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Tales, Tunes, and Tassa Drums: Retention and Invention into Indo-Caribbean Music

Tales, Tunes, and Tassa Drums: Retention and Invention into Indo-Caribbean Music

by Peter Manuel
Tales, Tunes, and Tassa Drums: Retention and Invention into Indo-Caribbean Music

Tales, Tunes, and Tassa Drums: Retention and Invention into Indo-Caribbean Music

by Peter Manuel



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Today's popular tassa drumming emerged from the fragments of transplanted Indian music traditions half-forgotten and creatively recombined, rearticulated, and elaborated into a dynamic musical genre. A uniquely Indo-Trinidadian form, tassa drumming invites exploration of how the distinctive nature of the Indian diaspora and its relationship to its ancestral homeland influenced Indo-Caribbean music culture.
Music scholar Peter Manuel traces the roots of neotraditional music genres like tassa drumming to North India and reveals the ways these genres represent survivals, departures, or innovative elaborations of transplanted music forms. Drawing on ethnographic work and a rich archive of field recordings, he contemplates the music carried to Trinidad by Bhojpuri-speaking and other immigrants, including forms that died out in India but continued to thrive in the Caribbean. His reassessment of ideas of creolization, retention, and cultural survival defies suggestions that the diaspora experience inevitably leads to the loss of the original culture, while also providing avenues to broader applications for work being done in other ethnic contexts.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252096778
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 01/30/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 304
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Peter Manuel is a professor of musicology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY and author of Popular Musics of the Non-Western World: An Introductory Survey and Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae.

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Tales, Tunes, and Tassa Drums

Retention and Invention in Indo-Caribbean Music

By Peter Manuel


Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09677-8



Global Perspectives on the Indo-Caribbean Bhojpuri Diaspora and Its Music

Indo-Trinidadian author V. S. Naipaul once wrote that he grew up conceiving of his South Asian heritage as "a trapdoor into a bottomless past" (1977, xi). On my first evening in a North Indian farm town in the Bhojpuri region, whence most Indo-Caribbeans had emigrated in the nineteenth century, I felt as if I had passed through that trapdoor and reached some shadowy netherworld where the ancestral sources of Indo-Caribbean music culture were all around me. As a local acquaintance and I walked through the town, Kachhwa Bazaar, to find an elderly singer I had met the day before, music seemed to be happening everywhere, resounding from pockets of light and activity in the otherwise dark alleys. On one side a few teenage boys were clustered in a cramped Hanuman temple, honoring the monkey-god's weekly worship day by singing a ragged, Caribbean-sounding devotional bhajan to the accompaniment of a dholak barrel drum. Through a doorway down another lane I could see some women huddled around a lantern, singing a vernal Phagwa-season song to what struck me as a typical Trinidadian chutney tune. It being wedding season, twice we were obliged to flatten ourselves against doorways to make way for raucous marriage processions in which a poker-faced groom on horseback was surrounded by young men laughing and energetically gyrating to the thunderous drumming of tassa ensembles nearly identical to those that enliven Hindu weddings in Trinidad. Eventually reaching the old singer's patio, we found him asleep on a cot, but, happy to be roused, he was soon fingering a dilapidated harmonium and singing for me what he called a thumri—a light-classical form extant in very different styles in Trinidad and North India. A classical musician from nearby Banaras would have scoffed at his skeletal and rustic thumri, but I could easily hear in his quavering voice the same tunes that pervade the thumris of Trinidadian local-classical music. Eventually we proceeded to a slightly larger Hanuman temple, where a dozen or so men were engaged in another song session. Hearing of my interest in chowtal, a Phagwa-season group folksong, they proceeded to sing a few chowtals essentially interchangeable with those I would be singing the following week with the Indo-Guyanese group I had joined in New York City. For me the entire experience was somewhat surreal, and I felt as if I had been transported back a century, or that I was hearing the Caribbean songs I knew being performed in a parallel universe that was at once strange and yet eerily familiar.

The following summer I was witness to another cultural encounter involving chowtal, in which I helped a New York Indo-Guyanese cultural organization bring four Indo-Fijian chowtal singers from California for a performance. Without any rehearsal, some New York Guyanese singers and I joined the Fijians on stage to fill out the chorus for their chowtal rendition, which differed only slightly from the familiar Guyanese style.

