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Sweet Tassa band takes drumming to the world

Saturday, January 18, 2014
Ray Funk and Andrew Martin

In the last few weeks, a wide range of academics and others in America had a chance to hear and learn about tassa drumming from Trinidad. The T&T Sweet Tassa band ( performed at two major academic conferences with Dr Chris Ballengee, a member of the band, ethnomusicologist, and professor of music at Anne Arundel Community College near Washington, DC. Workshops were presented at the annual conventions of the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) and the Percussive Arts Society (PASIC) which were held in mid-November in Indianapolis, Indiana. Sweet Tassa then headed to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois for a brief artist-in-residence organised by graduate student Zane Cupec. During the course of his studies at Northern Illinois University Cupec has developed a special interest in tassa, built drums and prepared a group of Northern Illinois University percussion majors for Sweet Tassa’s appearance. Ballengee and Sweet Tassa arrived and gave a series of lectures/workshops and a guest appearance performing with the NIU Steelband at itsFall concert.  


Sweet Tassa is led by Lenny Kumar, one of the best known tassa players in T&T. Kumar comes from a family of drummers, both his father Boodoo Singh and his late grandfather John Kuar Singh were drummers. Kumar was the cutter, the lead drummer, in his family’s band before forming Sweet Tassa in Princes Town in 2004. The band has won many contests including the 2009 Tassa Monarch and an astounding 12 gold medals at the World Championship of Performing Arts in Hollywood in 2010. Sweet Tassa regularly perform at weddings in Trinidad as well as Hosay, and have performed across the United States, Canada, England, Guyana, Antigua, and India. Amar Ramkisson, one of the band’s co-founders moved to Florida in 2006 and created a US chapter in Tampa, Florida. This offshoot has grown and another band was formed in Orlando with members moving back and forth between the bands for performances. In addition to those bands in Florida, Kumar’s daughters also play tassa and have formed the Sweet Tassa All-Girls Band—one of only a few such all-female groups around.


The newest band member of Sweet Tassa is not a Trini but an American professor obsessed with tassa. Chris Ballengee began his graduate work studying calypso and while working on his doctorate at the University of Florida knew he wanted to continue to look at the rich field of Trinidad music traditions. After seeing tassa bands in Miami, Ballengee was hooked and settled on tassa. He started fieldwork in 2007 in Trinidad and it wasn’t long before he was directed to Kumar and they have worked closely ever since. Dr Ballengee regularly comes to Trinidad to research tassa and recently published the first full length study on tassa, From Indian to Indo-Creole: Tassa Drumming, Creolisation, and Indo-Caribbean Nationalism in Trinidad and Tobago, University of Florida Press, 2013. Dr Ballengee’s work suggests that tassa has evolved into a unique Trinidadian music, distinct from its origins in India. Ballengee frequently performs with Sweet Tassa both in Trinidad and in Florida. In each of the last few years, he has organised a series of performance/lectures for Sweet Tassa at the University of Florida in 2010 and PASIC 2011 where the group did a performance/clinic and appeared with a mass steelband featuring Liam Teague as soloist. 


Last year, Sweet Tassa were guest performers at the West Virginia Day of Percussion. Ballengee finds that American audiences react to tassa with both a bit of bewilderment and enjoyment. “We have given many tassa performances and workshops … and every time we have been met with confusion since very few people here connect Indian culture with the Caribbean. Most Americans who have heard us play react positively when they feel the power and energy of tassa,” he said. Sweet Tassa returned in November to America for perhaps its most elaborate set of appearances. “We enjoy travelling with one another. We’ll travel halfway around the world to play a few hands of tassa for anyone who wants to listen.” The brief artist-in-residence at Northern Illinois University allowed Sweet Tassa the opportunity to teach percussion students on the tassa drumming and offer a historical survey of the music and culture of tassa drumming and even a tassa drumming master class where students got a chance to play. 


The residence ended with a brief public performance at the NIU steelband concert where they added a unique section to the performance of Jit Samaroo’s Milap, the closing piece on the concert. Sweet Tassa exposed hundreds of people to this unique Trinidad art form on its last trip. Beyond his work with Sweet Tassa, Chris Ballengee is continuing his research on tassa drumming and is currently working on a documentary with Kumar. Ballengee is very interested in hearing from people who have historic recordings, photos and footage of tassa drumming. Contact him at [email protected]


Ray Funk is a retired Alaskan judge who is passionately devoted to calypso, pan and mas. Andrew Martin is an ethnomusicologist, percussionist, pannist, and Associate Professor of Music at Inver Hills College in St Paul, Minnesota.


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