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Circle of Rhythm

Written by Claire Maddocks on February 4, 2009

Tabla luminary Bobby Singh reflects on percussion as a universal force, uniting people and instruments, and his collaboration with incendiary percussion group Circle of Rhythm.

“What we’ve found through our experiments all over the world, no matter where you go, even if you can’t speak the language, if you can play a drum, nine times out of ten someone will say ‘I know what your saying’ or ‘I can respond to what your saying.’ We’ve been in situations where we just walk onto stage and within two minutes you’re having a great time, even if they don’t know what my language is, we can speak through the instruments.”

Bobby plays the Tabla, an unusual, perhaps not an instantly recognizable instrument, originally a north Indian classical drum. “We combine different rhythm from different styles from around the world. I play Indian drums, Ben and Greg play all sorts of different drums, and they have had a different opinion to mine, a different rhythm.”

Recently, Singh has been luring people with meditative beats in gigs over Sydney, including a recent collaboration with blues guitarist Jeff Lang and African Kora player Mamadou Diabate at The Basement, as well as his well known collaborations with one of Sydney’s foremost progressive drummers, Ben Walsh, in Circle of Rhythm and recently, Sydney uber-group The Orkestra of the Underground. Both projects are known for their originality and percussive experimentalism.

“I met Ben when I first arrived in Sydney, doing classical concerts in Australia,” he tells me in his heavy Indian accent. “I was teaching at the time and I asked one of my students if he knew any other good musicians who had the ability to hear what I was trying to play and he told me about Ben’s group, about Pablo Percusso. They were on tour and pretty wild, so I had to look up a DVD of theirs, a documentary and I saw them play this whole show. They were amazing. I met him we just started playing in a rehearsal studio and we talked till five in the morning about rhythm.”

To further people’s understanding of the Tabla and other percussive instruments, Singh and the rhythm boys hold interactive workshops while touring, where the focus is rhythm and clothing is optional.

“Whenever we get a chance to do a work shop we get a really good understanding of people. We try and do workshops where you can actually play rhythms in different styles from around the world. Greg even does a body percussion workshop, people don’t have to bring instruments, its natural, people kind of walk on the spot, playing body percussion.”

In these projects, Singh demonstrates fluently that percussion is the visceral element, there is nothing more immediately resounding than the ancient, tribal patter of his Tabla. The album caresses the listener into a fluid, meditative, almost trance like state of concentration. “People think of drums as percussion instruments, about fifty percent of our instruments are tuned instruments, they’re actually melodic. Greg plays a tuned steel drum with rivets in it and then Ben plays some tuned water bowls and a folk instrument from south India, that’s got strings on it, but you play it with sticks. Melodic or not though all of our instruments have a percussive element to them.”

This combination of percussive and melodic elements creates a denser sound with more integrity. Circle of Rhythm are renowned for complex and challenging time signatures, persistent beats that are difficult to remain consistently tight. The beats of the live shows come across as being instinctive and unconscious. “It’s very natural. I’m an Indian classical musician so I have had time signatures drilled into me since I was a child. Different time signatures are just part of everyday life. It was rare for me, going around the world to find people who couldn’t intuitively pull a rhythm. That really kind of made me go, wow this is amazing.”

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