These cultural encounters illustrated some of the prodigious degree of continuity between Indo-Fijian music, Indo-Caribbean music, and the North Indian Bhojpuri folk music culture from which the two diasporic traditions had emerged a century earlier. The compatibilities are all the more remarkable in view of the almost complete lack of cultural contact between the three societies since the traffic of indentured workers ceased in 1917. What was in evidence was the extraordinary resilience of this stratum of Bhojpuri folk music, which had persisted not only over the several generations since 1917, and through all the sociocultural changes in each site during this period, but also over the vast distances that separated the three from each other. Not even the vicissitudes of the secondary diasporas—of Fijians to California and Indo-Caribbeans to New York—had attenuated the vigor of chowtal or generated stylistic developments that could prevent members of one community from joining the other in song.

In the more than ninety years that have elapsed since contacts between Bhojpuri India and the diasporic communities ceased, much has changed in their respective music cultures. Entire genres, not to mention songs, have died out, and new ones have arisen to take their places, whether under the influence of new technologies, new demographic contacts, or new socioeconomic conditions in general. Even within the realm of neotraditional musics, one could see significant changes and differences, including some that had nothing to do with the sorts of decline, deculturation, and creolization that one could expect (and indeed document) in scattered diasporas isolated from the ancestral homeland. The tassa drummers I saw in Kachhwa Bazaar, like those with whom I worked on my next trip to the region, seemed to play only a limited set of simple rhythms and did not appear to regard their playing as constituting more than a festive processional noise, like the artless brass bands they sometimes accompanied. In Trinidad, by contrast, tassa drumming had evolved into a sophisticated and rich art form, vigorously cultivated by Indian musicians of all generations and animated by a lively sense of connoisseurship, competition, and cultural pride. I could see that to arrange an encounter between Bhojpuri-region tassa drummers and Trinidadian counterparts would probably be pointless and awkward, with the North Indians quite unable to join the "Trini" drummers in their elaborate metrical modulations and virtuoso pyrotechnics. If the compatibilities between the three communities' chowtals demonstrated an extraordinary degree of stylistic retention, the disparate tassa traditions showed how a diasporic community could take a North Indian transplant and avidly elaborate and develop it.

The Bhojpuri musical inheritance in Indo-Caribbean culture, indeed, encompasses a wide range of genres representing different sorts of trajectories. Some Bhojpuri music genres do not appear to have taken root in the Caribbean at all. Others survived being transplanted but subsequently disappeared or declined, especially as Bhojpuri Hindi ceased to be a living language in Guyana and Trinidad. Still other genres persisted intact, in some cases constituting marginal survivals of forms that had changed or died out in India itself. And a few, like tassa, underwent dramatic evolution and refinement. These processes and trajectories themselves were conditioned by the distinctive features of the diasporic setting and the way that setting has interacted with features inherent to the music genres themselves. Some of these features are naturally specific to a given diasporic locale, but continuities between Fiji and the Caribbean illustrate not only the resilience of the Bhojpuri ancestry but also ways in which Bhojpuri diasporic cultures, however scattered and isolated, came to share features distinct from those of the North Indian homeland. Collectively, the various trajectories and the form of Bhojpuri diasporic music in general must be attributed primarily not to inherent features of particular genres or to the activities of particular artists but rather to intricate dynamics of diaspora culture—in this case, Bhojpuri Caribbean diasporic culture. It is this set of dynamics that this book ultimately seeks to explore.

