London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


Tom-Tom Players.


WITHIN the last few years East Indians playing on the tom-tom have occasionally made their appearance in the London streets. The Indian or Lascar crossing-sweepers, who earned their living by alternately plying the broom and sitting as models to artists—the Indian converted to Christianity, who, in his calico clothes, with his brown bosom showing. was seen, particularly on cold days, crouching on the pavement and selling tracts, have lately disappeared from our highways, and in their stead the tom-tom players have made their appearance.

I saw of these performers in of the West-end streets, creeping slowly down the centre of the road, and beating their drums with their hands, whilst they drawled out a kind of mournful song. Their mode of parading the streets is to walk following the other, beating their oyster-barrel-shaped drums with their hands, which they make flap about from the wrist like flounders out of water, whilst they continue their droning song, and halt at every paces to look round.

of these performers was a handsome lad, with a face such as I have seen in the drawings of the princes in the "Arabian Nights Entertainments." He had a copper skin and long black hair, which he brushed behind his ears. On his head was a white turban, made to cock over ear, like a hat worn on side, and its rim stood out like the stopper to a scent-bottle.

The costume of the man greatly resembled that of a gentleman wearing his waistcoat out- side his shirt, only the waistcoat was of green merino, and adorned with silk embroidery, his waist being bound in with a scarf. Linen trowsers and red knitted cuffs, to keep his wrists warm, completed his costume.

This man was as tall, slim, and straight, and as gracefully proportioned, as a bronze image. His face had a serious, melancholy look, which seemed to work strongly on the feelings of the nurses and the servant-girls who stopped to look at him. His companion, although dressed in the same costume, (the only difference being that the colour of his waistcoat was red instead of green,) formed a comical contrast to his sentimental Othellolooking partner, for he was what a Yankee would call "a rank nigger." His face, indeed, was as black and elastic-looking as a printer"s dabber.

The name of the negro boy was Peter. Beyond "Yes" and "No," he appeared to be perfectly unacquainted with the English language. His Othello friend was years of age, and spoke English perfectly. I could not help taking great interest in this lad, both from the peculiarity of his conversation, which turned chiefly upon the obedience due from children to their parents, and was almost fanatical in its theory of perfect submission, and also from his singularly handsome countenance; for his eyes were almond-shaped, and as black as elder-berries, whilst, as he spoke, the nostrils of his aquiline nose beat like a pulse.

When I attempted to repeat after them of their Indian songs, they both burst out into uproarious merriment. Peter rolling about in his chair like a serenader playing "the bones," and the young Othello laughing as if he was being tickled.

In speaking of the duties which they owed to their parents, the rules of conduct which they laid down as those to be followed by a good son were wonderful for the completeness of the obedience which they held should be paid to a father"s commands. They did not seem to consider that the injunctions of a mother should be looked upon as sacredly as those of the male parent. They told me that the soul of the child was damned if even he disputed to obey the father"s command, although he knew it to be wrong, and contrary to God"s laws. "Allah," they said, would visit any wickedness that was committed through such obedience upon the father, but he would bless the child for his submission. Their story was as follows:—

Most of the tom-tom players are Indians, but we are both of us Arabs. The Arabs are just equally as good as the Indians at playing the tom-tom, but they haven"t got exactly to the learning of the manufacture of them yet. I come from Mocha, and so does Peter, my companion; only his father belongs to what we call the Abshee tribe, and that"s what makes him so much darker than what I am. The Abshee tribe are now outside of Arabia, up by the Gulf of Persia. They are much the same as the Mucdad people,—it"s all the same tribe like.

My name is Usef Asman, and my father has been over here twelve years now. He came here in the English army, I"ve heard him say, for he was in the 77th Bengal Native Infantry; but he wasn"t an Indian, but enlisted in the service and fought through the Sikh war, and was wounded. He hasn"t got a pension, for he sent his luggage through Paris to England, and he lost his writings. The East India Company only told him that he must wait until they heard from India, and that"s been going on for now six years.

