Traditional Indian rhythms played on instruments like the tabla, mridangam, dhol, dholak and kanjira employ the use of various rhythmic variations and patterns. The hybrid percussion elements which you hear in many Indian songs make use of Indian and African rhythm patterns supported by elements such as kick, snare, shakers and tambourines.
There are a couple of standard rhythmic cycles (Taal) in Hindustani music. These provide the foundation for the rhythm groove. Bollywood songs are usually based on rhythmic cycles such as Keherwa (4/4), Teen Taal (4/4), Dadra (3/4), Jhap Taal (5/4) and Ek Taal (6/8). If you study these patterns and understand how they are played on a tabla/dholak it will help you identify the tones required for each hit. This will provide the basis for how to go ahead and implement these patterns with samples.
South Indian music employs the use of variations of a fundamental rhythmic cycle called ThriputaTtaalam. This is used in several different ways based on the number of beats in each cycle of the pattern. This creates different time signatures. Some of the commonly used patterns are Chaturashram/Aaditaalam (4/4), trisram (3/4), khandam (5/4), mishram (7/4) and sampoornam (9/4). If you study these patterns and understand how they are played on a mridangam/kanjira it will help you identify the tones required for each hit. This will provide the basis for how to go ahead and implement these patterns with samples.
The key to any Indian rhythm groove is identifying the hits and the tonality associated with a hit. Indian grooves were created on Indian percussion instruments such as tabla, mridangam, etc. These instruments can generate a wide variety of tones and textures depending on the location of the hit on the membrane, the intensity of the hit and the hand movements associated with it. A basic rhythm pattern such as Keherwa should look like a continuous 1/8th pattern, but the accents and the tonality of different hits give it the characteristic groove. This is true for any ethnic percussion groove.
These hits can be accented in different ways using a variety of acoustic and electronic drum kits. Usually, the first hit is emphasised by layering a kick sample. The third (or fifth, depending on the time signature) can be accented by snare or clap. Shakers and hi-hats can fill the gaps and accent the smaller hits. Adding these sounds can make the percussion section sound bigger and more homogeneous.
Once you get a basic idea of how these grooves work, it’s easy to layer the additional elements on top of the main percussion and accent the right hits. Getting a cohesive and balanced sound requires calculated selection of samples and knowledge of mixing. When you layer these elements behind your main percussion groove you can choose to highlight or not to highlight the supporting elements. Depending on that, you can choose the samples for your kick, snare, clap, shakers, tambourines, bells, etc.
A common way of layering your percussions is to have different elements doing different things in the song. For example, shakers can be playing 8th notes (quaver), tambourines playing quarter notes (crotchet), hats playing half notes (minim), bells playing full notes (semibreve), etc. You can also choose whether to place them on the upbeats or downbeats. In the picture below, the red and green MIDI notes represent elements that give the pulse of the song, such as shakers and tambourines. The blue and yellow MIDI notes represent the upbeats and downbeats respectively. Depending on the samples they are mapped to, they will add corresponding accents to the groove.
A lot of the times, layering an Indian rhythmic pattern with kicks and snares isn’t enough to make it sound big. Big orchestral drums are also added in the back to add intensity and weight to the percussion section. Many orchestral drums have tonal hits that blend more easily with the Indian percussion. Alternatively you could use reverb on the backing hits for a smoother blend.
If blending of the support elements with the main percussion groove is a problem, you can change the samples of your supporting elements. If that doesn’t completely do the job, you could try manipulating the samples with EQ, compression, reverb or any other processing based on the tone you are looking for. Make sure to avoid layering too many samples on top of each other. Layer only to the extent that it improves your sound.