The Chutney Phenomenon

The Indian Caribbean is making itself heard outside its own communities, especially in the lively idiom called chutney

  • Chutney pioneer Sundar Popo casts an approving glance. Photograph by Noel Norton
  • At full speed chutney dancers become a sensuous blur. Photograph by Horace Ové
  • "What the patrons of chutney shows are seeking may in fact be a temporary escape from 'the religion' ". Photograph by Horace Ové

To a visitor in the 1920s, Debe, in south-west Trinidad, was “almost wholly a Hindu town”. Seventy years later it’s still an Indian town, with family temples and prayer flags and Indian names on the commercial establishments along the Siparia-Erin Road.

Rural Trinidad is full of towns like this; for urban creole (i.e. African or mixed/African) Trinidadians, names like Debe and Penal and Barrackpore resonate with Indianness — and Indianness of a decidedly mythic sort, for urban Trinidadians rarely leave the metropolis to experience country life.

As a city mouse with country roots, I often passed through Debe as a child on my way to the oilfield town where my grandparents lived. My grandfather was a first-generation Indian immigrant, but he converted to Presbyterianism and married a creole woman. They lived what I would call a creole life. I never heard him speak Hindi, though my mother tells me he spoke it with his brothers and sisters.

When I returned to Debe last January, it looked much the same — just more bars, more concrete, more hardware and auto supplies stores, like everywhere else. Then I saw the Samar Entertainment Complex: and I knew that Indian Trinidad had changed.

There are places like Samar all over Trinidad. Big, walled yards, roughly paved, with few facilities save perhaps a row of portable toilets and, of course, bars. The famous ones are Carnival venues like the legendary Soca Village and Spectrum in Port of Spain, where thousands gather to revel to the music of deejays and live soca bands piped into the night by monster sound systems. But that is creole Trinidad. And this was Debe, “almost wholly a Hindu town”. What was a thing like Samar doing there?

The answer could be summed up in one word: chutney.

“Hot, hot, hot folk songs with plenty of spice” is how Shamoon Mohammed, host of the Chutney Train show on 103FM radio, describes it.

The roots of the music known as chutney or chatnee lie in the Bhojpuri folk songs brought from India by the indentured workers who came to Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad between the 1840s and 1917. Unlike classical and semi-classical Indian music, which is rooted in Hinduism’s sacred Vedic texts, these folk songs dealt with earthly concerns: work, the changing of the seasons, and, perhaps most significantly, life’s rites of passage – birth, marriage, death.

Chutney’s folk forerunners also had an extemporaneous side, with songs composed on the spot in rumshop sessions and bus excursions (begging a comparison with another folk form called calypso). These folk songs were primarily a working-class form, the reciting of Vedic texts having been prohibited among members of the lower castes.

Moreover, they were considered women’s songs. It was women who, on the Friday night before a wedding, sequestered themselves with the bride in a closed-door ceremony. There, they initiated her into the mysteries of conjugal life via innuendo-laden songs and sensual dancing, to the accompaniment of the dholak (drum) and dhantal (iron rod). They would dress in men’s clothing and engage in suggestive role play, with the help of props such as eggplants. Similar rites of abandon took place during the chathi or sixth-day birth ceremony. Even today, the lyrics of the songs sung during such ceremonies are in Hindi.

Singer Sundar Pope remembers tagging along with his mother to wedding nights as a boy. “Women sang folk songs, men sang classical,” he says. The only adult males permitted at wedding nights were effeminate types who played the dholak. Sundar, with Indian-flavoured tunes like Nani and Nana, became one of the first Indian artists to cross over into calypso. He is also one of the first male performers to venture into the domain of non-classical singing, mixing Hindi lyrics with English in suggestive songs like Scorpion Gyul.

Sundar is present that night at the Samar Complex, dapper In a green satin shirt with a gold scorpion pendant gleaming round his neck. It’s the quarter-finals of the Chutney Soca Monarch competition, and Samar is packed with people witnessing the merging of chutney and its creole cousin, soca. In spite of this, the crowd is probably 98% Indian (this, after all, is Debe, “almost wholly a Hindu town).

Most of the major chutney names are there: Rakesh Yankaran of the Yankaran singing family, Boyie Basdeo, Naresh Prabhu (son of Chutney star Ramrajie), Heeralal Rampartap, Jairam Dindial, Suresh Maraj, Boodram Holass in his cowboy getup. Major names, perhaps, in Indian Trinidad, but largely unknown outside of it.

Others, like Rikki Jai and Drupatee, are known quantities on the soca scene. Jai, in fact, is known more as a calypsonian than as a singer of Indian material. Drupatee is the only Indian woman to have crossed over into calypso and has taken a great deal of flak for it, but she’s at it tonight, gyrating on stage to Mr. Tassa Man. But the most anticipated performer of the evening is, unquestionably, the Mann Himself, Sonny Mann.

