By Sumayya I. Ja’eh
Chorus/children: ‘Ka yi rawa kai mallam ka yi rawa.’
You’ve danced, oh! Mallam, you’ve danced
Mallam: ‘Ban yi ba’,
Chorus: ‘tsoho mai gemun banza.’
Old man with a useless beard
The call-and-response dialogue, accompanied by the beating of a drum, propped open my six-year-old eyes in my grandfather’s compound in a village in Katsina. It was one of those fuzzy moments when you wake up and don’t know where you are for a minute. I had slept off in the car, only to find myself in a dim room lit by a kerosene lamp. There was no electricity, and the young moon illuminated the compound. The young boys that woke me were beating a locally made drum from tins, nylon, and sticks. They looked like characters from the famous tale by moonlight series produced and aired by the national television station NTA, which I was obsessed with then. The main character, Mallam, had a costume: a babban riga, an old cap placed haphazardly, a white beard, attained by putting white cotton on a boy’s face, and his mimicry of an old Mallam thrilled me. It made me and their audience laugh. That was my first conscious experience of Tashe and one of the reasons I look forward to spending my fasting period with my grandparents in Katsina or Kaduna.
Tashe is an old-age traditional mimetic performance performed by children between 6 to 14. It is an annual cultural performance that takes place in the 9th month of the Islamic calendar and is performed in the early hours of the morning or the evening before the pre-dawn meal or after the break of the fast. Tashe is a short play that challenges a social issue, accompanied by songs, dance, and mimicry.
Tashe can be traced as far back as the contact of the Hausawa with Islam. The word is derived from ‘tashi’, a Hausa word for wake up. Muslims are expected during the month of Ramadan (9th) of the Islamic calendar to fast, and they are highly recommended to take the pre-dawn meal. So, some people feel the need to wake others up for Sahur, to replenish their empty stomachs and energy to see them through the rigours of the day’s work without much difficulty. So, a few community members took it upon themselves to wake people, to prepare and eat just before dawn. To lighten the frustration of struggling to keep awake with no alarms, these volunteers enact the games named wasannin Tashe. While the adults prepare the meals, children with nothing to do occupy themselves with games to help while away time. Another factor is the essence of Tashe, which is aimed at luring people away from un-Islamic leisure pastimes since the beginning of Ramadan.
Tashe is performed mainly by young children, who imitate adults. It is often satirical and full of humour but laden with moral lessons and socio-religious ethics of the Hausa community. Tashe is usually passed down orally from generation to generation. The characters fill the roles with costumes, makeup, and dialogues in call-and-response songs. It is social criticism and a mirror/lens to view the socio-religious ways of life in most Hausa communities.
The Almajirai also are volunteers that perform Tashe. The Almajiri’s source for their food, move from house to house, seeking food or alms. During Ramadan, the Almajiri sing a dirge in the late night hours, songs calling out to anyone with an extra plate to give them. Some musicians and drummers, along with young children, also began to imitate the activities engaged in by the adults. In time, these plays shifted to the early hours of the night. They sing, dance, dialogue, improvise and wear costumes. It is a comedy, but like all comedy, it is the presentation of serious matters in unserious ways.
One striking characteristic of Tashe is its didacticism; it doesn’t only entertain but emphasizes the Hausa cultural belief and tradition—Tashe projects social ethics. Therefore, many performances aim to ridicule those who deviate from correct social norms merrily.
One well-known Tashe passed down from generation to generation is that of naci na kasa tashi, meaning, ‘I’m so full, I can’t stand.” One of the young boys dressed as an older man puts cotton on his chin that looks like a beard and puts on some clothes to show his protruding stomach. When they are ready, they go from house to house. The lead character sings, and the other children chorus/reply.
Baba: na ci na kasa tashi!
Children: Baba zare gareka!
Baba: Tuwon da dadi yake!
Children: Baba zare gare ka!
Baba: kuma har da nama!
The above can be roughly translated as ‘I’m so full, I can’t stand’, and the children reply with ‘Baba, you’re greedy,’ while the Baba tries to justify his gluttony by saying the tuwo is sweet and there is meat.
For instance, Ga Mariama Ga Daudu, another Tashe, gives us a socio-historic glimpse of the Hausa laden with humour. It is a mimetic performance of the communal responsibilities/expectation of husband and wife, the type of staple food eaten by Hausas. Although a comic, the play is social criticism of the institute of marriage, which several people from both genders are desecrating. Girls stage the play. One of the girls puts on a costume, a long kaftan and a beard and tries to deepen her voice to sound like a man. It is a telltale that enlightens young women about what society expects from a married woman.
