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Tassa Drums

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Tassa Drums are North Indian indigenous drums brought to the Caribbean and South America by the Bhojpuri people from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh by in 1838 – Guyana, Suriname, Trinidad and other islands as, Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Lucia, Grenada, Jamaica, Barbados, etc. In the 1970, there was a wave of migration to the United States from these countries. Indo-Caribbean communities settled in New York’s five boroughs, mainly in Queens and the Bronx, where Tassa has earned a prominent place their religious, social and cultural heritage.

Tassa is played as part of a drum ensemble/group/band. The tassa drum is traditionally made of clay and covered with a goat skin. This is heated by a fire to make the pitch higher and called “standing it up”. When played in a tassa group, one tassa is the “cutter” and the other is the “fulley”. The fulley is playing a steady rhythm while the cutter plays the more intricate rhythms. A large cedar bass drum is also played and usually there is someone with jhanj (brass cymbals) playing in the group also.

Tassa continues to be as processional drums for both Hindus and Indian Muslims during religious and secular festivals, and life-cycle events: Phagwa (Spring Planting)/Holi (Festival of Rebirth), Diwali (Fall Harvesting) Vivaaha (Marriage Ceremonies), Matikor (Women’s Wedding House Repertoire), Lawaa (Men’s Cooknite Repertoire), Sohar (Birthing Songs during the 9 Days of mother and child bonding), Muran (Offering of an Infant’s First Growth Hair to Ganga, Goddess of the River), Leela (Dance- Dramas), Hosay or Tadjah (Indo-Caribbean Street Festival). As recently as the 1970’s, tassa was usually accompanied by male dancers, as well as, a consortium of other dance/drum groups, Tadjah, Biraha and Nagara.

Though distinct from Tassa, these art forms borrowed taal (rhythms) from each other. Except for Trinidad, many of these precious art forms have disappeared in Guyana, Suriname and the other islands. Tassa and Tadjah has taken a vigorous hold in Trinidad, and stands out as a national instrument for several reasons, the main being the presence and continuity of the Hosay Festival. Since October 30, 1884, Tassa, Tadjah and Hosay have been intrinsically linked as a deepened sense of Indian nationalism in Trinidad, as well as most regions were Indian Indentureship took place. In addition, because of the isolation and confinement of Indians to the sugar and rice plantations, Tassa evolved more as an imperative, and the voice of Indo-Caribbean peoples. Today, tassa is accepted and enjoyed in the whole multi-cultural Caribbean region, Europe and North America for its exciting, fast paced, entertaining rhythms. It appears Tassa also has some roots in Persia, and is related to various indigenous drums.

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