The beat of a different chutney soca drum

T&T’s chutney soca fuses Indian music with African elements drawn from calypso. Kim Johnson unearths its intertwined roots

  • Slinger “The Mighty Sparrow” Francisco. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Drupatee performs at the 2011 Chutney Soca Monarch competition. Photograph by David Samson
  • Mungal Patasar, sitarist. Photograph by Andrea de Silva
  • Rikki Jai, the winner of the 2011 Chutney Soca Monarch competition. Photograph by David Samson

The coupling of chutney and soca is a movement, drifting now in the soca direction, now in the chutney direction, like dancing partners, neither skilled as yet, in an uncrowded ballroom. In the calypso season they move, starting with early numbers such as Drupatee’s 1998 “Roll Up de Tassa”, towards the Afro-creole end of the floor. As Rikki Jai sang in a tune which was also, like Drupatee’s, not written by an Indo-Trini, “Hold the Lata Mangeshkar, give me soca”.

At other times, at the large chutney shows in Central Trinidad and the deep South, in the music of men such as the Yankarran brothers and women such as Geeta Kewalsingh and Prematee Bhim, the movement drifts towards the Indian side.

There have also been men who wholeheartedly embraced the musical culture of the other group and made significant contributions in the effort. The Mootoo Brothers formed one of the most important back-up bands for calypsonians in the 1950s, while Bobby Mohammed of Cavaliers and Jit Samaroo of Renegades have been central to the development of steelband. The Hindu Prince has sung some marvellous calypsoes in the vein of traditional social commentary. Similarly, Johnson Blackwell and Roy Cooper were important exponents of Indian classical singing.

The contribution of such men was not in fusion music, however, at least not directly: their submergence into the other man’s culture had been too complete for that.

Still, it started a long time ago, the crossover of African and Indian music. Calypso storytelling had begun using music to enhance its narrative; and calypsoes about Indians in Trinidad often incorporated an Indian “sound”. Beginning in the late 1920s such calypsoes would string together Indian names or words, or be sung in a pidgin English.

Using Indian rhythms, Killer made a hit in 1947 with: “Every time ah passin’, gal, you grindin’ massala”. That very year, perhaps prompted by the Indian rhythm of “Grinding Massala,” Albert Gomes pointed out that: “The calypso singer has begun to announce in his songs that our ethnic ‘potpourrie’ (sic) is a reality.”

But miscegenation in our New World didn’t begin with love, whatever exotic and exciting hybrids may have resulted. And many of these early “Indian” calypsoes celebrated bigotry and exploitation. Hindi words and Hindu names, real or invented, were ridiculed by black calypsonians. It was part of the general disparagement of anyone different. Vincentians, Bajans, Guyanese, Grenadians got their share, as did Chinese, Portuguese, and everyone else. And Indians, being one of the most distinct groups in an Afro-western society, were subject to the greatest contempt.

Much to the chagrin of Indian traditionalists, the modern “Indian” calypsoes have drawn on motifs of spicy Indian food as symbols of the sexuality of Indian women. “I have a tabanca,” sang the Mighty Trini, before listing the hottest Indian foods, “curry tabanca”.

With greater subtlety Sparrow managed to raise the hackles of Hindu Brahmins in 1985 by choosing to sing of saucy, tasty “Marajin” at a time when Indian women had begun to shuck off the worst forms of sexual paternalism, often by embracing creole culture: “Ah go work the land and gi’ you all me paisa,” he sang with uncharacteristic sentimentality, “An’ will even drink your juta from the lota”.

Sparrow was doing nothing he hadn’t done before with far more mischievous humour. But Hindu leaders were stung, letters were written to the press. The crowd had no taste for political correctness, however. “Marajin” was a huge hit, not only at Carnival but even more so at the mainly Indian Phagwa, so that Sparrow returned the following year to court “Marajin Sister”.

Sparrow’s successes with Marajin and her sister were built on Lord Shorty’s 1971 “Indrani”, this old Indian chick: “So bony, skinny like a whip.” Shorty spoke Hindi and had grown up in Lengua, in south Trinidad, breathing Indian music in the air around him. His calypso danced on a sinuous Asian melody and the hop-and-drop Indian rhythm of a dholak drum:

When she come from the lagoon
And she start up she ole Indian tune

“Soca” is a catch-all category embracing many up-tempo rhythms influenced by Baptist, Orisha, zouk, reggae, soul, and other musical styles. But Shorty had also been experimenting with Indian rhythms since “Indian Singers” in the 1960s. And whether his was the main influence which introduced the new bounce that created soca, his “Om Shanti Om” set a standard which is yet to be surpassed, either lyrically or musically. And socially his timing was perfect. Between skinny Indrani from the lagoon and Marajin the queen of beauty an oil boom had intervened. Money flowed; rural Indians moved to town; Indian women, educated and independent, broke away; Shorty turned to religion; the nation partied, and calypso, its step quickened, became simplified into soca – a dance music. And the dholak sound in Indrani’s music, played on the bass guitar, took root. Calypso, an Afro-creole folksong, through one of its soca avatars, moved closer to India.

