By Melody Berger for Tom Tom Magazine
Tabla superstar Tina Sugandh’s mother used to lovingly compare her to a tornado. Girl is full of energy and all over the place. She sings, she writes, she drums, she dances, she acts.
Bringing a fun Bollywood campiness to pop music, Tina loves making Indian culture more accessible to a wider audience. She’s had many cool opportunities in her career, including hosting her own Saturday morning TV show about Indian music and a collaboration with Ringo frikkin’ Starr. (There’s a youtube video of her showing the Beatle a thing or two on the tabla. In typical Ringo fashion, he’s a mischievous class clown.) Most recently she starred with her new husband Tarz on the Bravo reality TV show Newlyweds: The First Year which documents the journeys of 4 newly married couples. Spoiler alert: glasses may get thrown. Tina and I had a delightful chat about life, drums, the universe and everything.
Name: Tina Sugandh
Hometown: East Brunswick, New Jersey
Lives in: CA/NY/SC
Past bands: The Sugandh Family
Current Bands: I’m flying solo now!
Fav Venue: HP Pavillion in San Jose
Fav Band: Metallica
Fav Food: Chocolate chip cookie
Tom Tom Magazine: You just had a baby boy like 2 seconds ago, congratulations!
Tina Sugandh: Thank you! One of the plot points on the Bravo TV show was my pregnancy. I had a couple of miscarriages, it was hard to conceive, so the big surprise ending was that I was able to have a baby. So I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone I was pregnant, like I’m talking my Aunts and Uncles.
I could only watch three of the episodes, but I noticed they didn’t focus on you being a musician all that much.
It’s funny, when you’re following a couple for 365 days you can only have so many plot points. But there’s definitely an episode where I play. I was on the cover of BiBi Magazine, which is the biggest Bollywood bridal magazine in the states. We had a release party and I played the tabla while I was singing and they actually put that in the show. I was really happy about that because tabla’s not a common instrument, so it was great to expose it to Bravo viewers. I doubt many of them even knew that a drum as beautiful as the tabla existed.
I imagine that being on the show probably gained you fans who might not have otherwise been exposed to your music. Did you find that to be the case?
Yeah! We live tweeted with every episode, and with the first episode we were able to write everybody back. By like the third episode there were just hundreds of tweets coming in. As far as music goes, a lot of people loved my music video So Good which is my sort of racy song I did with Fat Joe. And Tarz, my husband, arrests me and throws me in a cop car in the video. I’m sure he enjoyed that.A lot of other people were really interested in the video with Ringo Starr where he actually attempted to play the tabla, which is so cool. He’s just amazing. So, I got a lot of questions about that meeting.
Yeah, how did that happen?
I was on the cover of Drum Magazine and Max Weinberg from E street band and Conan O’brien saw it and showed it to Ringo, and also Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics told him about me. So I just got a call from Ringo one day asking if I’d like to come over to his house and sing and play tabla on his album. And I was like, um, I don’t know let me check my schedule, Ringo Starr…
It was really cool. He’s the most humble, gracious, warm and really funny celebrity ever. I mean, just the fact that he would go and attempt to play the tabla knowing that he doesn’t know how to do it. That just shows his confidence and humility. And he’s just so funny. The whole time I was singing on his album I was cracking up. I was like, Ringo, do you want me to sing or do you want me to laugh on your album?
The other thing about that which was incredibly bittersweet was that it happened right after my mom passed away from breast cancer. And my mom raised us on the Beatles. My cousins who all believe in the whole spiritual thing were like ‘You know, your mom set that up. Because she doesn’t know any other drummers.’
Your mom must have been a big musical influence for you. I know you grew up playing in a family band.
We started performing when I was 5 years old, it was the four of us. We would all have our jobs through the week, my mom was a marketing executive and my Dad was a professor. My sister Seema and I would get our straight A’s like good Indian girls. And then on the weekends we would all perform at some big Bollywood bash.
