Express, March 27, 2000 By Rajnie Ramlakhan

The Story of the Dhantaal

By Rajnie Ramlakhan
Trinidad Express, March 27, 2000

OUT of the mouth of Ajit Praimsingh, local Indian music producer and promoter, tumbled the story of the dhantaal recently.

According to his research, this percussion instrument was invented here from a crowbar and a horseshoe.


The dhantaal had its birth on the sugar cane fields sometime during indentureship (1845-1917) and thus predates the other instrument that eventually rose to attain national status. It survived indentureship, colonialism and independence, yet remains relatively unknown and unrecognised.

Throughout its existence it has brought joy and merriment not only to the hands that played it but those who gathered to sing and dance to it. Like all musical instruments, the dhantaal thought that its destiny lay in fame and glory. But that was not to be.

The dhantaal looked on silently, oftentimes enviously, as that other instrument was adopted by the authoritative figures and developed to its highest potential. Through experiment and amplification this instrument was fine-tuned to make it the beautiful-sounding instrument it is today.

This process entailed the spending of a lot of public funds, while even more money was spent to upkeep the thousands of hands that played it.

Not that the dhantaal begrudged the national instrument its success. In fact it strongly believed that all musical instruments should fulfil their destiny, which naturally is stardom.

But it was thinking that if just a little of that attention was given to it, that if just a little of that money was spent on its own development, where it could have been today.

Can you imagine with some fine-tuning and amplification, and being produced by the hundreds and played by an equal number of hands, or more, what its impact could have been? Who knows? The possibilities are endless, with imagination and creativity.

Instead, it looked on in silent dismay as some of the very hands that once played it, turned to that other instrument. Promoting it on the international stage, taking it on foreign tours, playing it on the airwaves, gushing poetry in its honour and making it a star on the international stage.

It went on to achieve the (dubious?) recognition of being the greatest musical invention of the 20th century.

It watched in grief as some of its most gifted hands shunned its pain as they too turned to the favoured instrument. However, who could blame them, for there lay fame and fortune. What could they get from playing the dhantaal but self-satisfaction for entertaining its creators?

And so, crushed into anonymity by the powers-that-be (and the dhantaal could tell you that when you are scorned by the powers-that-be "dog better than you"), the dhantaal waits in the wings for its day.

But its spirit is strong and defiant and its sound will not be silenced. It will be heard.

So it continues to bring joy and merriment to those who nurtured it. It will not shun the duty for which it was created, even though it remains the bastard child on the national music scene.

Then onto the stage stumbles Ajit Praimsingh who announces a plan to take the dhantaal out of the cane fields and into the public's eyes. He promises to honour it for the yeoman service it has performed for its people. And to do this on the day set aside to recognise its people.

This is by no means the fame all musical instruments yearn for. To be in the midst of bright lights, glitz and glamour; to be acknowledged by thunderous applause; to be splashed across the front page of the newspapers; to be known far and wide.

But it is a tiny step in that direction; and the dhantaal-born of lowly hands on the lonely cane fields-may yet receive pride-of-place in this land it calls home.

The story of the dhantaal is the story of the mainly rural-based Indian community in Trinidad. It is a story of shameful and wilful neglect by successive governments, but mainly the PNM, in all areas of national life.

As a result the Indian community was denied the opportunity to develop to its fullest potential. They were unable to produce international stars, especially in sports and music, due to lack of facilities and trained personnel.

And Manning wants evidence of PNM discrimination against Indians? Tut tut.

Roti Rhetoric

By Terry Joseph
Trinidad Express, March 29, 2000

IN an unprovoked demonstration of see-through separatism, Express columnist Rajnie Ramlakhan on Monday managed to hammer the dhantaal, a hitherto harmless musical instrument, into a divisive, double-edged political weapon; then sharpened it for use in an argument about ethnic discrimination.


The dhantaal, which was featured in its fullness on the cover of Section Two of the last Sunday Express, comprises a steel rod, struck by a horseshoe (or similarly shaped metal ring). It plays only one note, a tinkle, whose resonance can be affected by intermittently grasping and releasing the rod.

The dhantaal is used in the rhythm section of bands playing Indian music, although not exclusive to such groups.

Yet, Miss Ramlakhan sought to compare the plight of the little-known dhantaal, with the global recognition of pan. And in her desperation to shore up a patently weak argument, went way beyond half-truths and innuendo, conscripting instead, a string of outrageous misconceptions. She then appointed mischievous political motives as the main reason for the disparity, all in a very falsified run up to bowl the discrimination ball.

Her article was the quintessential work on malice aforethought. It contained verbal gymnastics of Olympian quality throughout. Then, as if to outdo herself, Miss Ramlakhan ended the story of the dhantaal by likening it to the story of the mainly rural-based Indian community in Trinidad, describing both as "a story of shameful and wilful neglect by successive governments, but mainly the PNM".

Among the other reckless conclusions she preferred to call "evidence" of discrimination, Miss Ramlakhan argued that the development of pan was funded by the State, while the dhantaal suffered for recognition; all because it was an Indian invention. Fact is that pan development has never been at government's expense, the instrument being embraced by nationalist politicians long after its validity had been proven by those pan pioneers who had been cast as outcasts even among their own. Nor is even this unusual since Miss Ramlakhan must know that chutney music has also risen to star status, without any help from the State.

But the basic misconception was but a minor ripple, compared to the river of other examples which Miss Ramlakhan dredged for even more spurious monsters to sic at the steelband movement. For instance, she declared that, as a consequence of past governments overtly favouring steelbands, frustrated dhantaal players felt forced to defect to the panyards. And all the while the vituperative piece rambled on, Miss Ramlakhan simply could not bring herself to write the word "pan" or "steelband". She referred to it as "that other instrument" for the duration of the piece.

"And so crushed into anonymity by the powers-that-be," her diatribe continued, "the dhantaal waits in the wings for its day. But its spirit is strong and defiant and its sound will not be silenced. It will be heard."

Rallying words for sure. But what rubbish is this? A dhantaal? How far can you stretch the politics of divisiveness, Rajnie?

In any event, were we not led to believe all the while that the harmonium, originally an Alpine instrument, was the preferred argument from Indians seeking to ensure that pan enjoys no unfair advantages? So now you want a Dhanorama competition for the one-note dhantaal band? A Dhantaal Arrival Day? Full reparation?

Clearly, Miss Ramlakhan was offering nothing more than rum-shop rhetoric, in her bid to bash the PNM. But she went on (although it began to sound as though she had confused the dhantaal with chimes or tubular bells). "Can you imagine with some fine-tuning and amplification, and being produced by the hundreds and played by an equal number of hands or more, what its (the dhantaal's) impact could have been? Who knows?" she asked.

Well, it's your lucky day, Miss Ramlakhan, because I know. The pan and dhantaal were both invented here, are metallic and are classified musically as percussion instruments. And that is the absolute extent of their similarity. Unlike your imaginary dhantaal band, Rajnie, a properly constituted steel orchestra can reproduce all but 12 of the piano's 88 notes.

I do not have to deny the pioneering role of blacks in the invention and development of pan to make the point that, in time, other groups came to embrace and contribute to it, a point not lost on an overwhelming majority in the Indian community who, according to a SARA poll, had no difficulty in embracing pan as the national instrument.

So, in the event you ever see a need to revisit the topic, Miss Ramlakhan, try to factor in the established truths including the fact that these days calypsonians are helping to bring the dhantaal into the mainstream by including it in their orchestration. Such an approach, should add a tremendous amount of credibility to your text.

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