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The changing face of Hosay

By Terry Joseph
March 04, 2004

SINCE the first tadjah appeared on the streets of Phillipine Village in South Trinidad in 1846, religious fundamentals of the annual "Hosay" commemoration have remained intact, although latter day processions, notably the recently concluded edition, reveal some less than subtle changes to just about every other aspect of the original template.

The Shi'ite Muslim observance marks the martydrdom in 640 AD of Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. It was introduced by Indian indentured servants, publicly recounting three major episodes that took place at Kerbala, Iraq, during the siege of Hussain's 79-member group by the thousand-man army of the caliph Yazeed who, using a period of uncertainty in the Prophet's succession, attempted to install himself as head of the religion.

Flag night remembers the bravery of Abbas, who tried to get water for the children from the nearby Euphrates River but was ambushed on the way back, although he carried a white flag to indicate the nature of his mission.

Small Hosay is for the children who consequently suffered and the big tadjahs represent the tomb of Hussain.

A heavy red "moon" mounted atop a pole anchored at the waist and danced in solemn step, is in remembrance of the Imam's beheading, while a green version reminds of the earlier poisoning death of his brother Hassan.

Although the legend is fully internalized by devotees, Hosay's first adjustment came when it quickly evolved into a cosmopolitan event, with persons of other religions and sheer community spirit, swelling the following.

Even so, all who volunteer to help prepare flags, drums and tadjahs do so on the clear understanding that fasting and muslim prayer are centerpieces of the observance, which takes place over the first ten days of Moharram (the first month of the Islamic calendar). Strict rules of overall conduct are insisted upon from those allowed to visit the imambara (holy ground).

For those reasons, this year, some of the regular faces seen in times previous as part of the street procession's tassa drum bands were missing, because coinciding commitments to the national festival prevented them from beginning the fast on the first day of Moharram, which fell on Carnival Saturday.

Interestingly, Hosay's dwindling spectatorship is believed to have been caused by insistence on somber appreciation of the commemoration that, up to not so long ago, was responded to with interpretive dancing and shouts of "Hosay, Hosay"! A relentless education campaign that included visits from the US-based Bilaal Organisation, succeeded in keeping away those who cannot resist reacting to the powerful drums that, in other applications, are used for unfettered dancing.

While big tadjahs still feature ornate and colourful work, with thousands of little handmade flowers (called "pan"), painstakingly made from tin-foil and paper, meticulously stuck to their sculpted sidings easily-cut Styrofoam has long replaced the intricate joinery on boards to which they were affixed in earlier editions of the commemoration.

Roseau canes, cut from locations deep in forested areas, used in conjunction with mangrove wood and bamboo, remain the basic materials in constructing the frame of the tadjah, even with lighter alternatives more easily available. Elderly women no longer throw rice and coins onto the tadjah, perhaps for fear the intended recipient may be deprived of such gifts by the less devout.

But in the long interim, tadjah designers have incorporated battery-powered lighting systems for the night procession and each column (or ghumaj) and the minarets that top them are today carved with the help of electric jigsaws. The price of production has also changed significantly and, over the past few years, Government has been moved to disburse grants to Hosay organizations to help offset costs; assistance that would have been frowned upon not so long ago.

Tassa drumming accompanying the procession, once limited to playing "hands" (beats) inspired exclusively by the commemoration's core purpose have, in recent times, been liberalized to include rhythms fashioned from indigenous music, including "steelpan" and "soca" known by such titles; played side by side with traditional forms like the "war" and "dead" hands.

Women, traditionally prohibited from playing major roles in Hosay productions and procession, have reversed that custom, turning up as drummers in the tassa bands and actively working on the imambara, instead of being confined to producing accessories at a remote location and, of course, cooking.

But among the more dramatic changes evident this year was the use of a new type of tassa drum, one that avoided both the clay bowl and goatskin-playing-surface of the traditional model. In order to avoid having to frequently heat the goatskin drumhead back to the desired pitch, many bands switched to synthetic skins, which maintain integrity of sound for long periods and are swiftly restored by mechanical tightening; fastening them to metal bowls cut from 20lb propane cylinders. It was noticeable, however, that most of the lead drummers ("lolay" men) maintained their allegiance to goatskin.

Even more astonishing was a car traveling ahead of the first big tadjah, the vehicle outfitte with a public address system preaching peace between factions of Islam, a major change from just a few years ago when members of a rival sect demonstrated against the commemoration, saying such observances are contrary to the teachings of the religion. In one disturbing episode, the protestors broke glass bottles on the ground in the path of the mood-dancers, who perform their ritual barefooted.

It may be some time yet before we see a big tadjah built using fiberglass pliability, pvc superstructure or the final monument moved along by motorized means, but one thing is certain, for all Hosay's tradition and legend, it has not refused to budge in the face of changing times.

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