Interview with David Courtney

1st interview | 2nd interview | 3rd interview

by T.A. Reddy, MD

image of tabla

David Courtney grew up in Houston, TX in an all American, middle class and totally non-musical family. Indian music first sparked David's interest during his high school days. After all, those were the 60s, the time when Ravi Shanker introduced Indian music to the West and a new cultural revolution was sweeping through the world. At the age of 20, David joined the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, California in 1973 and learned Tabla and Pakhawaj under Ustad Zakir Hussein. Following this, he went to Hyderabad, India in 1976 to further his tabla learning. He learned to read and write Hindi and also a lot of local Hyderabadi slang! While in Hyderabad he studied tabla under the late Ustad Shaik Dawood Khan and married Chandrakantha, who is an accomplished North Indian classical vocal singer.

David and Chandra returned to Houston in 1984 and have since been spreading their knowledge of Indian classical music to students all over the United States. During 1988 David enrolled as an external student at the Greenwich University (International Institute for Advanced Studies) located in Hawaii where he proposed a thesis for Ph.D. on "Computers and Indian Music". He utilized the facilities at Rice University in Houston, TX to complete his Ph.D. in 1990, under the mentorship of Dr. Maricia Herndon.

David and Chandra live in a small home (actually his parents guest-house) in Houston along with their 14 year old son Shamsundar Dawood and 13 year old daughter Veena Krupaand various musical instruments, computers and David's self-made recording studio. His elderly parents Cecil and Jo Ann Courtney live in an adjoining main house.

David is a master in the art of playing tabla and teaching. His students range from as young as six to as old as sixty. I have observed him for several years and concluded that he is a gifted and multi-talented man. He is equally well versed in playing the Dholak and Pakhawaj and I was moved by his piano playing. David has the ability to produce the most melodious rhythmic music on the tabla even while playing a straight theka! I am amazed at his knowledge in the repair of tabla, harmonium. and stringed instruments. I am always flabbergasted by his intellectual knowledge about computers, electronics and science in general. It is always a very humbling experience to enter into discussion with him regarding Indian classical music, some scientific subject, and on odd occasions even medical topics. I often wonder where he finds the time to acquire such a vast spectrum of knowledge while expending enormous amount of time practicing tabla, tinkering with computers, and feeding his addiction of watching late night Sci-fi movies on the TV.

T. A. Reddy M.D.
Midland, TX

David and Chandrakantha Courtney in Midland

Following the 1998 summer music camp in Midland, Texas, T. A. Reddy (TAR) conducted this interview with David R. Courtney (DRC) who was on his way to vacationing in Red River, New Mexico, with his family. This was the first vacation David has taken in the past 15 years!


TAR: David what attracted you to Indian music during the 60s?

DRC: Well, it was about 1968 that I first started to become aware of Indian music. It was during the latter half of that decade that there was a growing interest of Indian culture. The "Nehru Jacket" was in vogue. George Harrison of the Beatles began to learn sitar. In general the young people of the West were now aware that India existed as something other than a subject in their geography class. Although I don't think that I ever really became caught up in the fad mentality, I did become aware that there was something interesting there.

It was about 1970 that things started to really develop. During this period I started to develop a circle of Indian friends. They all went to Rice University and I was in High school. Although most of these guys were graduate students, there wasn't that much difference in our ages; the educational system in the US and India are quite different. They began to look upon me as a younger brother. It was during this period that I began to deepen my understanding of Indian music.

One person in particular had an influence on me. His name was Jayant Kirtane. The zeitgeist of the 1960s was characterized by the rejection of materialism, suspicion of the status quo, and a basic attitude of rebelliousness. Jayant was an absolute embodiment of these qualities and I was able to relate to all of these characteristics. One of his qualities that affected me deeply was his passion for North Indian classical music.

Jayant had an enormous collection of recordings. I must have listened to every one. Since he had studied music as a child, he used to sit me down and tell me all about the rags, the tals, the musical forms, etc. I would have to say that it was during this time that my training was really beginning, although it was totally theoretical.

During this period there was a radio program of Indian classical music; it was called "Evening Rags" and it was aired on KPFT. Jayant was the presenter. I used to accompany him to the station every week. Later I took over the show and I was the host for several months. This gave me an excuse to expand my own collection of recordings.

It was about 1971 that I met another person who had a profound influence on my early life. His name was K. S. Kalsi. He also had a tremendous love for Indian music and he knew how to play a number of instruments. It was from him that I first started to pick up practical training.


TAR: How did you choose Indian percussion music?

