New Monsoon’s Musical Odyssey
Now that the jamband army has had a decade to solidify and then diversify, every few years there’s a general changing of the guard. Certainly, though rarely, a new band may bring with it the arrival of a new sub-genre. More often, but just as imaginatively, new bands come along to gain new ground on the territory that their predecessors first claimed. It is a form of manifest destiny. Take, for example, New Monsoon. Clearly they belong with their peers in the West Coast jamband scene, and clearly they are born from the same movement that recently gave rise to the String Cheese Incident, Garaj Mahal, and various Steve Kimock projects. Yet, like those bands before them, New Monsoon has found their own footing by defining themselves within a larger symphony. And as long as they hold onto that, it will be the spark that ignites their ultimate success.
Central to that spark, that reach for definition, is tabla player Raja. While fans may be familiar with his full legal name, he requested to be referred to only as "Raja" in this article a name given to him by his guru.
Raja joined New Monsoon well after the band’s 1997 formation, but had already become a major part of their sound when they performed a now legendary set at the 2001 High Sierra Music Festival. That performance, viewed as a pivotal moment for New Monsoon, finalized the group’s then evolving line-up and cut their umbilical chord. Since then, New Monsoon has toured relentlessly, gaining momentum that will be further advanced when they perform at this year’s Bonnaroo.
Due to the obscurity of tablas in jamband music, I asked Raja to talk a little bit about the history of the instrument, how it is played, and his own history with it. Not surprisingly, his answers provide the perfect introduction to New Monsoon.
*Benjy: Let’s start with some background of the tablas. What can you tell me about it? *
Raja: So, the history of tablas? Let’s see. Well, percussion instruments similar to the tablas can be seen carved in Indian temples dating back thousands of years, but it is generally agreed that the present form of the tablas became popular in the royal courts across North India around the 17th Century. The tablas are a North Indian classical percussion instrument played with your fingers, sitting on the floor in a cross-legged position. They consist of two tunable drums a larger drum called the bayan, which produces the bass tones, and the dayan or tabla, which produces the higher tones. The dayan can be tuned precisely to specific note. I have two tablas, one tuned to a C and the other to a D. Each stroke has a corresponding syllable that you sing or recite when playing. When combining the syllables, they make phrases, which in-turn makes the composition. So the tablas consist of an entire language that dates back to Sanskrit words. Sounds like Dha, Na, Ghetin, Terakite, etc.
The tablas have an amazing and unique sound that creates both rhythm and melody. They have been noted as probably the most difficult drum to learn in the world! It takes dedication, discipline, and a lot of patience to master these drums it can take many, many years to learn how to execute certain compositions precisely. Normally, the tablas accompany other melodic instruments from India like the sitar, flute, santoor and sarod (Indian banjo).
I myself am classically trained from the man himself Ustad Zakir Hussain the foremost player of tablas today. It is quite an honor to learn from such an excellent teacher. I would like to think that I am of the next generation of tabla players, spreading the sounds of the amazing drum far and wide in my case, playing in a rock band from San Francisco.
In New Monsoon, I do not play the tablas on every song, because it does not fit on every song of ours. So we carefully compose songs specifically with the tablas in mind. If it’s a different, more Latin, kind of song, I will switch it up to the bongos, etc., because it is rare in the jamband scene right now. I think its one of the reasons that people come and see us and enjoy the different music we create. *Benjy: Because it is such a unique instrument, I’m curious as to how you first discovered the tablas and why you decided to learn them. Did it predate, coincide, or follow your initial discovery and/or passion for more popular music? *
Raja: My love for music was there from childhood. Growing up in America, after my father moved to the United States to go to college from India in the late 60s he wanted to integrate with the American culture. And what better way to do that then to listen to the music? So I grew up listening to bands like Santana, Eric Clapton, Rare Earth, Rolling Stones, and so on. It was in high school that I got into Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles and Pink Floyd, as well as Coltrane and Miles just to name a few.
