Unlikely as it sounds, this story starts with, of all things, a Phil Collins song. Not even with Genesis, but Phil solo. “In the Air Tonight” is not a favourite song, but I’ve always thought there was something in its phrasing that lived up to the name: a shiver on your neck as you stand in the open night, waiting, certain there will be no disappointment, but waiting. Waiting with a sliver of apprehension. The darkness is at once open yet close around you. The thing in the air is longing, but a familiar one. You have longed for this before, on other nights like this one.
Tassa comes from St James. I mean no disrespect, disparagement, or utter disregard of anthropological fact, but there it is: tassa comes from St James. What I mean by this is, for me, tassa comes from St James. To get even closer to the thing in the air: for me, tassa is the drums on Western Main Road on Big Hosay night, in the hour or so before all the attention turns to the kiss between the Red and Green Moons. (See the sidebar on page 79 for explication of these esoteric terms.)
Now for the real moment, the thing that’s been curled up in the first paragraphs, waiting its turn like an open secret: the tassa bass. The dhol. This drum, usually carved from the trunk of a mango tree, is the deep, night-stilling thing for which I wait. Dauntingly large, the bass is played on one side with a truncheonesque stick, and with a strong, steady, bare hand on the other. The stick plays the bass side of the drum; the hand, the treble. Stretched, heated goat skins make the drum heads. A mystery of narrow cords — knotted here, slipped through a ring there, coiled, crossed — connects the heads, running the length of the body of the drum.
It is a mistake to think that all instruments capable of a deep bass must sound like the sea. A tassa bass is, however, what I think the sea would ask to sound like, if anyone thought to make such an enquiry. Full, heavy, dominant. It grounds the thrilling musical acrobatics of the smaller kettledrum. Play on. Excite the audience. I stand guard, and if one of your flourishes skips, my unfaltering beat masks it. It is perhaps the most unsubtle beauty I know.
Before I was old enough to go out on my own, or stay up late enough for the night celebrations, my father would spirit me away from school at lunchtime on the final day of Hosay, as the great tadjahs made their way through the streets one last time before their burial at sea. I liked the tadjahs well enough. How big they were then. I liked them almost as much as I liked escaping school. And escaping school was almost as important as having a father who thought it was more sensible to immerse me in something that was a great part of the life of St James than to be in school just because.
I think now that the sound of tassa is swept up in a whirl of things that make me feel a kind of seamlessness with the world. Nothing as dramatic as a grand connection with the masses, but — almost literally — like I’ve lost the definite planes of my body and something that is myself flows into the air, the night. The seamlessness seems fitting: it is inspired by a thing that sounds like the sea, is tuned by fire, and made of things that come from the earth. Small wonder the air was all that was left for me to disappear into.
A tassa ensemble, a side (I assume the word “side” as a collective noun is absolutely accurate, since that is how it is referred to in St James. I have heard of tassa groups or crews, but imagine they must be some sort of lesser entities), does not play an unending repertoire. I can remember, not so long ago, when there seemed to be just six basic rhythms, or “hands,” and the prospect of one completely new hand was scintillating beyond belief. There are those who claim dozens or hundreds of tassa hands exist, counting every minor variation on one of the classics. But something that is definitely and identifiably new seems like a minor miracle.
I cannot attest to its veracity, but I do so like this idea: the song “Om Shanti Om”, a musical triumph for the legendary Ras Shorty I, often considered the man who pulled the more upbeat soca out of traditional calypso, is thought to be based on tassa’s Kallender hand — associated with traditional stick-fighting, kalinda. If this is true, tassa has been more important than we usually think. If “Om Shanti Om” did come from the Kallender hand, then tassa was not just in the general vicinity of influence, but at the crossing point — in the middle of the road, as it were — when calypso music was ready to move on. And, of all hands, the Kallender: older than calypso, and bound up in the sites and rites of stick-fighting. A song of peace based on a sound of violence. You really can’t do satire in the Caribbean.