Due to the Hausa tradition that does not allow the two genders to mix freely, the girls and boys don’t mix to perform Tashe. Instead, each gender play switches roles with its unique performance type.
A very well-known Tashe is of Gwauro. It is a mime that consists of 5/6 boys. One of them is dressed in nothing but bante (a short nicker) Hausa traditional pants, a rope tied to his waist, a bundle of clothes with kitchen utensils like used tins, old, discarded radio, an old dirty kettle can be found in the bundle carried by the main character. The others hold on to the rope while the lead character tries to run and is being pulled by the rope, while they sing ‘gwauro gwauro, gwauro nuna mana yadda kake tsanawa’? Gwauro can be translated to as Divorcee or an old bachelor. ‘Show us how you cook?’ He goes on to put a tin can, wedged it between two stones, and mimics blowing air into the woods.
This is aimed at ridiculing the bachelor, and lessons deducted from this drama border on the irresponsible nature of the bachelor for trying to play the role of a woman, who in most Hausa communities is the one who cooks. Tying the rope around the waist of the lead actor is symbolic. The rope restraining the bachelor also portrays the image of someone in bondage. This shows that in Hausa society, marriage is given such importance that the bachelor/divorcee is considered a lesser being than the other community members.
One Tashe that has gone viral and is available on YouTube is the 2021 Ramadan Tashe ridiculing the state governor of Kano, who asked for 15 billion naira to tackle the issue of Covid 19, as well as a scandal video of him collecting kickback. The short clip shows a boy lying on the floor with a babban riga (an overflowing gown), a red cap, and a white beard. His friends, the crew call out, ‘Ganduje tashi,’ ‘Ganduje stand up,’ to which he replies, ‘sai an ba ni dollar Corona’ ‘not until I am giving dollars to fight Corona.’ The clip is a short comedy skit that not only cracks people up but also has an undertone that challenges corruption by government officials.
Though Tashe is basically performed to provide merriment, the reverse may occur. Sometimes, Tashe meant to ridicule certain personalities, which may not be acceptable to the person concerned. Here the object of ridicule will not find the performance funny, and it is pretty common to see the performers running helter-skelter, being chased by the target of the performance. At other times, the performance itself may be acceptable, but the attitude of the performers may be irritating to the target audience. To cap it up, these performers would taunt any house owner who refused to donate anything. Upon exiting, the actor would often sing, “mun taka tutu, maigidan nan ya yi shi.” “We have stepped on a heap of shit; the owner of this house must have excreted it”.
Tashe emphasizes communal performance. My grandparents or parents always give out some loose change to the performers. This is the norm that the adults expected to give alms to the performers. These donations can be money or food items, primarily grains like millet and sorghum, the staple foods in any Hausa community. There is no fixed amount for alms, but donation largely depends on the social and financial status of the audience, as well as the extent of enjoyment of a performance.
The audience, primarily adults, also participates by correcting any misrepresentation in the texts, disguise, or dramatization. With globalization and urbanization happening worldwide, Tashe, as I used to know it, is fast becoming a relic of the past. The face of Tashe has evolved in urban cities. Few children or Almajirai go from house to house, entertaining people while seeking alms.
This long-old tradition of performance entertains and highlights the life of the Hausa folks and brings the fore societal expectation of a man/woman in Hausa society. Although it is a series of plays that comes only once a year as entertainment, it is full of dramatic content that reflects contemporary events. This mimetic performance encompasses most characteristics of a drama; costume, dialogue, improvisation, storyline, and purpose. These earliest Tashe performances are the precursor of modern Hausa drama.
Tashe tries to divert the community’s attention from the economic and political predicament. Tashe, like Macukule, which explores the Hausa stereotype of the Gwari man, is still dominant in contemporary Hausa movies. A renowned character Dan Gwari is not new to anyone familiar with Hausa movies.
Today, if you google Tashe on YouTube, a few children and young adults pop up on your white screen. The TV channel, Arewa24, created a short series of Tashe that they stream. While this is another means of preserving this long tradition, the thrill and euphoria experienced by the audience are reduced by the limited screen. Unfortunately, my children would most likely never experience this long communal tradition of Tashe as I did.
Sumayya I. Ja’eh wrote from Abuja via firstname.lastname@example.org.