It was also at this time that my folks started appreciating and seeing Indian Classical shows with tablas and sitar and so forth. My mom had brought a CD for me to listen to it was of Zakir Hussain [on tablas] and Shivkumar Sharma (on santoor). I listened and it was during my listening session on headphones that I had an epiphany a revelation that I was to learn tablas from this great man. At that time, tablas and Zakir Hussain were really as foreign as Greek. I mean, I had heard tablas growing up, but usually it was in the "Bollywood" pop format. Well, literally, the next day I discovered who Zakir Hussain was and that he resided in the Bay Area and that he had just begun teaching summer lessons of tablas!
What luck that he would live in the Bay Area of all places! This was the summer after high school. So that’s when it all started for me. I remember hearing [The Beatles’] "Within You, Without You" from Sgt. Peppers shortly after starting my formal training with my guru and realizing that the middle part of the song was a rhythm cycle called JaapTaal 10 beats! *Benjy: Before joining New Monsoon, did you listen to many jambands? *
Raja: As I mentioned, I always loved music growing up but never really music categorized as "jam music." Usually my affinity was for classic rock and for more recent bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Tool, Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, and Primus (saw them back in the day in Berkeley and was the only tabla player in the mosh pit!), not to mention Shakti and all work that Zakir has done tabla beat science, etc.
Other bands that influenced me include: The Police, Rush, U2, Oingo Boingo, Metallica, and Black Sabbath. And The Grateful Dead, but not so much as these other bands (I was not a Deadhead by any means). *Benjy: So how did you initially hook up with New Monsoon? *
Raja: I became a member of New Monsoon by chance. I was part of another Bay Area
band (a prog-rock band back in 97 and 98) and had a job at Pixar Animation Studios.
It was thru a common friend that I worked with, and that Jeff Miller worked with, that basically introduced both of us via the phone. I was invited to go to one of New Monsoon’s rehearsals, and so going strictly on my friend’s word that Jeff was a good guitarist and also based on the fact that I was getting bored with the band I was in, I went. They were also interested in tablas so I thought "why not?" I went and was right away so very impressed at their musicianship. It was all it took. They were all fantastic musicians and all around really good people to be around.
I began moonlighting with New Monsoon around the Bay Area until finally I quit my other band and joined New Monsoon full time. The rest as they say is history.
Benjy: Your latest album, Downstream, is a totally different beast than New Monsoon live. Can you talk a little bit about the differences between the band’s studio approach and the live aesthetic?
Raja: Our studio recording is very different than our live shows yes indeed!
For a record, we don’t jam out a song for 15 minutes. Instead, we have tighter compositions with less improvisation, because the material we want represented on an album is our songwriting ability; with the intent to record "songs" that can potentially be aired on commercial radio. We feel it is important to try and get our music/songs out on the airwaves for people to listen to not necessarily just the jamband community, but the greater masses. Kind of like how great rock music was prevalent back in the day songs from bands like the Allman Bros., Santana, Cream, Zepplein, etc. Radio today is missing a lot of the great music that is out there now. Sure, they still play the classics of yesterday, but there are many excellent bands out there today that don’t get the time of day on the radio that they should. So we want to bridge that gap by consciously recording a four-minute song that someone will listen to on an album (or on the radio) and fall in love with it and want to come and see us live because of it.
Which brings us to the live shows it is here that we do stretch out songs from our albums. On stage, performing live is the right environment to jam out our composed songs. Our fans love it, as do we. Each song on any given night is performed differently depending on how we feel, the energy of the crowd, the atmosphere, etc. Many people ask me how to describe our music and for the longest time it was a really difficult question to answer. But it occurred to me just the other night, after our Harper’s Ferry show in Boston, that New Monsoon’s music is best described as a musical odyssey that takes the listener on a journey which transverses many different genres and styles all interconnected, all familiar to the listener and seamlessly flowing from one song to the next. Okay, so it’s still a little wordy, but in short it is a Musical Odyssey!