This post is an abbreviated version of a paper delivered at the Indenture Abolition Centenary Conference at the School of Advanced Study on October 6-7, 2017. I thank the editor for the invitation to contribute to the CICR blog.
During my first fieldwork trip to study tassa drumming in the summer 2007, a friend invited me to a wedding in Aranguez, Trinidad. I arrived early on Sunday morning, well before most of the wedding guests, yet the DJ was already playing nostalgic filmi songs while the scent of traditional wedding foods filled the air. Stopping to look, smell, and listen, my friend turned to me, stretching his arms out to take it all in, and said, “Look! It’s India right here in Trinidad!” Yet, only a short time later, the DJ started thumping the latest chutney soca hits. And this was in turn displaced by the ear-splitting, chaotic sound of two opposing tassa drumming bands suggesting that we hadn’t been in India after all. The reverberating music of the tassa above all else signaled to everyone in the neighborhood that the wedding had begun.
In this post, I discuss tassa drumming as a tradition that references India as a place of
origin and Trinidad and Tobago as home. I use musical analysis to show that tassa is more than just a retention of Indian culture, but is a reinvention of such, malleable and responsive to diasporic creativity. It’s in this way that tassa has remained not only relevant for performers and listeners, but has furthermore been cultivated as an icon of Indianness in public discourse.
Trinidadian tassa is an offshoot of the North Indian dhol-tasha drumming tradition. Spread globally by the British indentureship system, vibrant dhol tasha styles have developed in nearly all places where workers settled, especially the Mascarenes, the West Indies, and Fiji. In Trinidad and Tobago, tassa bands are essential for the annual Hosay observance, for portions of the three-day set of Hindu wedding rituals, and for all manner of cultural and national celebrations.
The term “tassa” refers both to the bowl-shaped drum called tassa and to the ensemble within which it plays a central role. There are four musical parts: one lead tassa called the “cutter,” one accompanying tassa called the “foulé,” one large double-headed dhol drum or “bass,” and one set of hand cymbals called jhal or “brass.” The term “hand” refers an individual musical composition comprising a specific form and a distinct composite rhythm. Many common tassa hands are rhythmic distillations from Indian musical sources, some of which have faded from cultural memory while their tassa corollaries have carried on. As new hands have been and continue to be added to the repertoire, this process of adaptation continues while the source material becomes more diverse, influenced by the changing soundscape in diaspora.
Formal structure in tassa music is in part derived from Local Classical Singing, a unique Indian Caribbean genre built upon fragments and elaborations of North Indian devotional, folk, and classical music. Following Local Classical musical structure, all tassa hands feature a loose sectional form, including up to three musical units. Two of these, theka and taal, are always present, while the third, barti, is less common. To understand how these units work in tassa repertoire, it helps to see how they work in Local Classical songs where theka refers to the main part of the song and taal refers to a cadential pattern that marks a shift from theka to the barti, a section with contrasting rhythm if not also meter. The following video clip features an excerpt from the popular bhajan “Jai Jag Janani Bavani” sung by Andrew Sookhoo. I have annotated the video to indicate the use of taal to transition from theka to barti.
The tassa hand called “chaubola” is the most commonly played hand that features the theka/taal/barti structure. The word “chaubola” indeed references a poetic form often used in Local Classical Singing; as such the tassa hand chaubola was likely built upon Local Classical structural elements. In the theka for chaubola, the cutter plays a series of formulaic rhythmic passages followed by a taal that signals a transition to the barti, which leans toward a compound duple meter giving the rhythm a galloping groove. The band playing chaubola in the following clip is Trinidad and Tobago Sweet Tassa founded and directed by Lenny Kumar.
An important takeaway from a comparison of these musical examples is that tassa repertoire has rearticulated the basic formal structure of Local Classical Singing, marginally preserving the song form while adapting it to an all-percussion ensemble. In this way, chaubola is a good example of what drummers call a “classical hand,” a category that rightly suggests a connection with devotional music or Local Classical singing. Another broad category of repertoire includes “breakaway” or dancing hands, which most often lack a barti section and are played at fast tempos.
A common breakaway hand is called calypso, adapted from the African Trinidadian song form by the same name that is a essential Carnival-time musical tradition. The rhythms of calypso hand for tassa are based on rhythms played by the steel orchestra, in its early days an important accompaniment for calypso singing. Calypso hand’s affinity with steel orchestral style is most clear in the bass, whose theka mirrors typical steel pan bass lines. The foulé’s theka pattern, comprising a subtly articulated sixteenth-note ostinato, further emphasizes this connection with a rhythm similar to that played by the conga drums and so-called “strumming” pans or inner voices in a steel orchestra. Finally, the iron, which provides an incessant sixteenth-note time keeping role in the steel orchestra is also reflected in the rhythm of the tassa foulé.
The following video clip contains two musical examples both recorded by Emory Cook in 1956, one of a steel orchestra parading during Carnival and one of a tassa band. I present these back-to-back to draw attention to similarities in musical structure between calypso played by the steel orchestra and calypso hand played by the tassa band. Note that Cook misleadingly labels both tracks. The first one labeled “Mardi Gras Carnival/Lord Melody” is indeed an excerpt of calypsonian Mighty Sparrow’s “Jean and Dinah” played as a steel band road march, and the tassa hand labeled as “imitation steel band” is the hand that most drummers today refer to as calypso hand.
This brief musical analysis suggests that tassa emerges from a coherent musical system, one that absorbs outside influences but does so, at least in one way, by distilling essential rhythmic elements into familiar musical structures. It is through such a process, through rearticulation and adaptation, that tassa remains relevant for drummers, dancers, and listeners today. Tassa has moreover provided music for the most celebratory events in the Indian Trinidadian community, sounding out the boundaries of cultural space through repeated association with such events. In this way, tassa has become a music of national importance, one that is frequently evoked as a metaphor for Indian culture in Trinidad and Tobago. Some cultural activists have gone so far as to advocate for tassa as the country’s co-national instrument alongside steelpan, a suggestion that many steel pan stakeholders have regarded as racist and unpatriotic. Within the Caribbean soundscape, tassa indeed features instruments, timbres, musical structure, and performance practice that reference India as a place of origin. Yet, tassa has diverged significantly from its Indian forebears, so much so that it has been reinvented, such that the very same musical elements that mark it as Indian equally reference Trinidad and Tobago as home. In this way, tassa’s rejection as an official national symbol due to its perceived foreignness despite decades of rootedness in diaspora reflects larger and longer-lasting political debates in which alternate routes of creolization continue to direct Indian Trinidadian cultural expressions in ways that frequently don’t fit a tidy concept of what it means to be Caribbean or even Trinidadian.
Christopher L. Ballengee, PhD is Associate Professor of Music at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland, USA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
 http://whensteeltalks.ning.com/profiles/blogs/deafening-silence and http://whensteeltalks.ning.com/forum/topics/the-steelpan-national-instrument-of-trinidad-tobago-official-stat?id=2534462%3ATopic%3A287341&page=3