What sparked your interest in the tabla?
When I was growing up, my older brother used to experiment with it for fun. I really liked it and, despite being exposed to a couple of other instruments, it’s the one I was most attracted to. I stuck with it my whole life. Back in the day, the tabla didn’t have value – I made it valuable. Setrak introduced his name and the name of the tabla to the whole world!
So, the tabla wasn’t as crucial in an Arabic orchestra before you got involved?
Back then, they used the daff instead. Even Oum Kalthoum and Abdel Wahab didn’t use the tabla. When I came around, I explained its importance. Now, the tabla is known as dabet el masrah [the officer or leader of the stage]. I made generations love it.
Your family wasn’t too enthusiastic about your chosen career path at first.
At the beginning they were against me. We’re talking 50 years ago, when people used to have this negative impression of musicians and dancers. In the old mentality, belly dancing was referred to as the ‘dance of the flesh’ – now it’s ‘oriental dance’. People evolved, music evolved.
You’ve worked with nearly all of the icons of Arabic music. Was there one artist you particularly enjoyed performing with?
Probably the Lebanese singer Samira Tawfik. Her songs were full of dance rhythms and they were happy and lively. That gave me room to shine as a percussionist.
Is there an artist you never had the chance to perform with but wish you had?
There isn’t an artist – a true artist – in Lebanon and the entire Arab world, who I haven’t worked with. Who do you want? Abdel Wahab, Oum Kalthoum, Fairuz, Sabah, Farid Al Atrash. I’ve worked with them all. I can say I recorded the percussions for 95 percent of the great Arabic classics. If I’m missing from a few, it’s because I was sick or travelling. I remember once Farid Al Atrash was recording a song with a replacement because I was in Australia. He didn’t like him so he postponed the recording for a month until Setrak could come join him in the studio.
Any particularly memorable moments on stage?
I remember Said Freiha, the editor of Al Shabaka magazine, came up on stage once while I was performing with Samira Tawfik. He grabbed my hand and said, ‘from now on I will call you the king of tabla.’ Thank god that I am the king of tabla – I don’t want anything more than that. I don’t want to be an emperor [laughs].
What’s the secret to mastering the tabla?
You need to love it. It’s not a trade – it’s something you do for yourself.
Has anything in Lebanon’s current music scene caught your attention?
There’s no good music in Lebanon anymore. I like the old not the new. And I don’t like all this computer business. Music should come from the soul, not a machine.
Any promising young tabla players, at least?
My son Elian Sarkissian is the best tabla player in the Arab world, and I’m not just saying that as his father. He’s got his own style. He doesn’t copy Setrak. They call his style ‘Elian’. Ask anyone and they will tell you.
Illustration by Berto Martínez.
This article appears in the issue45Buy Now