The Art of Kīrtan, Part 2 – Tāla (Rhythm)
Kīrtan rhythm is a little different from the modern idea of rhythm. Arguably the Indian concept of rhythm is more complex and sophisticated than the western, globalized concept, but the biggest and most relevant difference is that our modern concept of rhythm is very rigid while kīrtan rhythm done right should be very elastic.
Classical western music has some sense of elasticity in the tempo and rhythmic pattern, but over the last few decades especially machines have defined the tempo of almost all the music we hear almost all the time – with an unyieldingly rigid uniformity. So we have to make some effort to become fully aware of how rhythm should flex to serve and augment the all-important emotional content of the kīrtan.
Speeding up and Slowing Down
The archetypical kīrtan pattern is to begin very slow, gradually enter normal speed, eventually shift to high-speed, and then dramatically bring it back to a very slow tempo and repeat the cycle indefinitely. So there is a pattern of speeding up and slowing down that takes place gradually over the course of many repetitions of the mahā-mantra.
But there is another “speed-up/slow-down” pattern that is at least equally important, and far less understood by most contemporary people doing kīrtan. It is a pattern which spans only a single mantra, and is particularly exaggerated when the kīrtan overall is in one of it’s very-slow phases. The pattern is that the mantra begins slowly and gradually speeds up after coming to the second half (“Hare Rāma…”), increasing the intensity of acceleration as it comes near the end (“Rāma Rāma”), and then suddenly and dramatically slowing back down at the end (the last “Hare Hare”) so that the next repetition of the mantra again starts slowly.
You’ve heard how the tempo of beats has to flex and bend with the emotion of the kīrtan, speeding up and slowing down. Now let’s talk about the beats themselves. I will show you the two beats used in at least 90% of all Gauḍiya Kīrtan. Each one has three “speeds.”
Here is the abstract theory on beats. They are made of any number of “particles” (mātra), where only specific mātra are not silent.
I should mention that the idea of accentuating the “1” (the first mātra of a beat) is valid and important in Indian rhythm as well as in western. So, when you hit the “1” you would clap a little louder than the other claps in the beat. (or hit the cymbal or drum with more emphasis than for the other parts of the beat).
Here is a video to explain what all the rest of the scribbles actually sound like:
8-Mātra “Three Beat”
This is the most common beat used in nāma-kīrtan, usually referred to as a “three beat” (“tīn-tāl”). It has 8 mantra, three of which are not silent. Count out the mātra, and clap where you come to a mātra that isn’t silent (indicated below with a “+”). Of course, when you get to 8, immediately start over with 1.
That’s the “normal speed” version. You should also use a “half-“ and “double-“ speed version to make your kīrtan more rich and enjoyable to Krishna’s ear, listening from within your heart and from all around as well, from all ears.
The best way to note a double and half version of the above is just to speed up or slow down the rate at which you could the mātra out. But to make it more clear on paper I’ll violate the rules a bit and write it out as if the different speeds change the number of mātra in the beat. A “half-speed” version of the 8-matra 3 beat would stretch it’s three beats out over twice as many mātra. So it would look like this on paper:
And a “double-speed” version of the 8-mātra three beat would squeeze it’s three beats into half as many mātra:
So, start a kīrtan off with the slow half-speed “three beat”, gradually let it accelerate a little bit, then, when it feels right, shift it to the normal-speed “three beat.” Let that accelerate gradually, building enthusiasm. Then, when there is enough gusto, shift into double-speed “three beat.” Let that accelerate for a while and when it gets tiring, or when it otherwise feels right, drop it back down one or two notches to normal or half-speed. That is a nice, expressive structure for a simple nāma-kīrtan.
6-Mātra “Two Beat”
This is the second most important and prevalent beat for gauḍiya-nāma-kīrtan. You will commonly hear it referred to as “two-beat” (“du-tāl”). This one has 6 mātra, with only two not silent.
In half-time this can be written like:
And double time: