The 9 beat cycle (Matta Taal)

Matta taal

by AJ on June 7, 2012

Over the past couple of years, being part of Mid 2 The East, I have learned to appreciate the obvious gradient in music style from India, all the way to Eastern Europe and beyond.

Having listened to Hindustani Classical music for most of my life (disclaimer: I have never professionally learned it), being exposed to some Eastern European music, of the likes of Leb i Sol, Vlatko Stefanovski, was a pleasant surprise. Me and Haris, my good friend and jam buddy in Mid 2 The East had hundreds of hours of discussions on the similarities and differences of his ancestral (Yugolsavian) folk music, and Hindustani Classical music.

Being very interested in precussion, my frame of reference was heavily influenced by the type of beats that were played. As a huge generalization, Hindustani Classical music predominantly follows 16 beat cycles, 8 beat cycles, 6 beat cycles and 7 beat cycles. Jhaptaal (10 beat cycle) is less used, but used (great video featuring one of tabla’s greatest – Alla Rakha – describing the 10 beat taal). In my experiences with Eastern European music, odd meters are very comfortably handled. Not just 7/8 or 5/4, but 9 beat cycles (rare, but known as Matta Taal in Hindustani Classical), 11 beat, 13 beat and even 17 beat cycles! It was a whole new sphere. I remember many years ago, I self taught myself Rupak (7 beat cycle) using the break down (3-2-2). It flowed very naturally, maybe because I had heard it being played before numerous times.

A couple of years ago, Haris challenged me with a 9 beat melody. It was one of the hardest precussion challenges I ever undertook. My trick to being able to improvise on a tabla lies on internalizing the breakup of the beat, sometimes seeking guidance from well established ‘bols’ of a taal. It seems ‘natural’ with a 4-4 break, or 3-3 break up. Even the 3-2-2 or its variants were not a huge challenge. But the 9 beat cycle took a few weeks to internalize. Based on Haris’ melody, the break was done as 2-2-2-3. The next step was to internalize this break down and give the “gur” at the right spots. This was the hardest part. Keeping track of the gur and maintaining speed was a huge challenge. It pretty much took a month to completely get this down. I didn’t have any set taal, but just flowed with that breakdown and started improvising on it.

After many sessions of jamming (including live, on-stage improvisations from both of us), we performed at the Mayur Show at Carnegie Mellon University in 2009. Here is a video of Camel Caravan, original composition by Mid 2 The East in a 9 beat cycle :)


More reflections on a unique view of music to come in the future, hopefully.

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