It’s fitting that the man who created soca music, by combining soul with calypso, was the one who also birthed chutney soca. Back in 1974, when Trinidadian Ras Shorty I released “Om Shanti Om”, there was not yet a name for this musically intoxicating marriage. Shorty infused soca with traditional classical Indian percussive instruments like the dholak (a two-headed hand-drum), the tabla (similar to bongo drums), and the dhantal (a long steel rod played by striking it with a horseshoe).
“Om Shanti Om” was arguably the first chutney soca song on record, but the genre drew on the older chutney style, which can be traced to Caribbean Hindu weddings. Traditionally it meant a kind of traditional tune sung by women, later lent a dance tempo by musicians like Ramdew Chaitoe in Suriname. Trinidadian Sunilal Popo Bahora, a.k.a. Sundar Popo, took it mainstream with the release of his 1970s hit “Nana and Nani”.
And though Shorty experimented with a soca-and-chutney cross in that same decade, chutney soca as we know it today was only officially defined in 1987, with the debut of Drupatee Ramgoonai’s first album Chatnee Soca. The following year, another exponent emerged, in the person of Samraj Jaimungal, or Rikki Jai, as he’s much better known. Rikki Jai was a member of the Indian music orchestra JMC Triveni before releasing “Sumintra” — a runaway hit that told the story of an Indo-Trinidadian woman’s love for soca over the music of Indian playback singer Lata Mangeshkar.
Today’s widespread popularity of chutney soca among Trinidadians of all backgrounds can be credited in part to the introduction of the Chutney Soca Monarch competition in 1995, open to all performers of the genre. Rikki Jai and Drupatee became household names, alongside Ramrajie Prabhoo (the first woman to win the coveted Chutney Soca Monarch prize), Heeralal Rampartap, Sonny Mann, and Rooplal Girdharie — who also increasingly found a place in Carnival fetes and soca concerts.
Today’s chutney soca has changed since the days when Drupatee and Rikki Jai ruled supreme. The use of filmi melodies from popular Bollywood movies, with lyrics rewritten to give the songs local relevance, has increased the genre’s popularity. Meanwhile, the lyrics’ prevailing themes have also evolved, in directions that often flirt with stereotype, with numerous pro-alcohol songs (Adesh Samaroo’s “Rum Till I Die”, Ravi B’s “Rum Is Meh Lover”), and others slyly tackling marital infidelity.
The genre has also spawned young and feisty superstars — among them, KI, Sally Sagram, and Nisha and Ravi B — who are just as popular during Carnival season as soca artistes. Unafraid of trying new things, including musical collaborations, these artistes are also trendsetters, with endorsement deals for telecom companies and websites that keep their fans in touch with gig dates and new releases.
Meanwhile, pioneers Drupatee and Rikki Jai have also successfully kept up with the music, and serve as inspiration and motivation to the growing bunch of younger chutney soca performers. Earlier this year, Drupatee’s career was given a second breath of life, when she teamed up with soca’s hottest export, Machel Montano, for the song “Indian Gyal”. The two first collaborated on the chutney soca “Real Unity” thirteen years ago — the song symbolic not only of the ethnic backgrounds of the two singers, but as a genre all Trinidadians can lay claim to.
Photographed at Extreme band room, Chaguanas
Two years into her career as a singer, Sally Sagram lost her father, Bal Sagram, a local singer of Bollywood playback songs. She was just ten years old, and decided she would follow him onto the professional stage. By the time she was nineteen, she was singing chutney soca with the Spread Paal Crew, and soon after began performing and competing in national shows.
Three years ago she formed the crossover band Extreme with her brother Shivan, and it’s here, in the band room below her home in Chaguanas, that Sally plans global musical domination with her bandmates.
Photographed at Woodford Café, PricePlaza, Chaguanas
When Kris Vishal Persad was hoisted aloft by his fans at the 2012 Chutney Soca Monarch competition, it seemed a clear repudiation of the love song “Single Forever”, which had propelled him to what seemed like sudden, shocking success. But KI, at twenty-five one of the youngest-ever champions in the national competition, had already spent most of his life around a band, his father Veerendra’s JMC Triveni. Formed in 1977, Triveni was a polished band performing a range of Indian classical works and a Bollywood repertoire before they jumped boldly into the soca mix.
