tabla rasa

music to clear away illusions, obstacles, desire and doubt

10 years ago, eighteen-year-old Stefan Cihelka guided the stylus of his stereo turntable onto one of his dad's old Ravi Shankar record albums and the course of his life changed forever. Although the recording featured the sitar, it was the tablas which riveted Cihelka. "Instantly a light went on," he says.

For the next year Cihelka became obsessed with the sounds, rhythms and mathematics of the tabla. It took him a few months to find a set of used tablas and a teacher, Satwant Singh, who had been a member of a Vancouver rock band, the Poppy Family, in the sixties. Singh was a talented player in his own right and, most importantly for Cihelka, he was a student of the legendary Ustad Alla Rakha who had played tabla on the old Ravi Shankar recordings.

Tabla music became known in the West during the sixties when Ravi Shankar rose to international fame. They are the drums used in Indian music and often accompany vocals and other instruments such as sitar, veena or sarod. Cihelka explains, "Ninety-five percent of tabla is improvised and five percent is structured. You have a raga, a scale and a time cycle and the rest is up to the creativity of the musician. Much of the practice is repetitive, and sometimes you play the same line overand over for hours."

Cihelka has chosen an unusual path in becoming a tabla player, considering he has spent much of his life in middle-class, suburban Vancouver. He wears a kurta pajama. He is slightly built with red hair and beard. He has about him the intense air of a young ascetic. He spends much of his time in a room full of tablas.

At age nineteen Cihelka got on an airplane bound for Bombay determined to study tabla with Ustad Alla Rakha. He had not called ahead but had an address where he hoped to find the tabla maestro. He landed in Bombay in the middle of the night and the next day nervously went to call on Rakha.

He knocked on the door and wondered how he would be received. Cihelka says, "Looking back, I wonder how I managed to do it. I think there was some destiny involved and I had a very strong feeling that it was the right thing to do. I had spent all my money on a plane ticket to India. I wasn't even sure Ustad Alla Rakha was alive."

Rakha looked at him a little oddly as Cihelka introduced himself and the purpose of his visit. He motioned Cihelka to wait while he disappeared for a few minutes and returned to take the young man to his first lesson. "One of the reasons he probably took me on as a student was because I was crazy enough to show up at his door and introduce myself: 'Hi, I'm from Vancouver.'"

Hardeep Dhaliwal is a freelance journalist in Vancouver, BC. She is a regular contributor to ascent.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life