Sonny Mann is in his sixties, a 30-year veteran of the Indian music scene, where he went from singing religious bhajans to film songs and classical songs, finally arriving at what is ostensibly his pot of gold, chutney. His 1993 tape The Mann Himself has sold 80,000 copies worldwide, but Sonny Mann only came to the attention of the rest of Trinidad during the 1995 general election campaign. Mann’s all-Hindi chutney number Lootay La was, interestingly, played on the campaign trail by both the creole-based People’s National Movement (PNM) and the Indian-led (and eventually victorious) United National Congress (UNC).

It would go on to become one of the hits of the 1996 Carnival season, garnering Mann a place on the roster at the Spektakula Forum calypso tent, gigs at Coconuts (a club frequented mainly by middle-class urban youth), and a Hindi-English re-mix of the tune with dancehall star General Grant and soca party girl Denise Belfon. It was the first time creole Trinidad had been so taken with a song with Hindi lyrics.

Also in attendance at Samar are a group of performers from the calypso world who this year have entered the chutney fray: Marcia Miranda with Dance, Doolahin, Dance, Ajala with Sonanny, General Grant with the chutney-laced dancehall number Doolahin. But the criteria for entry in the Chutney Soca Monarch competition would appear to be quite loose, because Chris Garcia, a half-Indian singer who looks almost pure Indian, is here as well (his tune, Chutney Bacchanal, is really a straight soca number whose chorus parodies the sound of Hindi words). So is Brother Marvin, with his sweet, naive paean to racial mixing, Jahaaji Bhai.

But what exactly is chutney? What is chutney soca? When does chutney stop being chutney and become chutney soca?

“Chutney is a beat,” says musician Mungal Patasar. The essential ingredients are the dholak (drum), dhantal (iron rod), and the harmonium. Once you add rhythm machines, synthesisers, the rhythm of the music changes and it becomes soca.

True chutney is in fact a faster beat than chutney soca. Sundar Pope and Sonny Mann remember performing in weddings back in the old days, and how somebody in the crowd would call out Gimme a breakaway and the orchestra would speed things up and the general tone of things would become more up tempo, spicier, hotter. No wonder it eventually came to be called chutney.

They were all there that night at the Samar Complex, the Indians and the creoles, each doing his or her take on the chutney thing, vying for the Chutney Soca Monarch title and the prize of a Korean motor car. Some brought props and dancers, anything to add to the interest of the performance and to gain extra points for “presentation”.

And as the evening wore on the crowd got into more and more of a frenzy, and the drunker elements, both women and men, moved out in front with their shirts off (the men), standing on chairs, waving bottles of white rum and gyrating, feeling no pain.

This is what I meant, this frenzy, when I said that Indian Trinidad had changed.

The Chutney Soca Monarch competition is a relatively recent innovation, designed to capitalise on the growing interest in the crossover sound, but chutney music, and large-scale chutney events like the one at Samar, have been increasing in popularity since the 1980s. During that time open-air venues like Samar, Lall’s Cultural Complex, and Simplex in Princes Town, sprang up all over Indian Trinidad, and Indian people, especially women, started going to these places to dance and drink and “get on bad”.

“We are concerned about the gyrations of the girls,” says Satnarayan Maharaj, Secretary General of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, the largest Hindu organization in Trinidad. Chutney shows, according to Maharaj, cause Indian woman to exhibit wanton behaviour in the eyes of the public. In other words (and to paraphrase a calypso from a few years ago), it’s not them, it’s the music. “Indian people aren’t really like that,” another woman tells me, as though culture could account for a person’s behaviour.

Culture is not a prison: it can, and will, be escaped, altered, redefined to suit the needs of another country, another set of circumstances. “This is not India, this is not Pakistan,” insists Aruna Mohammed, host of the Hot Chulha radio show on WABC 103FM. The Mohammed family is credited with encouraging the development of local Indian culture through the Mastana Bahar competition on television and the annual Indian Cultural Pageant, where categories for Local Song and Chutney Song were put on the roster alongside Film Songs and Classical and the Beauty Queen Pageant. The term chutney was itself coined by Moean Mohammed. “Some people say WABC stands for We Always Broadcasting Chutney,” Aruna says.

Radio 103FM is one of three Indian-music stations to open up in Trinidad over the past few years, and it’s the station with the largest number of listeners in the country. Shamoon Mohammed thinks this is due not only to the fact that Indian Trinidad is behind them, but also that the national ear may be changing. Creole Trinidad is listening, Shamoon says. He cites call-ins to his Chutney Train radio show from predominantly African areas like Laventille and Morvant, requesting Lootay La and Terry Gajraj’s Trinidad Baboo. “Chutney is a symbol of what’s happening in the society,” says Mungal Patasar. “That syncretisation can only come with the passage of time and the interaction of the people.”

