Following rules: Tabla music comes alive

 If you've heard classical Indian music, you've heard the tabla. The bayan (the larger left-hand drum– makes the "dwoop" sound) and a dayan (the smaller right-hand drum– responsible for the "tiki-tiki") are the respective tibia and fibula of its percussion. Learning to master this pairing is quite a challenge; apprenticeship is exacting and often takes years of devoted practice.

Friday evening, September 6, at Piedmont Virginia Community College, a small crowd gathered at the lakefront V. Earl Dickinson Building for an intimate performance by Sandip Burman and his supporting group, East Meets Jazz. A native of Durgapur, India, Burman began his tabla training at the age of six, eventually earning fame throughout India for his effortless execution of and improvisation on the talas, or traditional rhythmic frameworks.

Legends such as Pandit Ravi Shankar and Pandit Hari Prasad Cahurasia invited the young percussionist to accompany them at concerts. Eventually, Burman's prestige spanned the Pacific and gained him collaborations with Bela Fleck, contributions to soundtracks (Mars Attacks!), and performances at the House of Blues and the Kennedy Center. He's been very busy.

Thank goodness, somebody in Charlottesville made it possible for him to stop by for a breather between all of these concert dates.

A small-framed, wiry man with a full laugh, Burman joked with the audience before settling down between two veteran jazz-fusionists. This accompaniment was ultimately responsible for the unfolding of the raga, or harmonic variations, through the unconventional use of guitar and saxophone, two instruments possibly chosen for their ability to render finer-note gradations.

Over the next 90 minutes, time collapsed into what seemed like "not enough." Although the music was based upon strict structural rules, it remained alive and engaging. Each piece followed exceedingly complicated time signatures, such as 5.25 beats per measure, which, as Burman tried to explain during breaks, could be dissected into smaller sections for virtuosic solos.

The mathematics were eye-crossing, but the endurance required for such mental agility was even more amazing. His fingers thrummed with hummingbird speed and precision, sometimes sounding out beats on the dayan within fractions of a second. The guitar often reminded me of Pat Metheny on Steve Reich's "Point/Counterpoint"-­ minimalist looping patterns of subtly shifting inflections.

The saxophone kept a low profile as well, scrapping the wail for a quieter approach. And it worked. Toward the end of each piece, Burman echoed the musical motif in short bursts; after a series of scaling notes by the grimacing accompanists, he would flawlessly answer with the tabla.

During these times, he smiled with unmistakable joy.