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A musical match made in bhakti heaven? Tabla maestro Daniel Paul and Seattle-based songstress Gina Salá have set sail on their first road trip together to launch Paul’s latest CD, Tabla Mantra: Songs of Love and Rhythmic Rapture, which features Salá’s vocal prowess on almost every track.  (Jai Uttal, C.C. White, Prajna Vieira, Steve Gorn, and lots more make appearances as well.)  The tour, begun Thanksgiving weekend in Salá’s home ‘hood, takes them straight down the West Coast from Portland, Ore. (Nov. 30) all the way to San Diego (Dec. 16), and back up to San Francisco (Dec. 22).  Nineteen stops in 29 days — whew! 

A Combination With Chemistry

Photo by Julie Dittmar

Both Paul and Salá grew up in musical families, and both have studied Indian classical music extensively.  Paul is best known for his tabla magic but is a classically trained vocalist as well, and this “hidden talent,” as Salá described it, is on display in Tabla Mantra(He plays a pretty mean harmonica too.)  Salá’s deep passion for helping people realize “the power and pleasure in their own unique voices” has led her to teachers worldwide. She is a professional voice coach, Sanskrit tutor, singer (in two dozen languages!), and healer who regularly leads workshops and retreats in India, Mexico and other locales.

Rhythmic Rapture and Vocal Velvet

@ Bhakti Fest 2011 (Photo courtesy of Gina Salá)

Tabla Mantra lives up to its subtitle.  Blending haunting, multi-layered vocal harmonies with soft, melodic instrumentalism driven by Paul’s tabla and punctuated throughout with ripples of tarana — kind of an Indian classical version of scat — the music wraps around you and envelopes you like a lover’s embrace.  It has a dreamy, ethereal, even other-worldly feel, a soundscape where voice and rhythm swirl and rise and fall away to a whisper in a seamless circular interweaving of melody and mantra. 

This is a disc that should really be listened to — not just dropped into the background while you’re doing dishes.  Settle down and experience it.  Let the notes sink in deep.  Chant along with the mantras that ebb and flow like waves through the melodies.  If you don’t get goosebumps, check your pulse.

Tabla Mantra is Paul’s fourth CD, and his second “kirtan album” (the first two discs were instrumental, featuring his tabla tarang — a full set of 16 tabla tuned to different notes of the musical scale).  Here the foundation is kirtan fused with tarana, a particular type of classical Hindustani vocal composition with roots in the mystic poetry and music of ancient Persia.  Tarana is often described as akin to the scat riffs of jazz in its melodic repetition of seed syllables and sacred sounds that, to most of us, sound like nonsense words — albeit highly rhythmic ones.  It has a very distinctive flavor, and crops up again and again throughout the disc, interweaved with layer upon layer of vocal harmonies and mantras, fugue-like.

Tabla Mantra Collaborators

Paul learned tarana from his vocal teacher, the legendary Ali Akbar Khan, the “Emporer of Melody,” to whom the CD is dedicated.  If you’ve seen Daniel Paul play at all, you’ve no doubt heard bits and pieces of his brand of “drum-scat” during sets with Jai Uttal, Shyamdas, The GuruGanesha Band, C.C. White, Salá, or others. 

‘The One I Set Out to Make at 19’

Tabla Mantra has been a long time coming, Paul told The Bhakti Beat.  “Sometimes I jokingly think to myself that this CD is the one that I set out to make when I was 19 and first starting to study Indian classical music,” he said.  “I didn’t know anything about Indian music at the time; I thought I was just going to go study for a month or two and bring it back into my Western music. Nine years later I finally left, and it’s kind of surprising that I never did record this kind of music until now.  I feel like I’ve finally come full circle.”

Gina Salá: Power Vocals

He said he started composing and recording for Tabla Mantra three years ago.  “When I first started writing the material, I knew that I needed to find just the right voice, so in the process I tried a lot of voices.  I recorded a few friends on melody, then I recorded Prajna [Vieira] and C.C. [White], then finally I ran into Gina, and she had just that right Indian inflection and the ability to bring what I had been envisioning all along.”  Salá, he said, “is really the first person I’ve run into who could sing tarana with me… Without her, I think I may never have gotten [this CD] done.”

Master Tablist Meets Master Vocalist

The two met just three years ago at Bhakti Fest in California.  Paul was accompanying Jai Uttal on tabla, as he has for the last 20 years or so.  Salá was there performing for the very first time, even being introduced as “the best kirtan singer you’ve never heard of.”  The seeds for their collaboration were planted during her set, with Paul watching intently from the sidelines,  curious to hear for himself the singer everyone had been buzzing about…

Well, here, see how they tell the story:

 

By Bhakti Fest this past September, they were like old friends.  (I ran into Paul in the Palm Springs airport not once, but twice — before and after Bhakti Fest — where he excitedly filled me in on the collaboration.)  They had played some gigs together in the Northwest. They were recording his CD and beginning work on hers (coming next Spring).  They were planning their West Coast storm tour and a week-long kirtan & yoga retreat in Maui, near his long-time home.  And when Salá took the main stage for what has become a regular rise-and-shine spot on the Bhakti Fest line-up, Paul was right there beside her, surrounded by tabla of every size and shape. 

Here’s a little taste of their tarana magic, from our interview and Bhakti Fest:

 

Links

Listen to & Purchase Tabla Mantra: Songs of Love and Rhythmic Rapture
West Coast Tour Information & Schedule
Daniel & Gina’s Maui Kirtan & Yoga Retreat (Jan. 30-Feb. 5, 2013)
Daniel Paul’s website
Gina Salá’s website

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