The South Indian
Mridangam

Picture of Tabla Head

Cave Hand

Further study on this subject: Ancient Traditions–Future Possibilities:
Rhythmic Training Through the Traditions of Africa, Bali and India.

By Matthew Montfort. Ancient Future Music (1985).
ISBN 0-937879-00-2. Book/CD Set: 69.95. SALE! $52.95:

30 Minute Online Lesson.
Custom private lesson via Skype or other service. $36:

 

The mridangam is a South Indian two-headed barrel drum made of jackwood with goatskin heads. A mixture of manganese dust, boiled rice, and tamarind juice is worked on to the right head of the mridangam in order to increase the pitch of the note. This creates a permanent large black circle in the middle of the drum head. The left head of the mridangam is left bare, but when it is played, a mixture of boiled rice, water and ashes is put in the center. This helps give it its characteristic dull sound.

Solkattu

South Indian drumming has a language all of its own, known as solkattu. For the sounds produced by the mridangam, there are corresponding syllables. These syllables, known as konokol, are combined to form innumerable rhythms. The solkattu language becomes almost inseparable from the drumming, and is also a performance art of in and of itself. A list of konokol syllables can be found in the pronunciation guide to Indian drum syllables.

South Indian Mridangam Solkattu as a MIDI Map

The South Indian rhythm exercises from the book Ancient Traditions–Future Possibilities have been arranged for General MIDI conga and bongo for Internet presentation, as shown in the solkattu composition example. To set up playback on a MIDI synthesizer or sampler instead, use this MIDI map of the sounds of the South Indian drum to map the MIDI data to the appropriate sound. One can also use this map to better understand the drum syllables while listening to the solkattu composition.

Since the solkattu language is almost inseparable from the drumming itself, one might assume that one could assign a MIDI note for each syllable, and then use a mridangam sample of each syllable to play back these solkattu compositions. However, there is considerable flexibility in the system of interpreting the solkattu for the drums. For example, the syllable ta  is used for 11 different strokes. Over the years, the solkattu system has evolved to serve as a structure for many different drums, and so many different interpretations are possible.

The system used here to map the syllables to MIDI notes involved creating an interpretation of the solkattu composition for a Roland U220 tabla (a pair of North Indian drums with goat skin heads) sample tweaked to imitate a mridangam, taking into account considerations such as certain common alternating left/right hand patterns. Some compromise was necessary to arrange the material first for tabla samples and then for General MIDI conga and bongo, but the general feeling of the composition comes through.

The Right Head

The note of the right head is tuned to the tonic. Different harmonics of the head are produced by various finger combinations. The listed syllables are a very rough guide for some possible interpretations.

Suggested substitutions: If mridangam samples are not available, samples of tabla fundamentals and harmonics may be adapted, or try mixing sampled string harmonics with a conga sample.

Right head MIDI map (all channel 10):
 
D#3/C3 together = all fingers on middle of head
syllables: tam, dum (all involve both drums, see left head)
 
D#3 = middle fingers on middle of head
syllables: dhi, ki, mi; both drums: dim
 
C#3 = first finger near spot
syllables: din (both drums)
 
C3 = first finger near edge
syllables: na, ta
 
C3/C#3 together = second finger on border
syllables: lang; both drums: ding, tang
 
D3 = dampened
syllables: ka, ta

The Left Head

The characteristic dull sound of the left head of the mridangam is perhaps easier to simulate with MIDI drum sounds than the right head.

Suggested substitutes: sampled bayan (the low pitch drum of the tabla pair) without any pitch modulation and tweaked to make a very dull sound, sampled conga.

Left head MIDI map (all channel 10):
 
E3 = all fingers
syllables: ta; both drums: na, ta, tam, tang
 
D#3 = middle fingers
syllables: di, ju; both drums: dim, din, ding, dum, gu
 
D3 = dampened
syllables: ri
    

Re-Mapping Suggestions

Using the above information, the MIDI data files can be re-mapped to work with mridangam samples or tabla samples in combination with GM conga and bongo samples. Refer to your sequencer manual for information on MIDI mapping in your particular environment. It is a complicated process, so be prepared to put in a fair amount of time to accomplish this.

However, if your sequencer is one of the growing number that support VSTi (Steinberg's synthesizer instrument plug-in architecture), there is a solution that does not require much work.

LoopAZoid is a free VST drum sampler plug-in. Although it hasn't been updated in quite a while, it allows one to easily map samples to specific MIDI note values, and play these back from within a sequencing environment without a hardware sampler.

Swarsystems.com offers a North and South Indian music tutorial/sequencer/sample playback program for Mac and PC called SwarShala and a VSTi and AU plug-in called SwarPlug that plays Indian instruments from your sequencer. They also offer high quality samples of Indian instruments, including one set of tabla samples that has been made available as the "Tabla.wav" sample set download currently offered free from http://www.swarsystems.com/SwarShala/Cafe/SwarCafeV2.htm. You can purchase full sets of samples of North and South Indian percussion instruments, including sampled mridangam.

This VST mridangam patch bank for LoopAZoid maps the above tabla samples to work with the MIDI files included in the South Indian section of Ancient Rhythms–Future Grooves. There may be slight differences in installation for those using other sequencing programs and samplers, but the basic principles remain the same.

  1. Install LoopAZoid into your VstPlugIns folder.
  2. Copy the Swarsystems.com tabla sample folder into your VstPlugIns folder and name it "tabl-wav Folder" (it will probably already be in a folder by that name on your hard drive after you download it).
  3. Copy the VST mridangam patch bank into the VstPlugIns folder.
  4. Start up your sequencer.
  5. Import one of the South Indian Solkattu MIDI files.
  6. Set the imported tracks to playback on MIDI channel 9.
  7. Select LoopAZoid as a VST instrument (check with your sequencer manual for instructions).
  8. Select "load patch bank" in LoopAZoid, and load the patch bank labeled "tabla" in the VstPlugIns folder.
  9. Set LoopAZoid as the VST playback instrument for the tracks set to MIDI channel 9.
  10. Transpose the left mridangam track up one octave (+12 half steps).
  11. Optional: Import the same MIDI file to a new set of tracks.
  12. Set this copy to play on MIDI channel 10. Do NOT transpose the left mridangam track of this copy up one octave.
  13. Select a GM VST instrument as a second VST instrument (check with your sequencer manual for instructions).
  14. Set this GM VST instrument as the playback instrument for the tracks set to MIDI channel 10.
  15. In the VST instrument mixer, set the GM VST instrument playback at about half of the volume of the LoopAZoid instrument playback.
  16. Play the sequence. Add reverb as desired.

You should now hear the file played as a faux mridangam.

Futher Resources

Ancient Rhythms–Future Grooves

Ancient Rhythms–Future Grooves: Audio and MIDI Percussion Groove Tracks from the Traditions of Africa, Bali, and India. Want more audio and MIDI files? Get this complete collection of groove tracks from the book Ancient Traditions–Future Possibilities. For a limited time, get both the book and the enhanced audio CD set with MIDI files for only $52.95 (SALE! Normally $69.95): Add 1 to Cart. Buy 1 Now.

Skype School

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Further instruction on this material is available through private Skype lessons with the author, Matthew Montfort.