Indian Trinidad and creole Trinidad have in fact been interacting for years, if not always in the most amicable of ways. Early calypsos, echoing the mood of the society, didn’t have good things to say about Indians. Songs like Superior’s 1958 Tax Them, Doctor, Tax Them warned of the perfidy of Indians with lyrics like It have some old Indian people/Playing they like to beg/This time they got one million dollars/ Tie beteueen their leg. Calypsos like Killer’s Grinding Masala parodied Indian melodies.

More positive later portrayals, like Ras Shorty I’s Om Shanti, were still seen by an anxious Hindu orthodoxy as ridiculing the culture, and, moreover, the religion (although a cover version of Om Shanti was recorded by a major singer from India).

What the patrons of chutney shows are seeking may in fact be a temporary escape from “the religion”. Revelry is not unknown in Indian Trinidad: Hindus have Phagwa or Holi, a joyous spring festival where people spray each other with coloured dyes (the orthodoxy objects, but Phagwa is thought of by many as the Indian Carnival Muslims have Hosay — parades, floats, tassa drumming. But in both of these festivals religion prevails.

Working-class Indian Trinidad, and especially its female members, may simply be carving out a secular space for itself, a Trinidadian space. The trend in modern chutney seems to be towards secular themes and a danceable beat. Boyie Basdeo’s Butterfly, for instance, chutneyfies the Jamaican dancehall craze of a few years ago. “Some of the lyrics of the Indian (i.e. Hindi-language) songs are so obscene,” says Satnarayan Maharaj, “that if they knew the translation they’d ban them from the radio.”

Sonny Mann’s Lootay La is one of the principal targets of the obscenity charge. Sat Maharaj shrugs Lootay La off as not especially offensive; but Sundar Pope complains that Mann’s song desecrates the bhowjie or sister-in-law, a highly respected figure in the Hindu kinship system. “They say is a rude song,” M.C. Chankar says, shrugging. But what Chankar, a self-styled record producer, seems to lament most is the fact that Sonny Mann, with his 80,000 in tape sales, is no longer with his label.

Part of chutney’s popularity is certainly due to its dissemination by producers like Chankar and Ajeet Praimsingh. They’ve created their own record labels, setting up cut-rate recording sessions for artists at local studios, and releasing recordings of local chutney acts at outlets like Praimsingh’s Pooja Bhavan and Record Store, where tapes like Heeralal Rampartap’s Chutney Posse vie for attention with CDs by Indian stars like Babla and Kanchan.

Mohan Jaikaran, with his Queens, New York-based Jamaica Me Crazy records, is promoting chutney in North America, where Indian performers like Sundar Pope, Sonny Mann, Drupatee, Ramrajie Prabhu and Guyana’s Terry Gajraj are already regulars on the touring circuit.

But even today, even with radio call-ins from Laventille and the rise of chutney soca, chutney events remain Indian events, and, apart from token efforts like Lootay La, chutney music is consumed almost exclusively by Indians. “The Indian record seller has never aspired to reach the African buyer,” says Mungal Patasar. “It was taken for granted that Africans didn’t want that.”

Indians last year celebrated 150 years of life in Trinidad, but for many creole Trinidadians there is still something odd about calling music with Hindi or part-Hindi lyrics and Indian instrumentation Trinidadian. It used to be a joke that non-Indians in Trinidad turned off the radio when Indian music came on. We couldn’t understand the words (but then, neither can most Indians); and even more importantly, we couldn’t experience the ancestral pull.

The national ear is changing, but it’s a long slow process.

I was there at Skinner Park when a triumphant Sonny Mann walked away from the Chutney Soca Monarch finals with the Monarch title and the Korean motor car. I was there too when, at the Soca Monarch finals (a different kind of competition, in and of creole Trinidad), the crowd threw cans and fast food boxes (but, thankfully, no bottles) at Sonny Mann and refused to let him perform. I was there to hear Sonny Mann, nonplussed, say quietly, “Thank you, thank you,” before moving off the stage.

I think the stoning of Sonny Mann had as much to do with objections to the lawsuit which — perhaps unwisely — he tried to slap on the Monarch organisers as with some notion that he didn’t really belong. He didn’t fit the soca mould: too old, too Indian, too chutney.

To me there was something very Indian, something very ascetic, about Sonny Mann’s “Thank you.”

Some weeks before that, the week after he won the Korean car and the Chutney Soca title, I saw Sonny Mann at his home in Caparo in central Trinidad. I marvelled then at the man’s lack of guile, his complete absorption in self and in his recent achievement.

What a total performer. He was only too happy to throw on his sequinned waistcoat and trademark fedora, set up his harmonium on a stool on his linoleum-floored porch and belt out Lootay La, the allegedly obscene lyrics rising up in the air above Chicklands Trace, reaching out over the trees towards the orange groves in Todd’s Road.

Around us in the swept-dirt yard in front of his home were friends and family members, enraptured by their local hero. It was a beautiful thing. Sonny Mann had a right to be on Cloud Nine. He was in Indian Trinidad.

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