Mother came home with father and me, and two brothers and a sister. I"m the second eldest. My brother is thirty-six, and he was in the Crimea, as steward on board the Royal Hydaspes, a steam screw she is. He was 17 and I was 6 years old when I came over. My brother is a fine strapping fellow, over six feet high, and the muscles in his arms are as big round as my thigh.

I don"t remember my native country, but Peter does, for he"s only been here for two years and five months. He likes his own country better than England. His father left Arabia to go to Bombay, and there he keeps large coffee-shops. He"s worth a little money. His shops are in the low quarter of the town, just the same as Drury Lane may be, though it"s the centre of the town. They call the place the Nacopoora taleemoulla.

Before father went into the army he was an interpreter in Arabia. His father was a horse-dealer. My father can speak eight or nine different languages fluently, besides a little of others. He was the interpreter who got Dr. Woolfe out of Bokhara prison, when he was put in because they thought he was a spy. Father was sent for by the chief to explain what this man"s business was. It is the Mogul language they speak there. My father was told to get him out of the country in twentyfour hours, and my father killed his own horse and camel walking so hard to get him away.

We was obliged to put ourselves up to going about the streets. Duty and necessity first compelled me to do it. Father couldn"t get his pension, and, of course, we couldn"t sit at home and starve; so father was obliged to go out and play the drum. He got his tomtoms from an Arab vessel which came over, and they made them a present to him.

We used before now, father and myself, to go to artists or modelers, to have our likenesses taken. We went to Mr. Armitage, when he was painting a battle in India. If you recollect, I"m leaning down by the rocks, whilst the others are escaping. I"ve also been to Mr. Dobson, who used to live in Newmanstreet. I"ve sat to him in my costume for several pictures. In one of them I was like a chief"s son, or something of that, smoking a hubble-bubble. Father used to have a deal of work at Mr. Gale"s, in Fitzroy-square. I don"t know the subjects he painted, for I wasn"t there whilst father used to sit. It used to tire me when I had to sit for two or three hours in one position. Sometimes I had to strip to the waist. I had to do that at Mr. Dobson"s in the winter time, and, though there was a good fire in the room, it was very wide, and it didn"t throw much heat out, and I used to be very cold. He used to paint religious subjects. I had a shilling an hour, and if a person could get after-work at it, I could make a better living at it than in the streets; in fact, I"d rather do it any time, though it"s harder work, for there is a name for that, but there is no name for going about playing the tom-tom; yet it"s better to do that than sit down and see other people starving.

Father is still sitting to artists. He doesn"t go about the streets—he couldn"t face it out.

It"s about eight years ago since father got the tom-toms. They are very good ones, and one of them is reckoned the best in England. They are made out of mango tree. It grows just the same as the bamboo tree; and they take a joint of it, and take out the pith—for it"s pithy inside, just like elderberry wood, with the outside hard. Father had these tomtoms for a month before we went out with them.

The first day father went out with me, and kept on until he got employ; and then I went out by myself. I was about for four years by myself, along with sister; and then I went with Peter; and now we go out together. My sister was only about seven years old when she first went out, and she used to sing. She was dressed in a costume with a short jacket, with a tight waistcoat, and white trowsers. She had a turban and a sash.

When we first went out we done very well. We took 6, 7, or 8s. a-day. We was the first to appear with it; indeed there"s only me and my cousin and another man that does it now. Peter is my cousin. His real name is Busha, but we call him Peter, because it"s more a proper name like, because several people can call him that when they can"t Busha. We are all turned Christians; we go to school every Sunday, in Great Queen-street, Lincoln"s Inn, and always to chapel. They are joined together.

I and Peter take now, on a fine day in summer-time, generally 5 or 6s., but coming on winter as it does now it"s as much as we can do to take 2s. or 3s. Sometimes in winter we don"t take more than 1s. 6d., and sometimes 1s. Take the year round it would come, I should think, to 3s. a-day. On wet days we can"t do nothing.

