Aloke Dutta, the world's foremost solo tabla player, lives in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Studio City.
By far the most important spot in the apartment is the one occupied by the rug on which Dutta practices, composes and teaches. In the 15 years that Dutta has lived there, the rug made a slow circuit around the living room until it settled in its present location in the corner opposite the kitchen. It is a smallish rug, 4 by 6 feet, made of hand-woven red and green wool, slightly faded with age. Dutta bought it for $80 in India back in 1986.
Today, people offer to buy the rug from him for thousands of dollars because of the many famous drummers who have sat on it while taking lessons: Simon Philips of the Who, Danny Carey of Tool, Pat Mastelotto of King Crimson, Mike D of Les Claypool's Fancy Band. Dutta also has hosted a small army of Hollywood session drummers, including Mike Fisher, percussionist for the films Memoirs of a Geisha, Avatar and American Beauty, which featured Dutta's compositions.
The drummers sit cross-legged on the rug while Dutta teaches them how to tap the fingers, or slide the heel of the hand up the skin of the drum to change the pitch. The tabla is an incredibly complex instrument, he explains, one that's been studied by physicists.
The tabla is actually a pair of hand drums, one slightly bigger than the other. The smaller one is roughly the size of a human head; the other is about the size of a pumpkin. Dutta estimates the tabla is approximately 300 years old. Legend has it that the emperor of India was an early fan, though which emperor exactly remains a subject of debate. In any case, it caught on, and it remains the country's most popular drum.
There is no other drum that can produce as many harmonies on a single head. "It sounds like 20 people playing," Dutta says. Tabla beats can sound like rain on a rooftop, or the mournful bellowing of a whale.
Until Dutta, tabla players have mainly been accompanists. As far as he knows, Dutta is the only tabla player who plays it to express an emotion or to tell a story.
He also refuses to jam with anyone. Other percussionists regard this as snobbery, but Dutta regards it as artistic purity. "Solo drum player, it doesn't even exist in the world," he says. "People think the drum is not an independent instrument."