Published Oct 25, 2009Gurpreet "The Tabla Guy" Chana combines a deep knowledge of Indian classical music and a lifetime of Canadian musical experiences into a unique approach to percussion. He is both a spellbinding solo performer and a consummate collaborator. Raised in Hamilton, now residing in Toronto, Chana's tabla education began at age three. He relates a time-honoured musical starting point, albeit with specific cultural resonance. "I used to bang on pots and pans and my grandfather had the foresight to say 'let's get this kid a tabla.' One day my parents went down to Gerrard St. (in Toronto's Little India), picked up a tabla and cut it down to half the size. I still have it at my parents place." Chana muses that there may have been an ulterior motive: the Sikh community in Hamilton was so small at the time that his grandfather may have been recruiting him to accompany his family's weekly hymnal congregations.
School days brought different influences to bear: "At school we'd be learning Canadian and American folk songs, Christmas carols and all that. I had really cool music teachers. When they found out that I played an instrument that they'd never seen before, they were intrigued. In Christmas assemblies, I'd be the Little Drummer Boy. This is what I grew up with ― I wasn't calling it fusion at the time."
Chana's education got serious around the age of 11 when he started studying with Professor Parshotan Singh. Chana learned proper technique and started to fully appreciate the demands of Indian classical music. At the same time, he was learning Western classical violin in school, and jammed with his friends' rock bands in their garages.
Since then, Chana has opened his musical horizons wide. He has played innumerable world music festivals, community events and even a Toronto Raptors halftime show ("so much echo"). Most notably, he participates in two popular monthly club events: Luv To Bhang, a Bhangra-themed event, and Tabla CO-Lab, a summit of musicians from wildly different backgrounds cemented by booming beats.
Any collaborative effort leads back to the capabilities of the tabla. "My approach to collaborating is to always find the tonic of the composition that I'm playing to," Chana explains. "The typical set up is one bass drum and one treble drum. Because [the bass drum] has such a low frequency, tuning is less critical. But the higher treble really cuts through [the mix] so tuning is extremely critical. Generally speaking, I bring several [tabla] with me depending on what's required."
Collaborations have also led Chana to explore other percussion such as the djembe, congas, dhol, zarb, dumbeks, and daf. Without a doubt, though, his most unusual instrument is the hang, which looks like two bundt cake moulds fused together to sound like a steel drum with a subwoofer. Everything about the hang is totally freaky. Only about 6000 of these handmade instruments exist, including one used by 2008 Mercury Prize nominees the Portico Quartet. "The turtle shell [top] side has the notes on it, and the bottom [bass] has its ancestry with the African udu, or the South Indian drum called the ghatam ― both of those were traditionally clay drums," explains Chana. "The rimshots are metallic with a rubbery gasket, which isolates [each side] from vibrating against each other while still maintaining their pure sounds."
He fondly recalls his introduction to the instrument. "In 2003, I was playing a world music festival in Quebec City. [Cellist] Jorane's drummer/percussionist and I were hanging out every night at the hotel, jamming with the musicians from this festival. On the last night he whips out this metal UFO and says 'play.' The second I hit it I was blown away. Maybe coming from a tabla background, where melody is so important, to have an instrument that plays rhythm and melody was a dream come true. He sat on one side and I sat on the other, and we just played. Every so often we would cross into each other's area ― it was like the Matrix!"
Surprisingly, despite his international renown and local popularity, Chana has yet to bring all his musical knowledge together into a fully-fledged album, but that's coming next year. "It's not just about the tabla and the hang," he says. "I'm also bringing melodic instruments like the harmonium and dilruba, and going back into my training in violin." Until then he'll keep 'hang'ing out all over the musical map, absorbing all the bad puns thrown his way.