The tabla has a right- and left-hand drum that is played with fingers rather than sticks or the palm of your hand. The right-hand drum is tuned to the root note of the song being played. The left-hand drum is the bass. The tone of the bass drum changes depending on the pressure placed on the skin.

“My parents are immigrants from Sri Lanka and they wanted me to stay in contact with my cultural roots. I started learning the tabla when I was nine years old. I didn’t enjoy it at the start but once I found an inspirational teacher, I loved it. After Year 12, I lived in India with my teacher for four months each year for eight years. I was travelling around the country, performing music and receiving lessons. Indian instruments don’t use sheet music as Indian music is not written down. It’s all imparted through the spoken word. There’s a very specific language associated with tabla.

“I grew up also loving western jazz music and so I can collaborate with musicians outside of mainstream Indian music. I’ve performed with artists as diverse as James Morrison, Guy Strazz and Double T. Playing the tabla was even the reason I met my wife, Namita. We were both involved with the Indian art scene and I would play the tabla while she danced the Kathak. My corny line is, she used to dance to the beat of my drums, but I’m doing all the dancing now. 

“I still play frequently. Whenever international artists come to Australia to tour, they will usually get me to perform rather than bring a tabla player from India or wherever. I also play with a few covers bands and do a lot of cross-cultural gigs, playing with Western musicians. I believe that dentistry requires a lot of creativity and science to be done well. Being a musician is similar. It nicely balances both sides of my personality. 

“I love that I can comfortably play with any cultural musician and collaborate with those individuals. I’ve met many people who are very one dimensional. All they have is their work. Being a musician allows me to gain wonderful experiences and look at the world differently.

“Collaborating outside the professional space is a joy as it adds colour to my life. Music fills my soul; it’s very important to me.” 

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