“You don’t want to look like a machine when you play, sticking your arms out at odd angles. Yes, you want it to sound right, but you want it to look good too! No, you have to bend your wrist like this! Imagine that you are holding an orange in this hand, now hit the drum!”
Although I am able to pick up some new skills quickly, such as sports or card games, this is definitely not the case with music. In fact, I think that I would put myself in the category of “musically challenged”, some of the indicators of which include being unable to hold any beat for more than ten seconds and having little or no inability to distinguish when a note is out of tune. This comes in sharp contrast to my wife Caity, who not only has a beautiful voice and a great musical ear, but also rocks the jembe and can somehow make clapping sound like music and not just someone following the beat.
For the last two months however, we have been taking classes to play the tabla, one of the most common musical instruments in Egypt, with its beats accompanying most singers and featuring prominently in many orchestras. Egyptians grow up listening to the tabla and many can sit down and play at least one quick rhythm. This is sort of like Americans with the guitar, except our ability to play often only extends to the air guitar! :P
When we decided to take lessons, we went out and bought a used drum off an expat leaving the country. It turned out to be a very used drum and although covered with a beautiful mother-of-pearl design, some of the coating has started to flake off. This is especially comical when a small piece of your drum shoots off across the room when playing a particularly fast rhythm.
I have never seriously taken music lessons before and I quickly found out that even the simplest hits were a lot harder than expected. The tabla has three main ways to strike the drum and all, predictably, are named after the sound they make: the dum reverberates deeply through the drum, the tak is a flat sounding strike right in the center of the drum and the iss is the sharp high sound that comes from hitting the rim of the drum’s face. At first it seemed like it would be easy, but I ended up spending the whole first class endlessly repeating one of the three hits, striving to get the sound and the form just right.
After mastering the first beats, you find out that there are in fact many, many other types of hits, and even multiple ways of making the same sound. This gets confusing quite quickly as few of the new hits get different names and so you end up with three different taks and four different dums. When I try and write down the different rhythms I am then forced to make up my own words for each new hit so that even Caity has to ask me to translate! This must come from the learning style that is not based on sheet music, but instead watching the teacher and then repeating, recording each new rhythm in your head instead of a songbook.
Our teacher, Bassem, was born in a small town but luckily received a music scholarship that allowed him to visit the main town in the region and take lessons in tabla and other instruments. This eventually culminated in a spot in a musical group in Cairo where he was even given the opportunity to teach the tabla abroad in France as part of a music exchange. He is now struggling to make it as a musician in Cairo, a task that is certainly challenging.
With each new rhythm he teaches us, we seem to be moving geographically around Egypt. For example, one is called the felaHi, or peasant’s rhythm, which takes you out of the city and into the fields that run up the Nile valley. Another, the sa’idi, is from the Said region in southern Egypt and brings to mind the more serious turbaned men of that region with their long galabiyya robes. Each rhythm also has its own special introductory beat that announces to all those listening, “get ready, here comes the new rhythm!”
The later classes are thankfully getting easier, as Caity and I slowly learn one simple rhythm after the next. It also becomes clear that there is a significant and humbling gap between my “musically challenged” ability and Caity’s effortless musical grace. After each lesson, I studiously practice every day until the next week’s lesson only to find that Caity, who just warms up a little bit before each new lesson, is miraculously at my newly acquired level!
This has provided a good opportunity for reflection. It seems that the older we get, the fewer completely new skills we attempt to acquire. Having stuck with activities that I am already competent at for the last couple years, I have forgotten how hard it is to learn something from scratch. I am not accustomed to making endless mistakes and working very hard for seemingly little gain. This process of starting anew is a great test for the ego, which certainly does not enjoy the struggle and feeling “bad” or “incompetent” at something.
The best way to deal with this test seems to be laughter, which means I end up laughing a lot in class. Slowly however, the flat hits and off beats sound less like judgment and more like progress. Besides, my Dad always told me that, “a man who can laugh at himself will never cease to be amused.”
Who knows, maybe with enough practice I may eventually be able to hold a beat a beat for more than ten seconds and look like I am holding an orange at the same time.