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Teaching Tabla

Joe Culley
Joe Culley

by David C. Barnett

They are big fans of music, and have an assortment of tastes, although they have little in common when it comes to what they listen to.

VIKASH MODI: I like Classic Rock and more 80s music --- Journey, Rush, Scorpions, AC/DC.

DAVESH MODI: Lady Gaga, Eminem, Lil’ Wayne.

SWETHA KARETI: I’m a really big 90s fan --- Oasis, Nirvana, things like that.

SARATH KARETI: Oh, whatever sounds good to me.

But, all those good-sounding tunes they’ve got packed into their iPods bear little resemblance to the music that they’re focusing on today.

SOUND: tabla drum class playing UP & UNDER

Swetha and Sarath Kareti… Vikash Modi and Davesh Modi are learning the music of their Asian Indian ancestors. You can see the concentration in the students' faces, as they watch the hands of their teacher --- a respected master of the historic Indian drum, known as tabla.

SOUND: Teacher plays the drum and imitates the sound with his voice, as if he is speaking a foreign language. UP & UNDER

But, what’s even more surprising is that they’re learning the music of their heritage… from a white guy, named Joe.

JOE CULLEY: When I was nine-years-old, I saw Ustad Alla Rakha playing with Ravi Shankar at Kent State University. He's a very famous tabla player. When I saw him I was mesmerized.

MUSIC: Musical example UP & UNDER

Joe Culley has been playing tabla himself for about 10 years. This is the sort of music that Swetha’s mother, Gita, listened to when she was growing up. And she admits to having been a bit uncomfortable when Culley first started teaching her daughter.

GITA KARETI: In the beginning, it was strange to see a white person teaching the Eastern music, but once he started teaching the lessons, that kind of went past me.

Joe Culley has that effect on people. He exudes an enthusiastic, boyish charm combined with a serious desire to sow the seeds of respect for this ancient instrument. Sarath says, he makes it fun

SARATH: Adding all the, what Mr. Culley calls "yummies" to the skeleton. That's what Mr. Culley calls them.

When Joe was a teenager, it wasn’t easy finding a tabla teacher, so he settled for the closest thing he could find.

SOUND: High school marching band UP & UNDER

He played snare drum in his high school marching band and would go on to play rock, blues and jazz in a number of local groups, before coming full circle back to the music that first inspired him.

SOUND: SNEAK UNDER the sound of the tabla drumming lesson

Culley finally found a local tabla teacher who showed him the basics, and he has since sat at the feet a number of Indian drum masters, absorbing their techniques, which he now passes on to a younger generation, reconnecting them with the culture of their parents. And sometimes, that's a little strange for him.

JOE CULLEY: It's very weird. They touch my feet and they call me "Joe Ji", you know? It's very flattering, but at the same time it's like, "No, no, no! I'm just your teacher of this art form."

It’s an art form that has a much deeper meaning for Joe Culley

[Joe tells the story about finding the original program to the Kent State concert he attended as a child. It now has an added personal resonance, because it was found among the items salvaged from a house fire that destroyed his childhood home. He also lost his mother in that fire]

Gita Kareti says, at first, trying to get the kids to go for Indian drum lessons was a hard sell.

GITA KARETI: Because, they say, "Oh, Indian music, oh my god, who wants to learn?" And I said, "Well, Joe, who doesn't even come from India, is learning. And he's been doing it for a long, long time. So, what's stopping you?"

Her daughter Swetha says she's learning to navigate the multiple cultural identities that are just part of her life.

SWETHA KARETI: I mean, we all try to fit into the situation we're put into. But, I have come to accept the fact that India's culture and traditions have been around for thousands of years, and we need to have certain respect.

Vikash Modi says he’s not about to drop AC/DC from his playlist, but he's now been infected with Joe Culley's enthusiasm for Indian music. In every community, there are “living links”, to the past. And sometimes, they emerge from the most improbable places.

VIKASH MODI: It's really cool and you kind of --- you kind of learn your culture.


David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.