To consummate the embrace, however, chutney, an Indo-creole folksong, needed to come of age.

The Indian culture brought to Trinidad included a wide variety of folksongs, some of which were closely analogous to the calypso. A biraha, for instance, according to U Arya, “may be composed instantaneously by any person on any subject. It may break all bounds of propriety and social rules. It may protest against any practice, custom or person, or may praise these.”

In addition there are Hindu devotional bhajans and ritual sohars, Muslim ghazals and cassidas. There are chowtals sung at Phagwa and erotic chatthi songs sung by women six days after childbirth, and many others. On the public farewell nights at weddings some of the traditional women’s songs were lifted out of their context and accelerated to a rapid breakaway rhythm on the harmonium, the dhantal iron, and the dholak drum.

These up-tempo versions still form the substance of chutney, but they had to evolve to become compatible with soca. And as late as 1971 only five of 88 compositions in an audition for the television talent show Mastana Bahar were local. Enter Sundar Popo.

His melodies were simple, catchy, and his lyrics in a blend of English and Hindi were in the most part comprehensible to everyone, though sung in an Indian style. And thus he showed a way with a string of hits that borrowed from local chutney and Indian film music, in particular “Nani and Nana”:

Nani goin’ behind
Nana drinkin’ white rum
Nani drinkin’ wine

Sundar Popo would have been impossible without the work of Harry Mahabir, the leader of the BWIA National Indian Orchestra. Mahabir’s band used western instruments which therefore played on a western scale; he simplified the Indian rhythms from their improvised, shifting patterns into a consistent Afro-creole beat; he adapted Indian linear melodies to western techniques of harmony.

Yet the result was no less Indian for that. Usually there was some characteristically Indian instrumentation, tassa drums or a harmonium. Lyrics, even when in English, were sung in the nasal Hindi phrasing, with the cheekbones rather than the chest. Certain melodic progressions had a distinctive Indian flavour, but even when they didn’t they could be played with Indian lilts.

The 1970s, through Lord Shorty and Sundar Popo, made Creole and Indian music compatible. But social life in Afro-creole Trinidad is a stage, and for Indians, who have tended to be private, defensive, the idea of a fusion took some getting accustomed to. Unlike calypsonians, many chutney singers were women, who were expected to be modest outside of the community.

Mastana Bahar and the annual Indian Cultural Pageant, when it began to include a chutney segment, helped. Many contestants performed calypso-type Indian songs. But it was the weekend chutney shows, with their wild and almost orgiastic atmosphere, a cross between calypso tent and Carnival party, that groomed Indian singers for the public stage.

Then Kanchan visited from India to sing “Kayse Banie” with Sundar Popo. She performed her hit “Kuchi Gad Bad Hai” a rewrite of Arrow’s “Hot, Hot, Hot”; “Tiny Winey”; and other calypsoes, all in an Indian style. That opened the door for Drupatee Ramgoonai from Penal to produce her first album in 1987, Chatnee Soca, with songs in both Hindi and English. The following year, amidst furious criticism from the Brahmin sector, she performed her hit “Roll Up de Tassa” in a calypso tent:

A section from Debe
Join an’ start to play
Indian lavway and they
Jammin’ the soca

The 1990s saw a political and cultural resurgence of Indians, accelerating in 1995 when calypsonian Black Stalin won the Calypso Monarch competition with “Sundar Popo”. In May, the 150th anniversary of the first arrival of Indians was enthusiastically celebrated, and shortly after, Basdeo Panday became the first Indo-Trinidadian prime minister. A few months later the Chutney Soca Monarch competition was inaugurated before a crowd nearing 15,000. In the 1996 Carnival Brother Marvin won the Calypso Monarch with the very pleasant “Jahaji Bhai”.

Since then many other catchy chutney-soca hits have emerged, such as Sonny Mann’s “Lotay La” and Kenneth Salick’s “Radica”. Generally, however, the music has become as focused on partying as is soca, and in lyrics is even more banal, as in the soca-chutney sub-genre of “rum songs” about the centrality of alcohol to the good life.

On both sides the music is rudimentary, not primitive so much as mechanical. In its melodies and rhythms it is still simplistic. The unifying feature of this dougla music, rhythm, is a simple hop-and-drop beat on the bass guitar, a sort of lowest common denominator.

Classical sitarist Mungal Patasar points to the continued use of old melodies in chutney. He argues that Indo-Trinidadian musical creativity is hampered by ignorance of the classical Indian ragas, just as a jazzman would be stunted by an ignorance of the blues. His daughter Sharda Patasar, also a classically trained sitarist, is attempting the fusion with calypso and pop musicians. It is an experiment with great potential. To hear Andre Tanker’s “Jumbie Walk,” or Shorty’s “Om Shanti” is to savour a sweetness, a pungency that is only waiting to be mastered. And when that happens the people of Trinidad & Tobago will taste the true sensuousness of the Orient.


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