TORONTO TABLA ENSEMBLE at the du Maurier Theatre Centre (231 Queen's Quay East), Friday and Saturday (November 30 and December 1). $18-$25. 416-973-4000.
In the 10 years since Ritesh Das began building beats with his Toronto Tabla Ensemble, he's put the rumbling Indian classical percussion instruments into every possible configuration.
From jamming onstage with the Tea Party to moving through the worlds of jazz, funk, flamenco and club music, Das has been instrumental in expanding the scope of the tabla beyond simple accompaniment, and he knows it.
An air of supreme confidence marks the collaborations on his 11-member ensemble's new Weaving disc. Das's orchestrated tabla encounters with the Arabic vocals of Maza Mezé's Maryem Hassan Tollar and the nimble guitar of Levon Ichkhanian sound utterly natural as the tabla's rolling beat blends effortlessly with the different sounds.
It isn't always successful -- a collaboration with jazz vocalist Rita di Ghent sounds awkward and forced, especially considering what happens on the rest of the disc -- but Das is convinced he's onto something special.
"I could hear this music in a cafe somewhere in the Middle East or in New York," he offers from his Spadina Avenue studio. "You have straight-ahead jazz, you have Middle Eastern jazz, and there are also strictly tabla compositions. It shows how tabla can work with almost all genres of music.
"I've known since I started playing that tabla could do that. It was just a matter of making it happen. I couldn't have done this anywhere other than Toronto.
"There are 200 different communities living here, and you can get anything you want. You don't need to go somewhere else to find a great Middle Eastern singer. We have the best of everything here, so why not take advantage of that?"
He might sound self-assured now about where he's taking the tabla, but it's taken Das the full 10 years of the TTE's existence to get to this point.
All the players in the Ensemble have been studying with Das for at least six years, and the teacher is quick to stress that the group's awesome fluidity and ability to blend with the most unexpected parties -- the Tea Party, for example -- take time, and are still a work-in-progress.
"You have to play tabla for a minimum of five years before you're a good student," Das confirms. "Only after 10 years are you considered a professional. This is a discipline.
"Ten years ago we were just beginning down this path. Technically speaking, though, this is completely different. The guys were not mature enough at the beginning, and neither was I. Now they are ready for almost anything.
"Once you have a good grasp of the discipline, you can collaborate with almost anything," he insists. "It's different from just picking up a guitar. This requires faith and courage and concentration, and for me, we're only in the earliest stages of that."