top of page

Guest Blog Series #3: Shawn Mativetsky

Talking Tabla

A guest blog post by Shawn Mativetsky

I'd like to start off by thanking Gina for inviting me to write this guest post for her blog! I'm a tabla player and percussionist, based in Montreal, Canada. I enjoy playing tabla in both traditional and contemporary contexts, and exploring various cross-cultural collaborations. I also teach at McGill University, which is where I got to know Gina.

In the Beginning...

Having been born in Canada, I am often asked how I got started with tabla in the first place. It's a long story, but I'll try to keep it short. :)

I started learning the drumset at the age of seven. It was a very serious hobby, and it occupied much of my time. I was playing mostly rock and jazz at first. Growing up, I would jam with my brother, who plays guitar, as well as playing in a number of bands. In high school, I played Western classical percussion and jazz drum set in the concert band and stage band.

In CEGEP (here in Quebec, we have a two-year college called CEGEP, which takes place between high school and university), I heard the tabla for the first time on a recording. I was immediately struck by the amazing sound that the instrument produced. It was like nothing I had heard before. I just had to learn more! I purchased a pair of tabla, but obviously had no idea how to play it. My Western percussion techniques were of no help, and my percussion instructor, though an extremely accomplished Western classical musician, was not able to teach me. However, there was soon a performance of Hindustani music (bansuri and tabla) in town, and he got tickets for me. So, even though he couldn’t teach me tabla, I am very grateful to him for his encouragement in getting me started with the instrument. There at the concert, I met my first teacher, who helped me to get started with the instrument. Unfortunately, while he was able to show me the basics, I was only able to have a handful of lessons with him.

In time, I studied with Bob Becker, who is a world renowned percussionist who lives in Toronto, and who is a senior disciple of my Guru, Pandit Sharda Sahai-ji. From the very beginning, he always told me that I should go see Guruji as soon as I was able, and to study with him. After five years of studying with Bob, I was finally able to travel and study with Guruji. I felt that we clicked immediately. I was of course awestruck by his virtuosity and musicality, but also his personality and teaching style. He was extremely kind and generous. After studying with him intensely for two weeks, I asked him if one day, I could possibly become his disciple. He enthusiastically replied, “sure!” and just a few months later, I traveled to London, where he lived during most of the year, and we did the ganda-bandh. For the following years, until his unfortunate passing in November 2011, I travelled to study with him on average three times per year, for extended periods. It was often London, but of course Benares (Varanasi) as well. Guruji also taught annual summer workshops in North America, and so I also had the chance to study with him in New York, Arizona, Florida, and I was so fortunate that he even came to Montreal twice to teach and to perform.

For more about my background and outlook on things, here's a video interview I did with percussionist Ken Shorley as part of his wonderful Canadian Percussionists series:

What Now?

Over time, the tabla became my principal instrument. As an Indian classical musician, I perform as a tabla soloist, as well as accompanying dance, vocal, and instrumental artists. I also enjoy performing in different cross-cultural settings, such as with Indo-jazz-world group Ragleela, with improvisation trio Of Sound, Mind and Body, and with percussion group Ensemble Duniya.

I have always been a great fan of contemporary music, or new music, as it is often called, and have been commissioning new works for tabla for the past twenty years. This new music for tabla is a great way for me to combine my Indian music and Western music influences, which developed in parallel throughout my musical education. I have since released two solo albums of contemporary tabla music, Payton MacDonald: Works for Tabla, which features six works by American composer Payton MacDonald, and Cycles, which features works by Canadian composers Paul Frehner, Jim Hiscott, Christien Ledroit, Nicole Lizée, and Bruno Paquet. I have also had the pleasure of collaborating with violinist Parmela Attariwala in the Attar Project, releasing the album The Road Ahead, which includes works by Canadian composers Paul Frehner, Christien Ledroit, Nicole Rampersaud, Meiro Stamm, and Andrew Staniland.

