<img width=”60″ height=”90″ border=0 alt=”” align=”left” hspace=”10″ vspace=”10″ src=/directory/getdata.asp?about_id=e6f22a1bc9efc1e997354bbc99e625bd-1>East Indian music in the West Indies by Peter Manuel. Book with music CD. Temple University Press. (800) 447-1656.
Tan-Singing of Trinidad and Guyana (video) available from Peter Manuel at 127 Park Ave, Leonia, NJ 07605 and at http://members.aol.com/tansinging2000. $24.95.
Between 1838 and 1917, plantation owners in Trinidad, Guyana, and Surinam recruited over a half million indentured servants from India to replace the recently freed Creole slaves. These Indian immigrants were disparaged by both the Creoles and the Whites as heathens and savages, and so, they largely kept to themselves in the more rural regions. They were mostly from the Bhojpuri-speaking regions of Bihar, and were mostly poor and illiterate.
But their isolation produced a strong desire to keep their Indian traditions alive. And so they fashioned a new form of Indian music, based on whatever fragments of their native culture they could remember. These included work songs, songs for special events like weddings and funerals, and fragments of Indian classical music that had drifted into Bihar from cultural centers like Calcutta. Their goal was to preserve Indian culture as faithfully as possible, but their isolation forced them to be creative in spite of themselves. In the words of Indo-Caribbean musician-scholar Mangal Patasar, “You take a capsule from India, leave it here for a hundred years, and this is what you get.”
Ethno-musicologist Peter Manuel had spent years studying Indian classical music, and encountered Indo-Caribbean music while doing fieldwork on Afro-Caribbean salsa, calypso, and soca. He was thus uniquely capable of understanding just how distinctive this music was, and has now made his discoveries available in both a book (with an accompanying music CD) and a video. The book gives a fascinating and detailed analysis of what this music is like, and how it got that way. The face-to-face interviews and the images of social events in the video give a special sense of the culture created by the Indo-Caribbeans in their new homeland. Both the video and the book would be a great addition to any class on world music, and are fascinating fun for anyone who enjoys making new musical discoveries.
Reconstructing the origins of this music is a challenging task, for there are few documents and no recordings from the early days. Manuel’s informants tell evocative stories. People traveled for miles on foot and horse-drawn carts to hear a singer perform in a cow barn specially decorated for the occasion with flowers and incense. There were dance performances which were visible at night only because the dancer was constantly followed by a man with a kerosene lamp (who was verbally abused and pelted with vegetables if he failed to keep up). There were heroic figures whose names spread to every corner of the Indo-Caribbean community, but who remained unknown to the rest of the world. It was said of Ali Jan and Phiramat that, “When the singing gets strong, some of the branches break by the power of the songs.” Fakeer Mohammed was not only an accomplished singer, but ran a troupe that performed folk plays with elaborate costumes. Alice Jan sang and danced in his troupe despite taboos against women performing in public, and even competed in what were traditionally all-male singing sessions. Instead of being condemned, however, she became a star. “Men followed her wherever she danced, showered her with gifts, and threw themselves at her feet.”
Fortunately, the music being performed today is being recorded by a handful of devoted fans. But these recordings still leave us with almost as many questions as answers. The Indo-Caribbean ensemble has no tabla. Instead, the singer is accompanied by a dholak and a dantal, which is a metal rod struck with a smaller metal piece. Where did this distinctive ensemble originate? There is some evidence that it was once common in Bihar, although it has now died out, but it might have been invented by the Indo-Caribbeans themselves. And the technical terms used by Indo-Caribbean musicians often seem like scrambled versions of the Indian originals, although they have now taken on quite precise meanings of their own.
This music is called “tan-singing”, but these singers never sing what Hindustani singers call “taans” (i.e. long improvised passages using the “a” sound.) Apparently this name is a corruption of the name of the great Indian singer Tansen, which became “Tan Singh”, and finally “tan-singing”. The lyrics come from imported collections of sacred Hindu poetry written in Devnagari script, which the singers often cannot read. Local scholars make sure that Hindi, rather than Bhojpuri, pronunciations are used, and singers are graded on their Hindi during competitions. The poems are sung to tunes called “ragas,” but these tunes do not follow the rules that constitute the original Hindustani ragas which share their name.
Are the changes introduced by the Indo-Caribbeans corruptions or innovations? That’s not an easy question to answer. Tan-singers and their percussionists do not think in terms of cross-rhythms against an underlying taal. Paradoxically, this frees them to use rhythms that would make no sense in Hindustani music, such as adding or dropping one or two beats, and then returning to the basic rhythm again. There are also certain rhythms in tan-singing that are almost impossible to notate. There is a pattern which resembles the seven beat taal rupak, but which “swings” the first three beats, and another which is between 6/4 and 4/4, but is not 5/4. Because the Indo-Caribbean percussionists do not count underlying beats, they simply play these patterns without realizing how difficult they are.
Sadly, tan-singing is in danger of dying out, partly because of the popularity of what is called chutney. Chutney uses the same ensemble as tan-singing, but incorporates more repetitive and danceable salsa and calypso beats. There is also chutney-soca, which uses the instruments of the Trinidadian form of calypso called soca, and is sung in English. The fact that chutney and soca are now being performed on the stage together has decreased the social tensions that have existed between Indo-Caribbeans and Creoles for over a century. Indian women are now dancing in ways that look daringly modern and erotic, but are actually part of a traditional ritual that women would perform together in private to celebrate a woman’s recovery from childbirth. The Creoles now look at Indians as being less conservative and more hip, and are listening and dancing to chutney-soca.
Manuel is both pleased by the social impact of chutney, and saddened by its effect on the popularity of tan-singing. It’s difficult to tell whether tan-singing can survive in a society where almost nobody speaks Bhojpuri anymore. It must change to remain artistically and commercially alive, but if it changes too much, will it really have survived at all? The fate of Indo-Caribbean music reveals a problem that concerns all of us who want to preserve traditional art forms in a multicultural world.
Teed Rockwell has studied classical Indian music for fifteen years at the Ali Akbar College of Music and privately with Habib Khan and the Salamat Ali Khan family.