"I asked for turntables, but they gave me tablas," joked Talvin Singh as he seated himself inside a semicircle of Indian drums Monday at the El Rey Theatre. And if some in the crowd were expecting a techno DJ set from the London-born leader of England's globally conscious "Asian Underground" movement, they were ultimately delighted to see him revisit his roots as a tabla prodigy.
The evening began with a screening of "Drum + Space," a 50-minute video "diary" of a trip to the south Indian region of Keraia, known for its rich and distinctive drumming traditions. A colorful travelogue powered by Singh's passion for percussion and his quirky humor, the film provided insights into his perspective as someone who in England is often seen as Indian, while in India--where he has visited and studied since childhood--he is viewed as English. At one point he said, "I don't want to play in a rock band where you can't hear my tabla--I'm just in the corner like a stick of incense."
Following the film, he played out that assertiveness with his solo tabla demonstration. Accompanied by nature-image videos and taped drones, Singh offered a series of styles from melodic minimalism to Indian classical to funky beats that would have fit in at a rave. At its least it was an impressive clinic of techniques, and at its most it was like hearing his heartbeat turned into music. Turntables or tablas--it's all the same in Singh's hands.