The Indo-Caribbean Experience

The history of East Indians in the Caribbean is an impressive and inspiring saga, in which isolated communities of largely illiterate, provincial, and harshly exploited subalterns evolved over the course of roughly a century into an economically, politically, and culturally dynamic West Indian population. By now this story has been narrated in so many publications that there is little need to do more than outline it in these pages. After the cessation of slave importation in the British West Indies in 1804, sugarcane planters in Trinidad, British Guiana, and Jamaica became concerned about replenishing their labor force, and with Emancipation in 1834–38 and the abandonment of the plantations by freed slaves, the planters' clamor for cheap labor became insistent. (As for Englishmen doing the work themselves, one of them wrote, "It goes without argument that it is impossible for white men to work in the open in such terrific heat as obtains in this climate" [in Angel (1921) 1995, 104].) Hence the colonial administration commenced programs of indentured labor, whereby guest workers would toil for minimal wages under contract, typically for five years, at which point, depending on various factors, they could return to their homelands, renew their contracts, or start new lives on their own in the West Indies. Thousands of workers were brought from China, Madeira, and even West Africa (primarily Yorubas), but they proved unwilling either to come in large numbers or to commit themselves to extended plantation labor. Recruitment of workers from the sister British colony of India proved to be the solution to the planters' needs. Indian farmers, while historically impoverished, had unprecedented incentives to seek their fortunes abroad. As British rule, direct or indirect, spread through India in the 1800s, ruinous taxation, dismantling of traditional land-tenure conventions, and evisceration of local handicraft industries generated widespread famines and unprecedented poverty. Indentureship, especially as glorified by deceitful recruiting agents, appealed to many young men who could otherwise foresee nothing in their lives but deprivation and toil on increasingly exhausted and infertile land. As one immigrant to British Guiana said (as related to me by his grandson), "They tricked me into coming here, but I would never go back to India." It may also be surmised that the ranks of the indentured included a disproportionate number of especially adventurous and enterprising individuals (as well as assorted fugitives and misfits) whose energetic dispositions may have contributed to the character of the expatriate community in general.

Between 1845 and 1917, some 144,000 Indians came to Trinidad, around 239,000 to British Guiana, and lesser but not insubstantial numbers to Jamaica, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and elsewhere. From 1873 Dutch planters in Suriname contracted another 34,000 to come to that colony. Although roughly a fifth of these workers returned to India, the rest opted to remain, founding communities whose numbers grew in both relative and absolute terms. Their descendants now constitute a majority of the population in Guyana, and the largest ethnic groups in Trinidad and Suriname (at about 43 and 35 percent, respectively). Meanwhile, between 1879 and 1916, 62,000 Indians migrated to the Fiji Islands, another British colony in the remote Pacific; their descendants now number over 300,000. Since the 1970s a substantial secondary diaspora has taken place, as Indo-Caribbeans have migrated en masse to New York, Toronto, the Netherlands, and elsewhere; the New York community is estimated to exceed half a million. Emigrant Indo-Guyanese now outnumber their counterparts in Guyana. For their part, roughly half the Indo-Fijian population has emigrated to Australia, New Zealand, and the west coasts of the United States and Canada.

The indentured migrants were to some extent diverse, coming from different regions of India with mutually unintelligible languages and representing a certain spectrum of castes and occupational backgrounds. In other respects, however, they exhibited a considerable degree of cohesion. Most were young men of peasant stock. Around 85 percent came from the Bhojpuri-speaking (purab or "eastern") region of modern-day Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, or from the adjacent Avadhi-speaking area of central Uttar Pradesh. Like North Indians as a whole, around four-fifths were Hindu, and most of the rest Muslim. Most would have been illiterate, though their ranks also comprised some educated individuals, including numbers of Brahmins literate in Sanskrit as well as Hindi, who were able to establish themselves as pandits (Hindu priests) in the Caribbean.

The typical indentureship contract obliged the laborer to work for five years at a given plantation, for a modest wage, after which he or she could return to India (generally at the worker's expense), enroll in another contract, or start a new life, typically as a cultivator. Colonial administrations enacted various policies designed to bind workers to the plantations and frustrate their attempts to acquire land independently. Nevertheless, over the decades considerable numbers of immigrants, having completed their initial indentureships, managed through diligence, persistence, and social networking to rent or buy land and establish themselves as independent cultivators and, in many cases, merchants. Cohesive East Indian communities grew apace, and the increasing arrivals of women and the births of daughters gradually mitigated gender imbalances and enabled the establishment of families and the kinship networks so important in Indian society.