DRC: I have to say that it was just luck. During the period that I was developing my passion for Indian music, I would have played anything that I could get. Unfortunately this was the period that India was in the grip of a highly centralized economy. Nothing could be imported or exported without going through a terrible amount of paperwork. Consequently, almost nothing Indian could be purchased in American stores except tons of brassware. Somehow or other I was able to get hold of a pair of tabla. And that was how it started. If I had gotten hold of a sitar during this period things might have turned out differently.


TAR: You have learnt several other disciplines of Indian classical music as well as Western music, and how did that help you with the tabla percussion?

DRC: The performance of tabla requires a tremendous degree of improvisation. When one is accompanying another instrument, there is never any way to tell exactly how things are going to go. I realized this very early and I made a special effort to learn as many instruments, as well as vocal as I could. Although I am not able to perform on these instruments and I certainly cannot sing, it has made me a more effective accompanist. Since I have an idea what is going on in the main artist's mind, it makes it easier to support the particular direction that the performance is going.


TAR: How do you see the future of tabla percussion in India and also in the USA?

DRC: This is a difficult question. Give me a minute while I check my crystal-ball. Let me see . . . I thought I had it here somewhere, oh well, I guess I will have to just wing it.

Anyway, I believe that the tabla is here to stay; however I do not know in what capacity. Presently it is marginalized within the musical environment of the West. That isn't at all bad, the bassoon is marginalized but there is certainly no danger of the bassoon disappearing. I certainly can imagine the tabla existing in its present form for many years to come.

The tabla's present situation isn't bad. It is a ubiquitous sample on keyboards and drum machines. There is also a healthy number of session drummers with a capacity to play some tabla. The large Indian population also means that there is going to be a permanent place for musicians who cater specifically to the "deshi" musical market. But if you ask me if there is going to be a larger penetration into the mainstream musical world, I have to say that I truly do not know. It is possible, but I would hate to hazard aguess.


TAR: What is your opinion regarding tabla in a non-classical role on the fusion music scene?

DRC: In general I am quite pleased. It is a sign that the instrument is not dead, but part of a living, evolving musical form. That is not to say that it is all good. This is a period of tremendous musical experimentation and not all experiments are successful. I have heard much that excites me and strikes me as brilliant. I have also heard some crap. But that is OK. It is only by such experiments that the tradition of tabla continues.


TAR: How did you and Chandra decide to travel to students and teach tabla and vocal, instead of establish a school in one place?

DRC: There are two reasons for this, one personal and one professional. A personal reason is that I love to travel. I enjoy seeing new things and meeting new people. Presently Chandra and myself travel about five months out of the year. The other reason for our traveling involves business. Let me explain.

The majority of people teaching Indian music in this country are amateurs. They have other professions which make it either unnecessary or difficult for them to travel. Music is our only source of income so we have to travel; here is the reason.

Any one place has only a small number of potential students. If we stay in one place we will only be able to teach effectively to students within a 10-20 mile radius. If you take such an area there is only going to be a finite number of people to deal with. In this finite number there is only going to be a small percentage of people who are potential students. If you take how much money that you have to earn to live a middle class existence, and divide it by the number of students you can expect to handle in a given area, then it requires us to charge an unreasonable amount of money in fees.

I do not want to have to charge a large amount for teaching. I remember what it was like to be young and interested in learning, but not have much money. Therefore I wish to charge as little as possible. I also know that there are a lot of people around the US who do not have access to a decent teacher.

Therefore by working nationally instead of locally we are able to benefit the number of people and still charge minimal fees. I think that you will agree that this makes sense, right?


TAR: What is your observation about the enthusiasm amongst students in the USA to learn tabla?

DRC: It is impossible to say. There are as many attitudes as there are people. We always get some kids who are only there because their parents make them. However we also get students with such a burning desire to learn that nothing will stop them. The majority of students are somewhere in between.


TAR: What are the differences in the tabla teaching methods between India and the USA?

DRC: Again it is hard to generalize. First we have to remember that both Indian and American societies are in tremendous flux.

It might be helpful to first paint a picture of the traditional Indian approach to education. Historically, tabla was taught by a system known as Guru-Shishya-Parampara. That is to say that there was an unbroken lineage that existed between a teacher and their disciple, who in turn became a teacher and had his disciple, etc., etc., etc. This was the traditional form of learning tabla for many centuries. It had its advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side it was a very intimate form of training. There was a lot of personal attention which promoted a high standard of musicianship.

