Tabla drum heads are made of fine goatskin. When storing the drums, even if just overnight, the heads should be loosened, because any change in temperature could tighten the skin and cause it to break. I learned this very lesson the hard way years ago. Tabla need to be tuned frequently and carefully.
My first goal is to correctly tune a tabla, so I spent the last week purposefully loosening the drum heads, then getting them back in tune. For tuning the tabla, the smaller of the two drums, a heavy hammer is used to strike wooden pegs which tighten the camel hide straps. For fine adjustments, tapping the hammer directly on the rim is acceptable. After overcoming my reluctance and fear of breaking another hard-to-find tabla head, it was just a matter of practice makes perfect. I have been fortunate that my initial resource for tuning instruction, a YouTube video by a tabla player named John Boswell, has provided me with all the guidance I have needed for tuning. In the video, one can really see/hear how hard one can strike the pegs. This is great for the unsure novice gingerly tapping away. The video’s demonstration shows just how tricky tuning is and how long it can take.
With the tabla sounding better, it was on to the bayan, the larger left hand drum. While the bayan requires less tension in the head, it is harder to tune because it doesn’t have the wooden pegs. Traditionally, the straps are untied, then tightened or slackened to get the necessary pitch. This would certainly be more time consuming and complex to learn. Boswell’s quick solution to this problem was add wooden pegs that, though much thinner than those in the tabla, act in the same way. One trip to the hardware store, my Swiss Army knife saw, and some sandpaper gave me six pegs that, when fitted into position, worked like a charm. Boswell’s other tips for tuning the bayan, like pressing one’s fingertips along the rim for fine tuning, rather than using the hammer, were also helpful.
I am now able to get both drums in tune in about five minutes, (despite what my perfectionist assistant claims below).
My second goal was to determine the pitch, or reference, of my tabla. While the bayan can be adjusted to quite a wide range and still sound in tune, the smaller tabla really just has a one or two note range where it sounds the best. This mostly depends on the width of the drum and a few factors having to do with the skin, which can vary in thickness. I don’t own an electric tuner, so to gauge the tabla’s pitch, I first used my son’s harmonica in the key of C to get my ukulele in tune. I was then able to match the tabla’s pitch on the ukulele. The result…C#.
For the final stage of my project, I want to rehead my long forgotten tabla from years ago and bring it into tune. Kaylan Godden, from Ali Akbar College, has put together an invaluable resource of five YouTube videos which take one through reheading a tabla. This will be quite an undertaking, but it’s now or never.