For this year’s Light Night Leeds, we’re moving over the road from our usual venue, the Howard Assembly Room, for a journey across three continents in rhythm and light, in St Johns Churchyard, Leeds.
One of the leading tabla players of his generation, Shahbaz was joined for the recording of the work by guest artists, Persian percussionist Arian Sadr, and Ivorian master of the djembe, Sidiki Dembele.
Elements of their recorded ensemble piece will be heard jumping from tree to tree, as the patterns of their instruments dance through the Churchyard, and a light installation by Urban Projections responds to the sounds.
“This commission really got me thinking about how I could relate rhythm and tempo to light”, says Shahbaz. “I’ve always perceived rhythm as something that comes off and on, so I jumped at the chance to incorporate it with light in this installation. It also gave me an opportunity to use a number of the different drums that I play: although my main instrument is the tabla, I had other traditional drums which I’d always wanted to incorporate somehow, and I managed that here by recording multiple tracks.
“The dholak is a mostly Punjabi, North Indian folk drum with two heads, and then I have another pair of drums called the pakhavaj, sometimes called the jori. It’s another two-headed drum with a very deep, regal sound”.
Shahbaz’s array of South Asian percussion combines with sounds from two other traditions: the doumbek, an Arabic goblet drum played by Arian Sadr, and the versatile West African djembe, played by Ivorian griot and master percussionist Sidiki Dembele. Both of these Manchester-based artists had worked with Opera North before: Sidiki’s drums were heard as part of Opera North’s 2020 soundwalk As You Are, composed by cellist Abel Selaocoe; and earlier this year Arian spent a week in residency at Opera North as part of the Company’s Resonance programme, developing an ambitious work centring on the vast and evocative tones of another of his instruments, a Persian frame drum called the daf.
“Taal Yatra means ‘journey of rhythm’, a spiritual journey”, explains Shahbaz: “Each player performs solo, and then, slowly, all the drums come together, and we end up with a big crescendo, with all of us playing together.
“I hadn’t planned a structure as such; it was kind of a mystery as to how it was going to sound at the end! Once I got to the studio, I sat with the drums and understood what was required, and that was when it all fell into place.
“In Indian music we measure rhythm in taal, which are repeated cycles. I based the recording on teen taal, a cycle of 16 beats, which is essentially a 4/4 rhythm. If I had said “teen taal” to Sidiki and Arian I don’t think it would have meant much to them, yet they were able to pick up on it straight away, because rhythm is such a universal language.
“I played a lot of traditional tabla repertoire within that, and Sidiki and Aryan drew on their own traditions. We were all on the same page and they contributed to it beautifully: there’s no better way to bring people together than with music!
“I think when the installation takes place and when it all comes together, I think it’s going to be something special, something magical, and I’m really looking forward to the end result. I hope people like it”.
You can experience Taal Yatra in St Johns Churchyard, off New Briggate, from 6.30pm – 10.30pm on Thursday 13 and Friday 14 October. Like all Light Night Leeds events, it’s free of charge, no booking required.