There are several challenges in commissioning new music for tabla. The most significant of these is the fact that most composers in the Western tradition do not know the tabla well. This instrument is not part of their training, and they tend to not know much about its history, techniques, or performance practices. When commissioning a composer to write for tabla, I will always spend a great deal of time with them, sharing as much about the tradition as I can, and recommending various readings and music to listen to. One cannot compose simply based on the sounds of the instrument; it's vital to know the bol languange, how the various sounds are played, and how they fit together in an idiomatic way. It's also essential to know about the musical history and performance practice of any instrument before attempting to compose something new and meaningful.

There is also the issue of notation. Though there are notation systems in the Indian tradition, the principal one being the Bhatkande notation system, Indian music is primarily transmitted through oral tradition. In order for the tabla to interact with other instruments in the context of new music, a notation system needed to be devised. After having tried several notation systems over the past 20 years, the best system that I have come across is that which was devised by the American composer, Payton MacDonald. Since MacDonald's initial use of this notation system in 2003, the system has since evolved over the years through our continued collaboration, and my collaborations with other Canadian and American composers. The resulting MacDonald/Mativetsky notation system is the system that I now recommend to all, and it has been adopted by numerous composers around the world. For more information about this notation system, with notated examples, please see:

This new music repertoire for tabla is quite varied. The tabla works extremely well as a solo instrument, or with electronics. It also works quite well in chamber music settings, such as in duet with flute, violin or keyboard instruments, or in trio with flute and marimba, or flute and vibraphone. I also have numerous concertos, with percussion quartet, wind ensemble, and orchestra.

For some examples of repertoire, please see:

When I started commissioning new works for tabla, there was often resistance on the part of composers who may have been intimidated to write music for this highly virtuosic, complex instrument, that already has an extremely rich repertoire and longstanding tradition. Thankfully, more and more composers are opening up to cross-cultural musical collaborations, and are seeking out new, exciting possibilities for new music. I recently completed two one-week residencies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, where I worked closely with composer Jerome Blais and his students; and last year, in collaboration with pianist Xenia Pestova and composer Elizabeth Kelly, students from the University of Nottingham wrote new works for tabla. I have also been working closely with Shastra, an organization run by composers Reena Esmail and Payton MacDonald, whose goal is to bring to light meaningful collaborations between Indian music and the West. This summer will be the second workshop series in which we work with composers to create new works for tabla and percussion quartet. Last summer's workshop involved seven composers, and so seven new works for tabla were created over the course of a couple of months, which is quite amazing.

Of course, I am not the only tabla player involved in these kinds of explorations. More and more tabla players are becoming interested in this cross-cultural new music and are getting involved in composing and performing this repertoire. Recently, I was very happy to see one of my students at McGill University play Jor, one of Payton MacDonald's solo tabla pieces, on her final recital, and one of my private students recently performed Tawnie Olson's Something to Say for tabla and electronics on a couple of recitals.

Here are some listening links:

And some videos:

What's New?

My most recent release is a traditional tabla solo album, Rivers, which is rooted in the traditions of the Benares style of tabla playing. I’ve played on numerous albums, and have released albums of contemporary tabla music, but Rivers is my first Indian classical tabla solo album. This album is really the culmination of all of my years of study and practice, and is my personal tribute to my Guru, Pandit Sharda Sahai-ji, and the Benares gharana of tabla playing.

For those who are curious what the ‘rivers’ references in Rivers are, they are the Saint Lawrence, which is the river of my home city, Montreal, and of course the Ganges, of my adopted home so to speak, Benares. The album cover is actually a montage of two photos, both taken during the winter months. On the left bank, we see a classic view of Benares, and on the right bank, the snow covered shores of the Saint Lawrence. The river in between is a combination of the two rivers. I actually had the idea for the album cover before any music was recorded, and these two photos, I took myself. The imagery of the album cover is very meaningful to me.

What's Next?

As the university teaching semester has now wrapped up, I'm gearing up for my summer activities. This summer, I'm fortunate to have not one, but two tabla workshops! Interested students can study with me in Montreal, Canada from July 2-8 ( or in Arcidosso, Tuscany, Italy from July 25 to August 6 (

I'm very much looking forward to an inspirational summer of teaching and practicing!

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Classic
  • Twitter Classic
  • Google Classic
bottom of page