“Busboy” is a unique American word used to label those low-skilled workers who clean and set the tables in a restaurant. They are the lowest creatures on the hospitality food chain: bossed around by uppity waiters, scorned by customers and condemned to go home wet and stained with other peoples’ food on their shirts at the end of each shift.  Busboy is not just a word. It’s an experience, perhaps even a rite of passage, that millions of Americans have endured in order to make ends meet.

In 1968, one of the busboys in the Taste of India restaurant in Greenwich Village was an immigrant from what was then known as East Pakistan.  He was in America to complete his education in statistics and like most in his position, the busboy lived cheap and worked for less.  The Taste of India, as fate would have it, was a short walk away from one of New York’s great jazz clubs, the Village Gate, a venue where everyone from Duke Ellington to Jimi Hendrix (and a veritable Who’s Who of American jazz in between) had at one time or another held court.

The Bengali doctoral candidate-cum-busboy had dabbled with the tabla back home, though his father had emphatically disapproved of such foolishness. When his employers decided to entertain guests with some Indian music, the lowly clearer-of-tables put his hand up to play the drums.  The pay was great, $16 a night and the music seemed to be appreciated by the clientele. There was one English vegetarian in particular, a bit of a regular, who seemed especially fascinated.   Every so often he would ask the tabla player if he could join in.  A space was made on the carpeted platform and over several months the Englishman jammed repeatedly with the Indians and Pakistanis.

No names were exchanged. He was just that Angrez who played the guitar.  But after about half a year, the guitarist wondered if the tabla player would like to play on a record he was making?

A few days later when the nervous immigrant walked into the studio, the only friendly face he saw was the Englishman’s, who at last  introduced himself. “I’m John McLaughlin,” he said. “What’s your name?”  The tabla player accepted John’s outstretched hand and replied, “Badal Roy.”

For the next few hours he played his drums, feeling a bit shy, as he had never had formal training. But the musicians seemed to like his grooves.  Afterwards he returned to the Taste of India not realising he had helped make  My Goal’s Beyond, one of John McLaughlin’s most admired early albums.  For a short period things returned to routine but that half a day in the studio was about to change the busboy’s life forever.  Today, nearly 50 years after meeting McLaughlin, among the most respected and admired guitarists in the world, Badal Roy is the go-to-man for those who need a groovy and adventurous percussionist in their music.

On the Corner
With Miles Davis

Some weeks after his unwitting contribution to a classic fusion-jazz record, Badal, who was born in Comilla into the home of a Hindu Bengali bureaucrat, was again approached by McLaughlin who informed him that someone named Miles Davis would like to hear him. “He’s playing the Village Gate,” the guitarist said.

Badal and a sitar player enter the Gate at the apportioned hour and day and set up on stage while Davis took a break.  Roy and his colleague played for 10 minutes by which time the trumpet player came by to let them know, “You’re good”.   The next time they met Davis was in a recording studio.  Davis instructed Roy to “start, because I don’t know anything.” With the eyes of curious strangers (who turned out to be none other than Jack DeJohnette and Herbie Hancock) studying him, Roy took a deep breath and massaged the beat from the tabla.  Soon, what sounded to Roy like all hell broke loose.  He couldn’t hear himself play amidst the musical chaos.  Every musician seemed to have gone mad.  Roy hated the music. When the record company sent him a complimentary copy of the album he didn’t unwrap it and forgot about it. The album was On the Corner.

With the Miles From India Ensemble

Inauspicious though his first collaboration with Davis was, it was not his last.  Roy featured on several more of Miles’ albums but only gained a true appreciation of how the trumpeter had helped kickstart his career decades later.  One day his grown son confronted Roy with a compact disc of On the Corner. “You’re playing on this,” he enthused. Father admitted it. Son then informed his father that the record was a huge favourite of the college crowd and was being sampled by DJs.  Roy at last listened to the album for the first time since the unpleasant experience in the studio and loved it.  The album opened “everything” up, he now admitted.

Several years ago Roy played tabla in a concert paying tribute to Miles Davis’ music called Miles from India. In this clip (a reimagining of Ife from On the Corner) Roy opened the proceedings with a wonderful demonstration of his unorthodox style.

Tabla, Nada Drum, Conga Jam
With Muruga

Drummer’s delight!  Roy sahib improvises with American-Greek (and Carnatically-named) percussionist  Muruga.

To My Badal Da
With Amit Chatterjee and Rodrigo G. Pahlen

Badal Roy did receive instruction as a lad from an uncle, though it appears to have been a very casual affair. He has also claimed in some interviews to have received tutelage from none other than Ustad Allah Rakha in the early years after his arrival in New York. Of course, the Ustad’s own flesh and blood Zakir Hussain is probably India’s best known tabla player and a truly great artist. Interestingly, though, it is Badal’s consciously non-classical approach to the tabla that makes his playing so consistently sought after by jazz and fusion-world musicians. As this dreamy sequence led by Uruguayan-Swiss composer, pianist and guitarist, Rodigo G. Pahlen illustrates, Roy’s tabla playing does not merely add an additional richness to the mix but can be the driving force from the opening instant.

Badal Roy Trio

Roy often surrounds himself with not just two but up to six or more tablas all tuned and stretched variously. As some of these videos have shown his habit of playing them is more akin to Latin drumming whereby the drumheads are spanked with an open hand rather than the fingers tapping out intricate rythms. The attraction to Latin-influenced sounds is a consistent aspect of Roy’s career. In addition to his work with Pahlen he spent an extended period drumming with the extraordinary Brazilian guitar duo Duofel.

In the Moment
With Michael Wolff

Though the quality of the camera work here is awful, the clip is worth savouring. Bringing together American pianist Michael Wolff and Badal for an impromptu composition wherein Roy is able to demonstrate all of his skills and heterodoxy and offer inspiration to his companion.