As you stand at the edge of a decent-size side (by which I really mean eight or more bass drums, but will accept six, absolutely no fewer), the music seems to come up from the ground and rise through your body until it fills you. “The thing about tassa,” says my brother-in-law K, “is you have to feel it. Hearing it is only part of it.” It is, in fact, rather like hearing it with your whole body. When you stand in the middle of a steelband as they’re doing their final run before they take the Savannah stage, the sound engulfs you. It’s as if the air has been replaced by this new element, sound, and whether you walk or stand still, it surrounds you completely. It is as powerful, but almost the reverse feeling of tassa.
K is not a man inclined to whimsy, wistfulness, or activities involving dense crowds. But even for someone whose musical taste runs from the mild to milder, tassa has a pull. As is mine, his pull is very specific. On the final day of Hosay, the tadjah and tassa side of Ghulam Hussain roll slowly back into their yard. Just before six pm, K will find himself on the corner of Bournes Road and Western Main Road in St James, a few feet away from the pavement, staring into a moment only he can really see. The drums of Ghulam Hussain play their last hand until next Hosay.
Sometimes we are lucky, and there are two Hosays in a year.
In memory of Hussein
Hosay derives from the name “Hussein”, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, killed at the Battle of Karbala in the year 680. Shia Muslims commemorate his death on the tenth day of the month of Muharram in the Islamic calendar — known as Ashura in many Muslim countries. The tradition came to Trinidad in the nineteenth century with indentured Indian immigrants, and is traditionally marked in areas where Shia communities settled, including St James, a former sugar estate in west Port of Spain. Because of differences between the Islamic and Western calendars, the date of Hosay changes every year, falling about ten days earlier than in the previous year. This means that once every few decades there are two Hosays in a (Western) year, in January and December. In 2012, the holy day falls on 24 November.
Hosay unfolds over three nights and two days. It begins with Flag Night, when floats bearing flags of many colours are carried through the streets in commemoration of the Battle of Karbala. On the second night, Small Hosay, the processions carry small effigies of domed Islamic tombs, representing the resting place of Hussein. On Big Hosay night, the full-size tomb effigies — called tadjahs, made from wood, paper, and (nowadays) Styrofoam, and highly decorated — make their appearance. The following day, the tadjahs appear again in an afternoon procession, ending at sunset. On the final day, the tadjahs are carried to the nearby Gulf of Paria and ritually immersed in the sea. The Hosay processions are organised by five “yards,” or community groups: Cocorite, Bis, Balma, Panchaitee, and Ghulam Hussein. Each yard builds its own tadjah.
Alongside the tadjahs, Hosay followers dance the “Moons.” These are large, heavy, semi-circular effigies — one red, one green — carried on thick poles, representing Hussein and his brother Hasan. Men take turns carrying and spinning the Moons, a task demanding both strength and dexterity. On Big Hosay night the Moons slowly “dance” towards each other and at the climactic moment they “kiss” in a moment of contact — a feat of muscular balance for their bearers.
All the Hosay processions are accompanied by tassa sides, which can vary from six drummers to several dozen. “Tassa” was originally the name of a kettledrum carried around the neck, but in Trinidad it has come to signify the style of drumming that came with Indian immigrants from the Subcontinent. The kettledrums are accompanied by several dhols, or bass drums, and one or several brass cymbals. Tassa drumming is a common feature of Indo-Trinidadian cultural events as well as celebrations and parties of all kinds — today they are even common at Carnival fetes. Each basic rhythm is called a “hand,” and these may be intricate and complex, depending on the number and skill of the drummers.
Several hands are reserved for Hosay processions. Befitting the nature of the commemoration, these may be solemnly funereal, or aggressively martial. In a test of endurance, the drummers play for hours on end on successive days, carrying the drums on foot through the streets of St James, preceding the tadjahs. Neighbourhood spectators often follow a favourite tassa side, and if two sides pause for a showdown in the crowded street, the result is a thrilling frenzy of drumming.