The conditions of indentured labor were harsh and in many ways akin to slavery. Many laborers were housed in the squalid barracks of former slaves. Work requirements were onerous, malingering was harshly punished, and malnutrition and infectious parasites were rampant. Workers were generally not allowed to leave the plantations for any reason. Many planters contrived to cheat their laborers out of their meager remunerations. Even after indentureship ended in 1917, a large percentage of Indians lived in absolute indigence, many as homeless street dwellers whose visible plight shocked foreign visitors to Port of Spain. In general, Indians were despised by society as a whole. Whites saw them as coolie heathens who fought and drank excessively, abused their womenfolk, and clung stubbornly to their backward ways and pagan religions. Their music was dismissed as "lugubrious and depressing" (La Guerre 1985, 37). For their part, most Afro-Caribbeans, long since Christianized and largely alienated from their ancestral African cultures, shared these colonial prejudices, while further resenting the Indians as scabs who had been imported to undercut wages and who performed the menial field labor the blacks had left behind. Indian marriages were not legally recognized until 1946. Colonial governments took little interest in educating Indians, such that well into the twentieth century, the only accessible schools were run by Christian missionaries. Indians wary of proselytization tended to keep their children away from such schools during the colonial period, and in any case they saw little advantage to education in a situation where jobs in civil service, teaching, and other professions were dominated by Creoles, who enjoyed a head start in education. Hence, as late as 1950 roughly half the Indo-Trinidadian population was illiterate. Facing hostility and discrimination, Indians tended to cluster in their own rural settlements, avoiding contact with Creoles and affording a configuration described by historians as a "plural society" whose constituent communities coexisted without mixing, like oil and water (Smith 1965).

Despite the harshness of indentureship and its affinities to slavery, the differences between the two institutions were significant and allowed Indo-Caribbean communities to make slow but steady economic progress while retaining incomparably more cultural continuity than was possible for Afro-Caribbeans. Although kinship networks had to start from scratch in the new setting, the institution of the family appears to have remained considerably stronger than among black West Indians and provided a secure basis for social stability and gradual economic achievement. Despite the Indians' legendary fondness for rum, their traditions of thrift, hard work, and family solidarity, in addition to agricultural expertise, enabled increasing numbers to acquire and expand landholdings until they came to dominate agriculture in Trinidad, Guyana, and Suriname. These same cultural characteristics have often been contrasted with those attributed to Creoles, especially their alleged tendency to value individualism, consumption, and ephemeral pleasures over kinship obligations, hard work, and investment. While the accuracy of such stereotypes could be endlessly debated, by the 1950s many Indians were moving out of their formerly insular villages and expanding dramatically into commerce, the professions, and politics. Meanwhile, due to high birth rates, Indians have come to outnumber blacks in all three countries. The subsequently increased contacts with Creoles from the mid-century decades has occasioned both amicable interaction as well as ethnic tension, in contradictory but concurrent trends that are the subject of much discussion by academics and others. Regrettably, ethnic friction has been exacerbated by the formation of political parties along racial lines in all three countries. Antagonisms have been the most acute in Guyana, where the racist dictatorship of People's National Congress of Forbes Burnham, installed by the CIA in 1964 and outlasting his death (in 1985) until 1992, bankrupted the country and left a legacy of racial bitterness. Indians in Suriname (independent since 1975) have had less sense of discrimination and subjugation, with political power being shared, however contentiously, among parties largely representing the three main ethnic constituencies of blacks, Indians, and Javanese. In Trinidad, the Indian- and Creole-based political parties have for decades been traditional antagonists, albeit with shifting stances and alliances. Well endowed with oil and other natural resources, Trinidad since the 1970s has enjoyed a relative prosperity that, together with its well-established democratic tradition, has made for a more moderate racial climate wherein differences are negotiated more in parliamentary and journalistic debates than in violent confrontation. In Guyana and especially Trinidad the dynamics of cultural relations have often been played out in the realm of culture, and especially music, given its importance in national ethos (Manuel 2000c). In both countries, former conceptions of national identity based on the notions of a hegemonic Creole mainstream have perforce given way to a pluralism that recognizes the legitimacy of Indian culture. As of 2014 both countries have East Indian prime ministers, representing primarily Indian-oriented parties, and Indo-Caribbeans have become leaders in commerce as well as agriculture.


Excerpted from Tales, Tunes, and Tassa Drums by Peter Manuel. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Cover Title Page Copyright Contents Preface 1. Introduction: Global Perspectives on the Indo-Caribbean Bhojpuri Diaspora and Its Music 2. The Trajectories of Transplants: Singing Alha, Birha, and the Ramayan in the Indic Caribbean 3. Chowtal and the Dantal: Finding Fertile Soil in the New Homelands 4. Bhojpuri Diasporic Music and the Encounter with India 5. Tassa Drumming from India to the Caribbean and Beyond 6. Concluding Perspectives Notes Glossary References Index

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