KI began freelancing with the band at the age of fourteen, joining as a keyboardist and drummer three years later. He fondly recalls winning the first ever Children’s Mastana Bahar competition, but fell back on his “single man” persona for photographs at the Woodford Café bar. In 2013, he invited ladies to be “Friends for the Night”, a popular sequel to his runaway 2012 hit. It’s a persona that suits the dimple-cheeked charmer, who never fails to flash that devastating smile.
Photographed at the Bakyard Studio, Gasparillo
Dil-E-Nadan was playing at a concert in Toronto, and Raymond Ramnarine, then just a child, realised, “I want to be on stage!” Ramnarine’s hubris was understandable. Dil-E-Nadan had won the Prime Minister’s Trophy in 1970, was acknowledged as a powerful export product, and it just happened to be led by his father, Ramnarine Moonilal. He would have to wait and pay his dues, along with his brothers Rennie and Richard, who are also part of the band, a half-century-old family tradition.
In the Bakyard Studio, a small room adjoining the Dil-E-Nadan band room, Ramnarine works out the songs that have made him a force to be contended with in chutney soca, and winner of the 2013 National Chutney Soca Monarch competition. The space is behind his father’s house, which is next to his home, which in turn is next to his brother’s house. Dil-E-Nadan may be a band, but it’s also family, the fruit of those bonds and the weave that binds Raymond Ramnarine’s bloodline tight. “It’s our father’s dream,” Ramnarine says. “Our parents lived every moment of their lives for this.”
Ravi and Nisha
Photographed at the Sangre Grande roundabout
Ravi Bissambhar and Nisha Bissambhar, the son and daughter of the late Jewanlal Bissambhar, grew up influenced by their father’s life in music. As Ravi B and Nisha B, working with the band Karma (which includes their brother Anil), the stylish siblings have offered up a collection of hits and successful collaborations with other performers in the genre and outside it. The pair point to their successful opening of a Bollywood show — featuring playback singers Alka and Udit Narayan, which won them praises from the headliners — as a highpoint in their careers.
The two singers chose the tiny roundabout in Sangre Grande for their photograph. They grew up here, in east Trinidad, and it remains dear to them as the place where they first dreamed of performing for big audiences. The roundabout is a landmark, but it also leads off in multiple directions to quite different destinations. It’s also a reminder of all the places they can still go.
Photographed at the Trinidad Valley Harps panyard, Penal
Mother of two, wife to Siewdath Persad, and the seminal influence on the merging of local Indian music and the fast dance version of calypso known as soca, Drupatee Ramgoonai worked with producer Kenny Phillips in 1987 on a blend of the soca beat and the rhythm of the tassa drum called “Mr Bissessar” that landed in the local music market like a bomb. Known since then for her collaborations with Machel Montano, Crazy, and Alison Hinds, she had a hit in 2013 with Montano in “Indian Gyal”, which invited listeners to “wuk up the larki.”
It’s been an astonishing thirty-one years since Drupatee decided to sing, and it’s even more surprising to realise it began in a panyard, the home ground of Trinidad Valley Harps, then a small band practicing under a house in Penal, South Trinidad. “I would sing a Hindi song and they would play along the pan,” she recalls. “I think this is where I saw that the merging of two genres of music could create unity.”
Photographed at the Pungalunks Factory, Couva
Virtually nobody in Trinidad and Tobago knows who Samraj Jaimungal is, but Rikki Jai is a national icon. The young performer had already been working with the Naya Andaz Orchestra and JMC Triveni when he encountered Drupatee Ramgoonai, and realised her success had opened the doors for what would become known as chutney soca. Born into a household where all flavours of music were embraced, it wasn’t surprising that young Rikki absorbed calypso, classical Indian music, rock, and rockers, and began to blend the beats he was hearing into something fresh and new, breaking out with the still popular song “Sumintra”.
Rikki Jai spent most of his professional life in studios, and wanted to be photographed where the music gets made. He got his start with Kenny Phillips (“Sumintra” was the B-side of his first single with the producer) and is photographed at the Pungalunks Factory in Couva, where producer Big Rich crafts songs for a new generation of performers.
Captions by Mark Lyndersay