Badal Roy: Keeping the Groove
India-born tabla player Badal Roy has spent the past four decades playing with some of jazz's greatest giants, including John McLaughlin, Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman. He has been playing with fellow On the Corner alum Michael Henderson, as part of the Miles from India tour. Backstage before a recent concert at the Iridium in New York City, he shared stories of Miles and the musicians who influenced him.
All About Jazz: When did you start playing tabla?
Badal Roy: I never, never really got a proper teacher. My dad said, "Okay, play tabla but you have to go to school. Don't think you're going to play tabla and make your living." So I started when I was around 10 or 12 years old and my uncle taught me. He's still living. He's 99 years old. He started giving the very first lesson, like "na, tin, tun" all these things, you know. Then he started showing me, "Okay, this is the way four goes: TaKaNaTaNaKaTin. This is the way you have to play 'ta.' This is 'na.' This is 'ga.' Both together becomes 'ta.'" That's how we learned the tabla, you know.
AAJ: So you learn the vocals and the rhythms together?
BR: You have to. It's the language of the drum. After you know those soundsto create those sounds in the beginning is really difficult. You have to really hit it correctly otherwise the sound is not going to come.
AAJ: Who are some people that influenced you as a young musician?
BR: In my teenage time, I was a big fan of Elvis Presley. And also I was a big fan of Pat Boone. I did not know who Miles Davis was at that time. I saw Duke Ellington play with his big band. I was still playing tabla and playing with Indian guys and singers. I didn't learn to play tabla classically. If you want to play classically, that's a totally different training. I'm not going to sit and play with a real good classical player because I don't know those classical lines. I knew at one point; I learned from Usted Alla Rakha, Zakir Hussain's father. After I came here [to New York], he became my teacher. When he would be in New York, I'd come to his hotel and get some lessons and then he'd go out on the road again.
Then, here I am working as a busboy and waiter and playing with this guy in a restaurant called A Taste of India downtown, very near The Village Gate. So this guitarist comes in and I never asked his name. Whenever we would take a break, he would say, "Can I play with you?" This is around 1969-70. He was a big-time vegetarian and this went on for six months. I never ever asked his name. Then he says, "Would you like to do an album with me?" I said, "Listen, I can only give you maybe the groove" and he said, "That's enough, you give the groove and I'm happy." Then I go to his record session and I don't know anybody except him. Do you know who this guy is? It's John McLaughlin. My first album was My Goals Beyond (Ryko, 1970).
AAJ: You did it all in one day?
BR: One day, and I played the acoustic side. There is an electric side and an acoustic side. So it was one daythree or four hours of music and it was done.
BR: Now, I've been playing for 40 years, but in the beginning it was hard because the sound of the drums would drown my tabla. That's the biggest thing...but Billy Cobham's such a beautiful person. He's like God. He's like a beautiful, beautiful person. But there's a lot of drummers that I played with that didn't know tabla. They just played loud and they didn't want to hear tabla.
There's a lot of stories I don't want to go into, but it worked out fine. One day while I'm still playing at A Taste of India, John says, "Miles Davis wants you and [sitar player Khalil] Balakrishna." Miles is playing at The Village Gate, we walked [in] with the tabla and sitar and when he took a break we played for ten minutes. He said, "You sounded good!" That was the first time I'd seen Miles, you know. Then one day this gentleman named Teo Macero calls me for On the Corner. I go there and take my position along with John, Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette, and Miles comes in. We're all ready to start, but we don't know what to do. I, of course, don't know what to do. He looks at me and he says, "You start." I don't know anything.
AAJ: That must have been a pretty big moment. What did you do?
BR: Oh God, yeah. And telling me, "you start" with no music. No nothing. So I started my groove. TaKaNaTaNaKaTin and Herbie Hancock looks at me and says, "yeah" and he starts playing with me. Just me and Herbie and we're having fun. I wish we could just play for an hour, just me and Herbie. That could be one fucking album. Maybe someday it's going to happen. So then John and Jack start and it's still so beautiful. Then everybody starts and I'm drowned out. I can't hear myself and I am not enjoying it at all because it's chaos. I'm still grooving but not hearing myself. Not hearing a note after about 15 or 20 minutes and this went on for almost an hour. If you don't hear yourself, how can you enjoy it?
AAJ: The result, though, is transcending. Listening to that album is one of those "wow" moments.
BR: The album came out. I never heard it. I played on Big Fun (Columbia, 1974), Get Up with It (Columbia, 1974) and a lot of others. Life goes by and I played with Pharoah Sanders and Lookout Farm. I joined Ornette Coleman and played with him for 10 or 12 years. I did On the Corner in 1972; 1974 I got married; 1977 my son is born; 1995 my son went to Rutgers for graduate school and he comes [home] with an On the Corner CD. The album is still unopened in my basement. It's still there because that music didn't hit me. He told me the boys and girls from his college were taking autographs from him because I was on the album. Then I said, "Give me that CD." I was in the drawing room and I played it and I sat back and said, "wow." Everything opened up, man.
BR: Absolutely. And then On the Corner came out as a box set. I'm on a bunch of tracks and the tabla sounds so good. Now, I sit down and say, "Thank God, Miles. You made me famous a little bit."
AAJ: You've worked with a number of legendary jazz musicians. What were the major differences working with these dynamic men?
BR: Miles says, "You start." If he liked one groove, he would say, "Keep that groove going. Don't change it." He would want to keep it going, but after 30 seconds I wanted to change it. But with Ornette, he would always want me to change it. Completely different, but I had fun with both of them.
AAJ: In On the Corner, you have these solos where you start a groove then build complex, dynamic rhythms. What goes through your mind during a solo?
BR: I think I'm the only self-taught tabla drummer that doesn't have any classical training. I just feel whatever I feel at that moment, but those classical tabla players, they practice for eight hours a day for fucking 18 years and they want to go and play those lines. With me, it's not that. I want to play something and wait. Let it go. Let it rest. Give me some space.
AAJ: Your solos have such a great dramatic arch to them. You build up tension and let it go.
BR: By doing that, I'm telling a story. That's the main thing. When you write about me, say Badal Roy is telling a story. And I'm checking it out, which drum is giving me a sound I really appreciate at that moment. I go with the groove, and then go free.
Miles Davis, On The Corner (The Complete Sessions) (Legacy, 2007)
Badal Roy/Perry Robinson/Ed Schuller, Raga Roni (Geetika, 2001)
Badal Roy, One in the Pocket (Nomad-Music of the World, 1997)
Ornette Coleman & Prime Time, Tone Dialing (Harmolodic/Verve, 1995)
Nana Vasconcelos/Badal Roy/Mike Richmond/Steve Gorn, Asian Journal (Music of the World, 1981/1983)
David Liebman, Sweet Hands (A&M/Horizon, 1975)
Ale de Vries