Different Drummers -August 30, 2001
Trinidad is an island of great diversity. Its varied geography supports a range of wildlife habitats: mountainous rain forests, sprawling central flatlands, and extensive coastal wetlands. The richness of the flora and fauna is unparalleled in the Caribbean. Culturally, the island's population is a blend of people from many races and backgrounds. For its size, it's hard to imagine a more cosmopolitan country. About 40% of the island's 1.3 million inhabitants are black, 40% ethnic East Indian, and the rest are white, Syrian, Chinese or of mixed race.
In a global context where ethnic intolerance seems to be growing, the amazing thing about Trinis is that they seem to get along pretty well with each other. The ultimate celebration of inclusiveness occurs at Carnival, an event that draws as many cruisers to Trinidad in midwinter as the boat service industry does in late summer. Year round, Trinidad's cultural fusion creates two other good reasons for boaters (and others) to visit the island: great food and great music.
A little while ago, the restaurant at the Trinidad and Tobago Sailing Association announced to the cruisers anchored in front of its facilities that it was having a special "curryque" night featuring Indian cuisine and music. For the equivalent of US $4, we promptly signed up.
It was tough finding a parking spot when we arrived at the dinghy dock that night. The meal was distinctly Trinidadian. We feasted on "buss up shut" with curried chicken, channa (chick peas), bodi beans and mango chutney. The literal translation of buss up shut is "busted shirt". It's a paratha (Indian flat bread) torn into strips, which (with a little imagination) could be seen to resemble a ripped up shirt. The portions were substantial and all of the food was delicious, but the best part of the evening was the entertainment.
We had been told that music was going to be provided by a local "tassa" group. We had never heard of tassa music. Halfway through our meal, we noticed four men lighting a small bonfire on the pavement a few yards from the outdoor dining area where we were seated. We thought this was a bit peculiar. They brought out some drums and appeared to put them in the fire. We thought this was VERY peculiar. We had heard of some rock bands trashing their instruments after a concert, but not before!
Upon closer inspection and questioning, we learned that the musicians were heating the skins on the drums to change their pitch. This was the only way the two "tassa" drums could be tuned. A larger bass drum had rope tourniquets that were twisted to adjust its sound. The third instrument in the band was a pair of small hand held cymbals, simply called "brass".
The percussion concert began as soon as one of the tassa drums was properly heated. The rhythms that ensued were complex and captivating. The sounds from the booming bass, chinging brass and frenetic tassa rose and fell and combined in endless variations. The two tassa drummers spelled each other off as their drums cooled and had to be taken back to the fire. After an hour of nearly non-stop playing, the musicians were dripping with perspiration.
The audience was mesmerized by the music. We looked about us at the other faces - black, brown and white - all intently watching the performers. For a moment at least, it seemed that there was still some hope for ethnic harmony in what often appears to be a fractious world.
Cheers, David & Eileen