It really bonded us. That’s what we did every weekend. It wasn’t like a money thing or an adoration thing. It was about moving people. It really taught me the right things about music.
How did you start playing tabla?
We were at a show one time when I was around 8 and my Dad had this fever. The next song on our setlist required him to sing and play the dholak, an Indian drum that’s simpler than the tabla. It was a really loud and vigorous song so he had to give it his all. And I was just like, “Daddy, I want to play the drum, you’re not feeling well. You just go in the audience and sing with everybody.” So, I started playing and my Dad just stopped and stared at me like “whoa, have you been waking up at 4 in the morning and privately practicing?” From that day on my parents encouraged me to play tabla. Because tabla is incredibly intricate, there’s a lot of individual finger strength that you need. So I started taking lessons, and at first I just did it because my mom would get a sparkle in her eye every time I played.
And then I fell in love with it. The feeling of freedom with your fingers, the fact that you can control the pace of a song. It’s all you. It took me three years to get the sound right. Whereas the drum set was much easier for me to get a good sound right away. My neighbor had a kit when I was a little kid, and he had been trying to get this one beat down for like 6 months or something. He tried to show it to me, and I was like ‘oh, ok!’ and I did it like it was nothing, and I did it twice as fast as he was doing it. And I’d never touched a drumstick before. He was like, I don’t want to play anymore, and he sold me his drum set that day. I felt horrible, I wasn’t doing it like a show off, I was just being a kid ‘hey, let me try!’
Tabla seems like it’s one of the most complicated instruments and it takes a lifelong devotion to really get it. Do you feel like you’re still on your journey to mastering it or do you feel confident calling yourself an expert now?
I never feel like I’m an expert in anything, there’s always room for improvement. But I can definitely hold my own and I know what I’m doing. There’s a long way to go, but there’s a long way to go in every field. I also don’t spend 10 hours a day practicing the tabla. I sing, I dance, I host, I act, I play the drums, I play guitar, I write my own music. There’s a lot of stuff I like to do and very little time.
And women are not traditionally encouraged to play the tabla, right?
Times have changed a bit now, but especially when I was younger, women were not supposed to play it. It’s a man’s instrument, and that made me want to play it even more.
Zakir Hussain, one of the most famous tabla players in the world, was talking about me at a press conference in India because I was on the cover of a very big Indian magazine (the now defunct Rave Magazine) that’s all about drums. And he was very angry about this, saying does a senior artist have to get “a plastic surgery job” to be on the cover?’ His point being that I’m a girl and it was a very glamorous fashion sort of shot. And not many people are used to seeing tabla like that. I loved it, I was like, great, controversy is great, bring it.
Did he criticize your playing, did he know what you could do? Or did he just look at the picture alone?
I doubt if he even researched it. I have no idea, but if I were to guess I would say he just looked at the picture. Because I’m not amazing or anything, but I can freakin’ play. And that used to be my challenge, especially when I was younger. When I was a little girl I’d get behind the tabla and tune it on stage, and the audience would be like ‘aw, how cute, the little girl is going to tune it for her Daddy!’ Then I’d start to play and they’d be like ‘ooh!’ So I’m pretty sure he just saw the picture and was disdainful of a fashion shoot with a tabla. It’s probably not in his eyes a good thing to do because you should be respectful and take it seriously. And I do… but I don’t think a little glamor hurts.
It seems to be one of your missions to bring Indian folk music and traditions to a wider mainstream audience. Your music combines all these American pop forms with Indian drums, etc.
Oh, absolutely. People definitely know what the tabla sounds like, it’s out there in popular music. Just one example is Missy Elliot’s Get Your Freak On. The tabla is the whole song. People know the sound but they don’t know what the term is. I love when things like that happen where you’re exposed to Indian culture.
Going back for a second to the idea of taking the tabla seriously… I find it really interesting that you embrace the Bollywood campiness angle of the pretty dancing girl thing, but you also have to be really competent at a very difficult instrument that takes hours of dedication and practice. There seem to be a lot of discrepancies… you were a biology major in college and that’s something else that takes a very studious nature. It was just interesting for me to watch the Bravo series and be like, oh, wow, everything is fluffy and there’s a lot of glitter. I was just wondering how you reconcile those extremes.
That’s a very good question. I don’t mean to sound arrogant but there is a lot to take seriously about me. But you’re right, on the reality show where you’re cursing and throwing glitter in the air… it’s sort of like the airhead meets biology major, it makes no sense. But, I am all those people. I am the girl with the Jersey potty mouth and I am the biology major. I love organic chemistry, and I am the glitter-aholic. And also the serious musician, and also I loved doing the sexy So Good video. There’s a part of me that’s racy, and another part of me that’s conservative- I make no sense! I feel like a lot of us are like that, where we stand for contradicting ideas. It’s just the first time where I put it all out there. And you get it, that there’s something behind the fluff that you see, but some people don’t get it. And that’s ok with me. I’m at a place in my life where I realize that people who talk smack do it because they’re insecure or unhappy in their own lives. And I just feel sorry for them. When someone says I look ugly or I’m untalented I just want to give them a hug and say ‘I’m really sorry you’re unhappy!’
Do you feel pressure though? I know a whole lot of female musicians feel pressure to downplay how hard it is, what we do.
You can be the best drummer in the universe, but because you’re a girl and you have this glamorous side there will be people who just don’t take you seriously. And that’s ok! That’s their choice. There are other people who will hear you play and say, wow, she knows her stuff!
I think when I was younger that was when I really felt that pressure to show people, give me a chance, I’m good! Even though I’m not an older man, the stereotypical tabla player.
Cool. Well, moving right along. This issue’s theme is ‘singing drummers’, which obviously you’re perfect for. My limited understanding of tabla is that you learn the instrument by singing certain patterns that correlate to all the different sounds you can make on each drum head. Is that true?
No, not exactly. There are words for each stroke on the drum. So, when you say a sentence, a sentence being a string of the different sounds, almost like Do Re Mi Fa, sometimes when you say the pattern in rhythm it sounds sort of like you’re singing it. But you definitely don’t need to know how to sing or anything like that, and it isn’t necessarily melodious.
When you do sing and play at the same time do you make the drum part a little simpler?
Since I’ve been doing it since I was eight I’m really good at it being second nature. I kind of even forget I’m playing, which is a great feeling to be able to ignore that you’re playing so you can concentrate on singing. But if there’s a difficult fill or something, typically I don’t do those when I’m singing. It’s mainly just holding a pattern.
There’s also a lot of intricate curves that I do with my singing, I love to take pop songs and put Indian curves in there. In Indian music we deal with quarter-tones, like 4 notes in between each whole note. When I sing I love to bend my notes and put those little quarter tones in there. So, those elaborate vocals fills are tough to do if you’re also doing a tabla fill. I try to do one or the other.
Tabla is incredibly difficult and you started as a kid. I have a lot of adults who come to me and ask if it’s even worth trying to learn an instrument later in life. And I always encourage them to do it.
Adults have so many other responsibilities. That’s the only reason I’d say it’d probably be a little more difficult at first. But I think it’s never too late. It’ s more about how much you want it. If you’re sixty years old and you really want to learn the tabla what would stop you? Nothing. So, I don’t think it’s an age thing I think it’s a passion thing.
What’s coming up for you?
My next performance is going to be for Pink Runway, a breast cancer charity. It’s easily the most important performance I do every year. And, of course, Tarz and I are looking forward to working on the show again.
So, would you say being on the show has been a positive experience in general?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny, I just got this article saying that I was one of the top 25 best reality TV characters for 2013 and at first I was like, oh, that’s so cool! But then I was like, wait, that means I’m a freakin’ nutbag! When someone is like, you’re an amazing reality show TV character… it’s not something you want to hear! I just take it as a compliment, but I’m sure it’s not.