John Churchville knew he was a drummer before he ever touched the instrument.
Growing up in Marquette, in the Upper Peninsula, Churchville attended Northern Michigan University basketball games with his parents. But it wasn’t the teams, but the band, that drew his eyes and ears. “I was attracted to the power and energy that came from the drums,” he remembers.
Lots of young kids fall in love with drums, but Churchville’s passion had staying power. He took lessons and in high school started banging away in local rock and blues bands. Then, for a class assignment, he watched a video of the famous 1967 Monterey Pop festival. That concert marked the first American appearance of Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar, whose performance was propelled by Usted Allah Rakha’s explosive playing on the tabla hand drums.
Churchville was mesmerized. “Once I found the tabla, it totally took over,” he says. “It took over my practice time, my study time, and eventually my performance time.”
The tabla is a pair of joined drums–the small dayan, made of wood, and the larger metal bayan. Sitting cross-legged on the ground, the player uses a variety of finger strokes, often pressing a wrist on the bayan’s skin drumhead to modulate the sound.
Churchville, thirty-five, calls the tabla “the most technically demanding instrument I have ever tried to learn.” At the prestigious California Institute of the Arts, he learned to play on a set borrowed from world percussionist John Bergamo; their practice sessions sometimes went far into the evening. Churchville’s most influential teacher, though, was the great tabla player Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, now director of CalArts’ world music program.
Chaudhuri’s lessons went beyond playing the instrument to the rhythmic theory behind the tabla, Indian music, and Indian culture in general. Even so, it took three years of intense study before Churchville felt confident enough to perform in student recitals, and another two years before he performed in front of general audiences.
Churchville and his wife, Jody, also a Michigan native, moved to Ann Arbor six years ago; they have two young children. In addition to working as music director of Go Like the Wind! Montessori school, Churchville leads the classical Indian music group Sumkali. Named for two tabla drumbeats, it plays at festivals, cultural gatherings, and other venues.
At Sumkali’s monthly Indian music night at the Crazy Wisdom Tea Room, Churchville, a slim six feet three inches, with dark hair and a beard, sits on the floor with five other musicians. For two hours, they make an ancient and mystical sounding music that feels to a listener like a slow boat ride down the Ganges River–which is, in fact, the subject of one of their songs.
Churchville’s fingers fly over his drums with amazing speed and dexterity. With the fingertips of his right hand he hits the small dayan in different spots, creating high- or medium-pitched notes that come in flurries of resonant pops. With his left hand he coaxes low rumbling noises out of the bayan. He makes it look easy, but each hand has its own rhythms, and each drum is played with a large variety of finger strokes, depending on the sound a player is seeking.
In addition to his day job, Churchville teaches percussion to private students. Clients’ ages and backgrounds vary greatly. One student was a billionaire philanthropist, who explained that he wanted to learn how to be “free” on his bongos; another was a high school student preparing to audition for MSU’s percussion program. In one poignant instance, a man with a closed-head injury took lessons to learn to move his paralyzed left arm again.
About half of Churchville’s twenty tabla students are of Indian ancestry. He has traveled to India twice, once to study its music education system and another time to a festival where he had VIP access to “some of the greatest living tabla players.”
Churchville says he has accepted that he can never be a “true” Indian tabla player. But he believes the confidence he gained from his studies has made him a good all-around player. “Indian music, and more specifically tabla drumming, is so vast and can be adapted in so many ways that I do not worry about what I’m unable to do,” he says. He was honored when, after playing for an Indian audience of about 300 at a U-M event, he was approached by an elderly woman who said, “Thank you for dedicating yourself to learning our culture so well.”
This article has been edited since it appeared in the August 2012 Ann Arbor Observer. Jody Churchville’s first name has been corrected, and some personal information has been removed.