Tabula Rasā

  •         Artist: Tabula Rasā - Jie-Bing Chen (China), Vishwa Mohan Bhatt (India), Bela Fleck (USA)
  •         Album: Water Lily Acoustics
  •         Country of Origin: China, India, USA
  •         Released: 2016 (2011)
  •         Genre: World Music
  •         Available on:  Spotify, Google Play, Amazon CD/mp3, iTunes,
  •         Recommendation by Varun Badarinath

Tabula Rasa is a Latin phrase that often means “Blank Slate”. The literal English translation means a slate that has been cleaned or erased. I think it was a great title for this international collaboration because it makes the listener drop their reservations, or their preconception about certain genres. I want you to do the same. Who would have thought that an American banjo could blend so well with Classical Indian and Chinese styles?

I first came across Béla Fleck through his appearances with Chris Thile (Nickel Creek/Punch Brothers) and Dave Matthews Band, bringing his not-so-typical Bluegrass/Jazz fusion flair to various acts. He is quite an innovative banjo player, and is quick to adapt with any artist he accompanies. After seeing Bela perform with Chris Thile in Oakland, CA, I had to find more of his music.

I had actually heard of V.M. Bhatt growing up in a household with parents originally from India. Bhatt is a classically trained sitar and veena player who implemented his style onto the Hawaiian Guitar, and eventually created his own instrument; the Mohan Veena – a 20 string Archtop guitar that bring different tones that can’t be achieved on a Sitar or Guitar. V.M. Bhatt has performed with a number of artists all over the world for the past few decades.

Jie-Bing Chen is an erhu player (2 string fiddle) born in Shanghai, China. She actually turned professional at the age of 9 and became a soldier musician in order to comply with the Cultural Revolution’s restrictions. She eventually went to Buffalo, NY to study music theory, and has gone on to perform traditional & contemporary Chinese music, as well as collaborate internationally.

This collaboration album was originally released in 1996, but after going out of print, Tabula Rasa was given a re-issue on its 15th anniversary in 2011. What made this album so easy to get into was that it is an instrumental album, so language is not an issue for the audience. This album struck a chord with me as it brought together my love of folk-bluegrass with Traditional Indian music, which my parents often played when I was growing up.

While Bela Fleck composed most of the songs, three other Indian musicians also contributed to the writing [Ronu Majumdar (flute), Sangeeta Shankar (violin), and Poovalur Sriji (Mridangam South Indian hand drum)]. Fleck’s Bluegrass background adapts so well with the Indian and Chinese, yet none of the artists seem to overpower each other; often, they allow others to bring their talent to the foreground. However, Bela makes sure to bring the traditional American folk song, John Hardy (notably done by Leadbelly), to the album. The rendition is great because it isn’t evidently an American style song, and could easily pass as an Indian folk song.  

A few other tracks to hear include Radha Krsna Lila and Water Gardens. As an instrumental album, it’s perfect for meditation, or getting work done for school/work. At just under 1 hour, the album is certain to fly by, yet still make an impact. As the title implies, don’t bring your reservations when trying something new.

Key tracks: Radha Krsna Lila, Water Gardens, John Hardy

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Editor’s note* We went with the image of Béla Fleck as the cover photo because there are no other photos of Tabula Rasā available on the internet and all recordings found of Tabula Rasā were listed under “Béla Fleck”