We were forced to become Christians when we came here. Of course a true Mussulman won"t take anything to eat that has been touched by other people"s hands. We were forced to break caste. The beasts were Ethiopian Serenaders. [From a Photograph.] slaughtered by other people, and we wanted meat to eat. The bread, too, was made by Christians. The school-teachers used to come to father. We remained as Mussulmen as long as we could, but when winter came on, and we had no money, we was obliged to eat food from other people"s hands.

Persons wouldn"t believe it, but little family as we are it takes 4s. a-day to keep us. Yet mother speaks English well. I"m sure father doesn"t go out and drink not half--a pint a beer of a night, but always waits till we come home, and then our 3s. or 4s. go to get bread and rice and that, and we have a pot of beer between us.

Peter"s father married my father"s sister, that"s how we are cousins. He came over by ship to see us. He sent a message before to say that he was coming to see his uncle, and he expected to go back by the same ship, but he was used so cruelly on board that he preferred staying with us until we can all return together. Because he couldn"t understand English and his duty, and coming into a cold country and all, he couldn"t do his work, and they flogged him. Besides, they had to summon the captain to get their rights. He very much wants to get back to India to his father, and our family wants to get back to Mocha. I"ve forgot my Arabic, and only talk Hindostanee. I did speak French very fluently, but I"ve forgot it all except such things as Venez ici, or Voulezvous danser? or such-like.

When we are at home we mostly eat rice. It"s very cheap, and we like it better than anything else, because it fills our bellies better. It wouldn"t be no use putting a couple of halfquartern loaves before us two if we were hungry, for, thank God, we are very heartyeating, both of us. Rice satisfies us better than bread. We mix curry-powder and a little meat or fish with it. If there"s any fish in season, such as fresh herrings or mackerel, we wash it and do it with onions, and mix it with the curry-powder, and then eat it with rice. Plaice is the only fish we don"t use, for it makes the curry very watery. We wash the rice two or three times after looking over it to take out any dirt or stones, and then we boil it and let it boil about five minutes. Ricewater is very strengthening, and the Arabs drink a deal of it, because whenever it lays in the stomach it becomes solid. It turns, when cold, as thick as starch, and with some salt it"s not a bad thing.

Our best places for playing the tom-tom is the West-end in summer-time, but in winter we goes round by Islington and Shoreditch, and such-like, for there"s no quality at home, and we have to depend on the tradespeople. Sometimes we very often happen to meet with a gentleman—when the quality"s in town —who has been out in India, and can speak the language, and he will begin chatting with us and give us a shilling, or sometimes more. I"ve got two or three ladies who have taken a fancy to us, and they give me 6d. or 1s. whenever I go round. There"s one old lady and two or three young ones, at several houses in different places, who have such kindness for us. I was in place once with Captain Hines, and he was very kind to me. He had been out in India, and spoke the language very fluently. I didn"t leave him, he left me to go to the Crimea; and he told me he was very sorry, but he had a servant allowed him by the Government, and couldn"t take me.

Some of the servant-girls are very kind to us, and give us a 1d. or 2d. We in general tries to amuse the people as much as we can. All the people are very fond of Peter, he makes them laugh; and the same people generally gives us money when we goes round again.

When we are out we walk along side by side beating the tom-toms. We keep on singing different songs,—foreign ones to English tunes. The most favourite tune is what we calls in Hindostanee,— Tasa bi tasa, no be no Mutra bakooch, no arber go; Tasa bi tasa, no be no Attipa ho gora purgeen Mara gora gora chelopageen. Tasa bi tasa, no be no. O senna key taho baroo Dilla chungay gurrey kumahayroo. Tasa bi tasa, no be no Lutfellee karu basha bud Shibbe de lum sesta bud Tasa bi tasa, no be no.

This means:—

"I want something fresh (such as fish) in the value of nine. And after he went and bought these fresh goods he looked at them, and found them so good, that he was very pleased with them ("mutra bakooch" is pleased), that he says to his servant that he will give him leave to go about his business, because he"s made such a good bargain."

