Nishalin Pillay: Playing to different beats

With so many genres of music, why limit yourself to playing one of them, with just one specific instrument?
Nishalin Pillay does not.
He plays the tabla, cajon and other drums from around the world. He is a hybrid percussionist who hails from Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal. The city is often referred to as the “Sleepy Hollow” but Nishalin Pillay’s music (and many other wonderful things in the city) proves that it’s anything but that.


​an Indian musical instrument consisting of a pair of small drums that you play with your palms and fingers
(Collins English Dictionary)


Peruvian wooden box used as a drum and played with the hands

2017-12-08 18.45.27If you’re not sure how these sounds come together, take a listen here…

Yes, in a short space of time, Nishalin Pillay’s musical mastery helped him reach the Top 100 of SA’s Got Talent.  And, it’s been a catalyst to do more, make that, play more. Nishalin is busy preparing for his concert this week, which he says will give local audiences a deeper feel of his style of music. I caught up with him to find out more…
Tell me how did your musical journey start – to reach where you are right now?
In April 2016 , after multiple ‘co-incidences’ I played an open mic gig to try it out, just for the fun of it. I’d previously played at ashrams and temples in the traditional styles of tabla playing. But, I had never performed at a music venue where audiences are accustomed to commercial western music.
After this gig , the audience was astonished. 90 percent of the audiences I play to have never heard the tabla and cajon drum, and they want more. So I continued playing there every few weeks. I realised I was addicted. I haven’t stopped ever since. I know I’ve found my niche (which is also what everyone calls me – Nish, short for Nishalin).
As the months went by, more bands and artists asked me to join them for a show. Thus far I’ve headlined at White Mountain Festival, played at Splashy Fen, Michaelhouse Music Festival and East Coast Radio Concert Comedy Craft Festival. I’ve collaborated with over 120 musicians.
SA’s Got Talent – what was that experience like?
SA’s Got Talent was a great learning experience. It taught me how to be comfortable in front of cameras – which were constantly following me around. It also made me realise that I’m not here to compete with anyone, especially with my style of music. Nobody else in the world has the same approach to percussion. Overall, the competition did lead to exposure and more people getting an idea of what I do. DJ Fresh had a long chat to me off camera and gave me some good advice for moving foward in the music
How would you describe your style of music?
Image result for nishalin pillay
My style of music can be described as unorthodox. I’m here as an artist to break down genres, not create new ones. I feel that as a percussionist, I adapt to any style of music. I’ve played with bands that perform Kwaito, Indie-folk, Indie-rock, Psychedelic Blues Rock, Bossa Nova , Latin American just to name a few. Using traditional drums such as the tabla in the above mentioned genres is not seen in South Africa.
What’s been the response from South Africans?
I’ve played in almost all of the cities in SA and the response from audiences is always overwhelming. Initially they’re sceptical when they see all my weird looking drums that they’ve never seen before. But by the end of the set they are usually in awe and on their feet dancing.
Does social media help?
Social media plays a critical role in what I do. Quite a few of my informal videos that I upload to Facebook has several thousands of views each, which leads to more venues/events booking me for gigs. It’s critical for an artist to have somewhat of an online presence.
Nishalin Pillay and Friends – what can people expect at the concert?
For the first time ever, a Nishalin Pillay & Friends’ Concert will be held. It is rare that a show is based around a percussionist. I will be performing with some of SA’s finest up-and-coming musicians in a unique collaboration that you will not find anywhere else in the world. 3 different bands will be featured, each with a different style/genre of music.
Who or what inspires you?
All the drums I play are unorthodox in the genres of music I play them in and yet they work so well together.
Image result for nishalin pillay
I feel as if the SA music industry doesn’t fairly represent the demographics of the country , and I’m here to change that . It’s only limits in our minds that tell us that the tabla doesn’t belong in kwaito or psychedelic blues rock or several other genres that I’ve used it in.
SA has a diverse library of cultures to refer to, to create art and we need to acknowledge that. The beats in most songs I hear that are commercial, too mechanical and lack an organic feel, in my opinion. This inspires me to be the change/s I’d like to see in the industry. More importantly music has allowed me thus far, in my very short career( +- 18 months) to positively influence people, raise money for good causes and make a difference . I want to use my beats to first get the attention of our nation. Thereafter we can discuss issues and talk about how we can improve our communities.
I have to ask – you are a mechanical engineer by profession – a very different world from music? 
I don’t consider myself a mechanical engineer , even though I did study it and graduated last year . Nothing has ever felt more natural to me than being a musician. However, studying engineering gave me several skills that I apply to my music life to solve problems before they even occur.
What’s been your highlight so far?

Image result for pata pata miriam makeba
Picture Source: YouTube

One of the highlights was a free gig I played at a township in Durban. We played township jazz and the audience consisted of 70 French and German exchange students. At the end of the night they were singing and dancing with us, to songs like ‘Pata-Pata’ and other classics. It was then that I realised the power music has, the power to break down all ‘barriers’.

What can the world expect from you in 2018?
In 2018 I will start recording. I haven’t done so yet, intentionally. My first chapter was to engage with live audiences throughout SA and test out what works best and where. So, the next step is to record an EP/album in 2018 and tour other countries.

Nishalin Pillay is yet another amazing South African musician to keep an ear out for in the new year. I’ll certainly be tracking his journey for you, beat by beat….
(All pictures from Nishalin Pillay’s Facebook and Instagram profiles)

Leave a Reply