There’s a Tala for Every Moment in Life: Canadian Rhythmist Ed Hanley

"We measure our lives in the tala of the year. Your childhood a peshkar, teenage years the kaidas. University, maybe relas. Starting a family, gats. The older years, the poetry of parans and chakradars. And we all have a giant final chakradar tihai coming. Which will begin the next cycle - Ed Hanley, Canadian Tabla artiste.

Ed Hanley’s lockdown project Mushroom is a brilliant video on Indian rhythm, shown through the eyes of a Candian artist who has visited Indian nine times and has learnt from both Carnatic and Hindustani masters.

At a time when the art world is under pressure to reinvent itself, Ed shows how being a multi-dimensional artist (creator, performer, producer, cinematographer, recording engineer, video editor, photographer, blogger, and tabla player) can help cope with changing times.

Take for instance his photo and video feature - Dibrugarh-Kanyakumari Vivek Express timelapse  -https://vimeo.com/155218649. Ed had bought a one-way ticket to ride in the longest train in India, the Kanyakumari Express. He writes: "Indian Railways train #15906, the Dibrugarh-Kanyakumari Vivek Express, travels 4,273km as it winds its way from the north-eastern corner of Assam to the southernmost tip of mainland India, an 85-hour journey which gives it the prestigious title of the longest train in India, by both time and distance." And he was the only passenger who was travelling the whole distance from start to finish.

“The romance of train travel is legendary, and while I think 85 hours might possibly be a tad long for a first date, the experience of Indian railways train #15906 definitely has its moments. I watched the three sunsets from the train door (where I spent an inordinate amount of time drinking tea and taking photos), and none failed to impress. Deep sleep eluded me for the duration in the cacophony of doppler horns, rattles and snores, so I was unfailingly at the door waiting for the sun to make her appearance each morning (the train travels so far south that the 3rd sunrise is 42 minutes later than the first).”

In his video, train tracks move rhythmically, merging and diverging just like the sounds of Indian music, at times energetic, at times mellow. As many of his videos feature Indian trains, I ask him what kind of music he would give for a film on India under lockdown. “Interesting. Could be very minimalist, or extremely busy, with the music reflecting the ghosts of absent activity,” says Ed. His lockdown film is available at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/mushroomfilm

Asked what he likes capturing about India on film, Ed says, “India is extremely vibrant and can be intense. I definitely have an outsider's eye, and get fascinated by things that maybe an insider wouldn't. I have captured sounds, photos and videos across the country, and am constantly drawing on inspirations from all those elements in my work. My work with the Sambhavna Clinic in Bhopal got me into documentary photography, and I took a documentary photography class at Ryerson University to prepare for a storytelling trip: https://edhanley.atavist.com/community-health-in-bhopal

As a tabla player, Ed has learned from some of the world’s leading artists, during 9 trips to India (Kolkata, Chennai, Pune) as well as in San Francisco and Toronto. He is honoured to have received training from master teachers Swapan Chaudhuri, Trichy Sankaran and Suresh Talwalkar.

His earliest memories of Indian music are listening to a compilation cassette tape by sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar. “It was classical on one side, fusion with Japanese musicians on the other. I was more fascinated with the tabla, even though a friend recommended I listen to sitar because of how I was playing guitar at the time.”
Ed was a self-taught musician and spent a couple years studying classical guitar irregularly, “but that is the extent of my western music training. I don't read western music well at all, and prefer to learn by ear,” just like Indian musicians do.

After studying tabla for about nine years in Toronto and a bit in California with Ritesh Das and Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, Ed says he “wanted to study south Indian percussion to understand tala and the mathematics of rhythm better.” He received a Shastri Indo-Canadian scholarship to learn from maestro Karaikudi Mani in Chennai, translating mridangam repertoire onto tabla, and also started learning kanjira from Dr Trichy Sankaran at the same time.

“Teaching styles are very similar, but the forms, language and syntax are very different. Tabla has longer tones on both drums, which lends itself to a different kind of poetry than the more staccato mridangam/kanjira/ghatam. The cycles are also longer in the northern tradition (16 vs 8 (tintal vs adi tala), 12 vs 3 (ektal vs rupaka) etc), and the tempos can be much slower. I enjoy the larger rotations and more gradual development.”

Indian rhythm happened at a time when, he writes in a blog, he was dealing with depression. Indian rhythm is very in the moment. Asked if it helped him focus and giver purpose, he says, “Hmm. Great question. Depression is a complex beast, and entirely unique for each person. My depression partially manifested in a loss of motivation and tremendous self-doubt. I struggled to create during this time, but in retrospect, I was extremely productive, partially because I kept trying to make something that would give me a sense of accomplishment. One thing that I learned during that time is that the act of creation itself is a balm. I will never be entirely satisfied, and a perfectionistic streak can be an impediment to completion, so I constantly asked the question "is it finished?", and as soon as the answer was yes, I stopped working. This results in quite a few 'sketches', but lessons learned and tools developed while sketching have a way of making an appearance in later works. I also developed a lot of video editing tools and skills during this time, making admittedly strange music videos to get my work onto video."

Ed leads a band called Autorickshaw that came out of a collaboration with vocalist Suba Sankaran, daughter of Dr Trichy Sankaran, creating music for contemporary Bharatanatyam dancer Natasha Bakht. “We made a piece called Kapi-Wallah (referring to both the raga, and the copious amounts of caffeine consumed during creation), which led to another commission, and a demo CD. We needed a name for the CD, and one of the first entries in the Lonely Plant guide to India was 'Autorickshaw', which seemed perfect... a mix of the traditional rickshaw, with a more contemporary propulsion system.”

Kapi-Wallah: https://autorickshaw.bandcamp.com/track/kapi-wallah

In their band Autorickshaw, they do a mix of Indian and western music, and try to blend them with care. “I think the jazz and pop side can serve as a gateway to the more classical repertoire, and more jazz approaches and instrumentation in very traditional material can be a gateway for the more classically-minded.” https://autorickshaw.bandcamp.com/track/ganamurthy . The band has been nominated for three JUNO Awards (Canadian national music awards) and won the John Lennon Song writing competition for Heavy Traffic. https://autorickshaw.bandcamp.com/track/heavy-traffic

Indian rhythm is mathematical, intellectually challenging but also easily learnt even by children. Ed adds that it is also extremely technically challenging, “and requires constant study, practice and maintenance. The pedagogical system is excellent... learning by ear, with a gradual layering of complexity upon complexity, means it can be absorbed like a language, and enables the 'speaker' to move from reproduction to improvisation quite easily. These days, I find it tough to fit practice time into my schedule, which is occupied with activities that make money (performing, teaching, audio production, video capture and editing of live performances, shooting music videos and dance films and so on).”

Asked how Indian musicians can use technology better to create new music even while holding on to tradition, Ed says that art music will always be more challenging for audiences than popular music. “The experience of Indian classical music in particular benefits from a certain amount of understanding of what's going on....what raga, what tala, the lyrics etc. The traditions are alive and well, however, and concerts around the world, by both established maestros and younger practitioners, draw large enthusiastic audiences. I would really like to see a contemporary Dhrupad project. It's possible it already exists, and I haven't seen it yet.”