That"s all the meaning of that, sir, and we sing it to its original Indian tune. We sometimes sing Arab songs—one or two. They are very different, but we can"t explain them so well as we can the Hindostanee. They"re more melancholy, and towards the parents sentimental-like. There"s one song they sing in Arabia, that it puts them in that way they don"t know what they are doing of. They begin the song, and then they bend the body about and beat their knees, and keep on so until they tumble off their chairs. They nearly strangle themselves sometimes. It"s about love to their parents, and as if they left them and went far away. It"s a sort of a cutting song, and very sentimental. There"s always a man standing in one corner, looking after those singing, and when he sees them get into a way, he reads a book and comes and rouses them. He"s a kind of magician-like. Father sings it, and I know a verse or two of it. I"ve seen father and another man singing it, and they kept on see-sawing about, and at last they both fell off the chair. We got a little water and sprinkled their faces, and hit them on the back very hard, and said, "Sallee a nabbee," which is just the same as "Rise, in the name of the Lord," and they came to instantly, and after they got up was very calm—ah, very tame afterwards!

The tom-tom hasn"t got much music in it beyond beating like a drum. There are firstrate players in India, and they can make the tom-tom speak in the same way as if you was to ask a gentleman, "How do you do?" and they"ll answer you, "Very well, thank you." They only go to the feasts, which are called "madggeless," and then the noblemen, after hearing them, will give them great sums of money as a handsome present. The girls, too, dance to the tom-tom in India. Peter is a very good player, and he can make the tomtom to answer. One side of the drum asks the question, that is the treble side, and the bass one answers it, for in a tom-tom each end gives a different note.

Father makes all our clothes for us. We wear flannel under our shirts, which a lady made me a present of, or else we never used to wear them before. All through that sharp winter we never used to wear anything but our dress. All the Arab boys are brought up to respect their parents. If they don"t they will be punished. For myself, I always obey mine. My father has often called shame on the laws of this country, to hear the children abusing their parents. In our country, if a son disobeys his father"s command, he may, even though the child be as tall as a giant, take up his sword and kill him. My brother, who is on board ship, even though he has learnt the laws of this country, always obeys my father. One night he wouldn"t mind what was said, so my father goes up and hit him a side slap on the chops, and my brother turned the other cheek to him, and said in Arabic, "Father, hit this cheek, too; I have done wrong." He was about 30 then. Father said he hoped he"d never disobey his orders again.

The Arabs are very clean. In our country we bathe three times a-day; but over here we only go to the bath in Endell-street (a public one) twice a-week. We always put on clean things three times a-week.

There"s a knack in twisting the turban. A regular Arab always makes the rim bind over the right ear, like Peter"s. It don"t take more than five minutes to put the turban on. We do it up in a roll, and have nothing inside it to stiffen it. Some turbans have 30 yards in them, all silk, but mine is only 3 1/2 yards, and is calico. The Arab waistcoat always has a pocket on each side of the breast, with a lengthways opening, and a bit of braid round the edge of the stuff, ending where the waist is, so that the flaps are not bound.

The police are very kind to us, and never interfere with us unless there is somebody ill, and we are not aware of it. The tom-tom makes a very humming sound, and is heard to a great distance.

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 Title Page
Chapter I: The Destroyers of Vermin
Our Street Folk - Street Exhibitors
Chapter III: - Street Musicians
Chapter IV: - Street Vocalists
Chapter V: - Street Artists
Chapter VI: - Exhibitors of Trained Animals
Chapter VII: Skilled and Unskilled Labour - Garret-Masters
Chapter VIII: - The Coal-Heavers
Chapter IX: - Ballast-Men
Chapter X: - Lumpers
Chapter XI: Account of the Casual Labourers
 Chapter XII: Cheap Lodging-Houses
Chapter XIII: On the Transit of Great Britain and the Metropolis
Chapter XIV: London Watermen, Lightermen, and Steamboat-Men
Chapter XV: London Omnibus Drivers and Conductors
Chapter XVI: Character of Cabdrivers
Chapter XVII: Carmen and Porters
Chapter XVIII: London Vagrants
 Chapter XIX: Meeting of Ticket-of-Leave Men