Construction & Playing

The tabla is actually a pair of two small kettle drums, called dayan (or tabla) and bayan. Dayan and bayan both have a shell which is closed at the bottom. The open top is covered by multi-layered goatskin. The skins are tightened by thick rawhide straps. A black paste made of rice flour and iron filings (shiyai), giving a defined pitch to these instruments, is applied onto the skin in several layers.

The bayan's shell has a bulbous shape and is usually made of chromium-plated copper. More weight indicates a higher quality. Common diameters are around 9 inches.

Dayans are usually made of various heavy Indian timbers. Shishum (Indian rose wood) and mahogany are two of the most common and best timbers. The shell is hollowed out roughly down to the centre. Between shell and tightening straps, wooden wedges are tucked in for tuning, permitting the dayan to be tuned very precisely to a definete pitch. Skin diameters between 5 and 6 inches are common. The smaller the diameter, the higher the dayan can be tuned and vice versa. The standard size is 5 1/4 to 5 1/2 inches which can be easily tuned to the key of c. Bigger or smaller dayans are often used to play together with particularly high or low melody instruments.

Tabla skins are wear and tear parts, which have to be substituted from time to time depending on strain. More often than not, an old, worn out instrument can be revived by means of new skins if the shell is of good quality. The changing of skins should, however, be carried out by an experienced professional.

For playing, both instruments are placed next to each other on the floor. They are held in position by a ring for each drum. The dayan's pitch can not be changed during playing and therefore has to be tuned very accurately to the tonic of the music before starting to play. Tuning is done with a small hammer, adjusting the tension of the straps and the outer rim of the skin with careful strokes. The bayan's pitch is continuously modulated during playing and it often does not have any tuning wedges. Therefore it usually just tuned to have even tension around the whole skin. Proper tuning of the tabla requires a lot of practice and a good ear. It is essential to getting a good sound on the tabla.

The dayan is played with a differentiated use of every single finger and permits an immense abundance of the most different acoustic colours and shadings. The bayan is generally struck alternately with the index and middle finger of the left hand or with the flat hand. The wrist rests on the bayan's skin most of the time while playing and modulates the pitch by exerting pressure. The combination of both instruments gives an enormous and unique range of musical possibilities.