The South Indian

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- 74.95. SALE! $53.95:

30 Minute Online Lesson.
Custom private lesson via Skype or other service. $55. SALE! $44:


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.


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 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: samples of the smaller and higher in pitch of the two drums that comprise the tabla set, referred to individually as the tabla or dayan (meaning "right"), or mix sampled string harmonics with conga.

Right head MIDI map (all channel 10):

D#3/C3 = 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 = second finger on border
syllables: lang; both drums: ding, tang
D3 = dampened
syllables: ka, ta

slashes = notes played simultaneously to represent a single stroke   

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, or a mixture of the two.

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

With the rise of virtual samplers, many instrument sounds not included in the General MIDI specification are now readily available. 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.

But Mac and PC users can save many steps using Ancient Rhythms–Future Grooves, a complete collection of groove tracks from the book Ancient Traditions–Future Possibilities. The collection includes tabla samples and a detailed sample map with descriptions of the tabla bols and instructions for re-mapping them. For PC's, there's a link to a free VSTi sampler plug-in and a patch bank file mapping the notes to tabla and Latin percussion samples. For Mac's, there is a GarageBand file that features all of the mridangam compositions included in Ancient Rhythms – Future Grooves remapped to seven of the included tabla samples mixed with GarageBand Latin percussion instruments.

Further 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 $53.95 (SALE! Normally $74.95): Add 1 to Cart. Buy 1 Now.

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