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  • UNESCO Collection Week 17: North Indian Traditions at Home and Abroad

    Smithsonian Folkways continues its release of the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music via digital download, streaming services, and on-demand physical CDs. This week’s guest blog post coincides with Janmashtami, the birthday of the Hindu deity Krishna (in 2014, it falls on Sunday, August 17). Ethnomusicologist Andrew R. Martin reviews two compilations of Indian classical and popular music: Trinidad & Tobago: Trinidad Music from the North Indian Tradition and North India: Instrumental Music of Mediaeval India.


    By Andrew R. Martin

    Comparing Trinidad & Tobago: Trinidad Music from the North Indian Tradition and North India: Instrumental Music of Mediaeval India may seem, at first glance, the proverbial apples and oranges contrast. Yet the two recordings, and the cultures they represent, share a remarkably connected and complex music tradition. Musing over the musical pairing reminded me of my travels to Trinidad for the first time in 2008.

    One of the things that struck me during my fieldwork was the number of Indo-Trinidadians. Like anyone doing fieldwork in a foreign country, I had done plenty of research and was aware of the strong East Indian tradition in Trinidad and the greater Caribbean. I was going to Trinidad to study the Afro-Trinidadian musical tradition, steelpan in particular, but I was unprepared for the degree to which Trinidadian culture, food, and music were so deeply impacted by Indo-Trinidadians.

    The national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago is the steelpan, and for many westerners, the sounds of steelpan and steel bands are the defining music of the Caribbean region. However, the rich tradition of tassa drumming is ever-present in San Fernando, Port of Spain, and other major Trinidadian cities. Tassa drumming—an ensemble of tassa drums (kettle drums derived from Islamic tradition) and large, cylindrical, double-headed bass drums—accompanies the Indo-Trinidadian wedding processions in a manner similar to the dholak drum and tambourines used in the traditional Hindu marriage ceremony. No Indo-Trinidadian wedding is complete without at least one tassa drumming band.

    In recent years some Indo-Trinidadian musical traditions have grown enough in popularity to challenge several of the better-known Afro-Trinidadian traditions that dominate the Trinidad island. Tassa bands are started to adopt many of the popular rhythms found in the contemporary steel band music, re-created in characteristic tassadrumming “hands” or rhythmic sets during performances.

    Tassa GrouP. Trinidad (showing two tassa, bass, and a jhaa) / Groupe Tassa, Trinidad (deux joueurs de tassa, bass etjhaal)

    To further understand the connection between Trinidad & Tobago: Trinidad — Music from the North Indian Tradition and North India: Instrumental Music of Mediaeval India, one must consider that Trinidadian culture is the culmination of several different cultural elements, including Spanish, French, and British colonialism, and 20th-century American mainstream culture.

    As in other former colonies of the Caribbean, slaves brought to Trinidad from Africa during the 18th and 19th centuries retained elements of their native customs in spite of the oppressive conditions imposed by their colonial masters. In particular, even the trauma of their capture, sale, and trans-Atlantic voyage did little to erase their strong drumming and dancing traditions.

    However, the slaves of Trinidad were not exclusively of West African descent. As a result of the simultaneous British imperial expansion in India during the 19th century, a substantial portion of Trinidad’s slaves—or more accurately, indentured servants—were Hindi speakers of North Indian descent. Afro-Trinidadians and Indo-Trinidadians each comprised approximately 35 percent of Trinidad and Tobago’s population nowadays. The confluence of these two distinct cultures (both musically and socially) has provided a unique insight into how isolated populations, abruptly displaced, remake and create new musical traditions based on old-world tradition and heritage.

    Many of the indentured servants that arrived in Trinidad from India during the 19th century left behind a homeland steeped in rich religious, secular, and court music traditions that had, at the time of their departure, only recently been interrupted by British interlopers.

    North India: Instrumental Music of Mediaeval India>
    Ustad Asad Ali Khan’s exquisite rudra vina playing captured on North India: Instrumental Music of Mediaeval India, is a fine example of this rich tradition and is artwork worthy of preservation. Like any great master, Khan has a unique way of drawing in the listener—a sonic invitation of sorts—as Khan’s journey through the various stages of the ragas is a shared trek with space for the performer and listener.

    The multitude of colors that Khan effortlessly coaxes from his rudra vina while exploring the inner reaches of the “Darbari Kanada,” a night raga, and “Gunakali,” a morning raga, stands as a historical testament to the artistic refinement and beauty of the genre. After listening to the album several times, I am always drawn to the chautal portion which closes the jhala section of “Darbari Kanada.”

    In Khan’s exploration of the 12-beat metric cycle, I hear traces of the various rhythms that are popular in modern Indo-Trinidadian music. I can’t help but think I am listening back to the roots of this latter-day music, though separated by 200 years of history and 9,000 miles.

    Trinidad & Tobago
    Trinidad & Tobago: Trinidad Music from the North Indian Tradition and I are old friends. I was first introduced to the recording nearly fifteen years ago while investigating the music of Trinidad. To my ears, the sounds are as fresh today as they were then.

    When the recording was first released in 1994, the Indo-Trinidadian community was at a musical crossroads of sorts, as they attempted to balance the preservation of tradition with the developments of a progressive culture and its resulting new musical genres. Trinidad & Tobago: Trinidad Music from the North Indian Tradition’s field recordings present several notable examples of traditional Indo-Trinidadian secular and religious music, preserving it in much the same way Alan Lomax did during his recording sojourns to Trinidad in 1962.

    In addition to preserving some elements of a vanishing culture, the album documents the rise of the genre of chutney with the “Chutney” cut that particularly fascinated me. In 1994, chutney was a newly emerging music genre among the Indo-Trinidadian community.

    The driving pulse of the 4-beat rhythmic cycle hammered by the dholak is, more often than not, drawn straight from the jhal of Indian classical tradition, and this example is no exception. The dance feel of chutney has cross-appeal and has now developed into a widely known popular hybrid musical style called chutney-soca.

    The traditional and ancient music of North India and Trinidad have modernized, but the roots remain the same. The connection between chutney and many of the musical styles found on Trinidad & Tobago: Trinidad Music from the North Indian Tradition and North India: Instrumental Music of Mediaeval India is perhaps more evident now than ever before. The recordings are an ideal pairing and personify the quality and depth of the wealth of music released by Smithsonian Folkways and the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music.

    Andrew R. Martin, Ph.D.
    Professor of Music, Inver Hills Community College

    UNESCO Collection Week 17: North Indian Traditions at Home and Abroad | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings