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Any time I take the bus these days I notice the unsynchronized wobble of nodding heads, the arrhythmic patter of tapping feet: an outward indication that many of my fellow passengers are locked into private worlds, captive to personal soundtracks.

It’s curious that we so often listen to music as a way to block out the world, since many scientists now believe that music evolved as a way to bring humans together and to help societies function harmoniously. In The Origins of Music, biologist Walter J. Freeman makes the case that “music together with dance have co-evolved biologically and culturally to serve as a technology of social bonding.”

In some cultures, there are no separate words for “dance” and “music”:they are one and the same. That’s always rung true to me, even when swaying and otherwise reacting with my body to classical music, in overbearing concert halls, while feeling the disapproving stares of my neighbours.

I recently produced a series of documentaries about Indian music called The Subcontinental. One of the things that struck me was how much Indian music ties itself to the body with its rhythms. And dance is a big part of Indian music, from folk music like bhangra to the great classical dance traditions like Bharatnatyam, to the modern Bollywood stage.
I’ve long loved Indian music, and one of the reasons is that it always reminds me how much music is of our bodies as well as our minds.

In seeking to understand the origins of music, scientists like Freeman are analyzing the activities of our brains as we sing, dance, play, or listen. (Their fascinating search inspired another documentary series called The Nerve.)

But there are other stories, old stories about the origins of music – perhaps none older than the Hindu story of the dances of Shiva and Parvati.

In this sonic exploration of the origins of rhythm, the great tabla master Ustad Zakir Hussain tells that story.

Image 1: Pietropaolo’s tabla – Image by Paolo Pietropaolo

I think of this piece as a “scored story”, somewhere between traditional audio storytelling, and a musical composition with lyrics. In addition to Ustad Hussain, you’ll hear the voices of filmmaker Deepa Mehta and Bollywood choreographer Shiamak Davar. As well, you’ll hear the sounds of Bollywood movie dance rehearsals led by Shiamak, and the sounds of the very first college-level Bhangra dance course offered in North America, underway right now at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University and taught by Raakhi Sinha (1st from right, in pink, in the linked video).

Taking these words and sounds and adding others they suggest, I’ve attempted to celebrate the importance of dance – and its implication of people moving together – to the origins of music.

Zakir Hussain is widely recognized as the world’s leading tabla virtuoso. In addition to carrying on the tradition of classical tabla in the spirit of his legendary father Ustad Alla Rakha, Hussain has also brought tabla to the world stage, collaborating with musicians from around the world.

Indo-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta‘s film Water (2005) was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Other films include Bollywood/Hollywood, Fire, and Earth.


Shiamak Davar is an award-winning Indian choreographer known for his work in noted Bollywood films like Dil To Pagal Hai. Shiamak also teaches contemporary Indian and Western dance classes both in India and abroad.


Audio Documentary: The Origins of Rhythm


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