Unfortunately it doesn't work today. It is not practical to ask a student to leave their home, family, or profession and to spend 10-20 years playing tabla all day long. If one demands this there will be no students. If there are no students then the entire art form will die within one generation. Of what use is tabla if it exists only in the history books. It is no surprise that musicians in India have changed their approach over the last hundred years in order to accommodate the modern world.

I think that the basic difference between India and the US may be seen in the different attitudes that the musicians have toward this process of accommodation.

Indian teachers have a tendency to deny that they are making accommodations. There is a general presumption that whatever is old is automatically best. Therefore the average music teacher will go through the motions of maintaining the tradition. Such things as guru-ganda ceremonies (the tying of the red thread around the wrist of the disciple to signify apprenticeship) and the constant dwelling upon concepts such as guru-bhai (brothers under the guru) and gharana (traditional schools or lineages of musicians) constantly reinforce the ties with the past.

Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that this is bad, on the contrary it is good; however it tends to deny the changes which have been forced by modern life. For instance there is the system of certification. Throughout India music students go to the local colleges to be examined and awarded diplomas and certificates. It is also common for music teachers to take monthly fees while euphemistically referring to it as "guru-dakshana" (unsolicited gifts to the guru).

There is nothing wrong with making changes in the pedagogic process. Changes are a necessity given the way that Indian society has changed. But I see nothing wrong in acknowledging these changes.

In contrast to the Indian situation, the US is much more open to acknowledging change. (Unfortunately the US sometimes goes the opposite extreme by presuming that anything new is automatically good.) You will find that most teachers in the US tend to structure the pedagogy in a way which is very similar to the western musical training.


TAR. Can you paint a profile a typical and a desirable teacher of tabla in the USA?

DRC: I would hesitate to do so. What may be a good style of teaching for one student may turn out to be wrong for another. In general I would say that a good teacher is one who is able to take the good aspects of the traditional educational approach and work it into a process which is compatible with modern life in the US.


TAR: What are the desirable qualities in a tabla player?

DRC: There are several qualities. Let us presume that the basic training is there and that the basic musical senses (i.e., sense of rhythm, sense of pitch, etc.) are developed. From there I can say that I believe a good tabla player is one who sees the music in the same way as the person that he is accompanying. That is that he (or she) has to sense when to be aggressive and when to be supportive. The tabla player should also know how to make the tempo breath, that is to say how to contract and expand the beats in order to put the life into the music. Finally I think that one should be sensitive to the audience without pandering to the more basic tastes which may be present. In other words "Don't play to the peanut gallery!"


TAR: You have had a broad experience in the Biomedical engineering field and computer sciences and how do you relate that experience to tabla percussion?

DRC: I think that it has given me a more scientific approach to the field. I find that I can constantly invoke physics and psychoacoustics to explain certain things that are going on.


TAR: What are the current projects you are undertaking?

DRC: Presently I am involved in two CDs. One of which is traditional Indian music and the other is fusion. By the time that anyone reads this they will both be out because the release date is coming up in just a few weeks. I am also in the process of developing a video for home instruction of tabla. I also have the second volume of my series of books on tabla which I hope to have out in the next few months.


TAR: I understand that you are a great fan of Sci-Fi movies and have a total collection of Dr. Who TV series. How did you get hooked on this? Have you found any logical connection between tabla percussion and science fiction?

DRC: I don't think that there is any connection between my love of Dr. Who and tabla. It is just a hobby of mine. I originally got into Dr. Who because it was a way that I could connect with my young son. We both enjoyed it for totally different reasons. He was young and was enjoying it simply as Sci-Fi entertainment. I on the other hand was totally turned on by its camp quality. As the years progressed and my collection grew, it reached a point where I just couldn't go out and buy a new tape.

There were only two ways that I could get new tapes. One way was to go to Britain and buy tapes there, then go back to the US and convert it to NTSC (incidentally if you ever wondered what NTSC stands for it is an acronym for Never The Same Color). The other way to get Dr. Who tapes is through the underground. Most people do not know this but there is a vast international underground which deals in unreleased tapes, reconstructed stories, unsanctioned "fan-flicks", etc. This underground has things that even the BBC doesn't have. Now I collect Dr. Who in the same way that one may collect trading cards or butterflies. I enjoy it not because it is easy but because it is hard.


TAR: Do your son Shamsundar Dawood, or daughter Veena Krupa show any interest in the parents occupation?

DRC: Not really. They both learned tabla for a while and they were both doing quite well, but presently they do not have any interest in Indian Music.

Thank you David.

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© 1998 - 2018 David and Chandrakantha Courtney

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