From Caroni Gyal To Calcutta Woman:
A History Of East Indian Chutney Music In The Caribbean
by Rajendra Saywack
[This essay was prepared by Mr. R. Saywack in December 1999, while at the Black & Puerto Rican Studies Dept., Hunter College, CUNY, New York City.]
In the summer of 1996, the dance hit, “Calcutta Woman” made its debut on the North American & European pop charts. The song, with its, Wine Yuh Waist lyrics became an instant hit with both party goers and disc jockeys alike. The success of “Calcutta Woman” helped introduce the music community to the world of Chutney music. Chutney was the name given to the pop/folk music of the East Indians that lived in the Caribbean region. The popularity of “Calcutta Woman” in 1996 provided a giant leap for the Chutney music industry which just three decades earlier did not even have one single recording to its credit. This is a story about Chutney music, and how it has emerged from being an almost forgotten art form to an international money maker. This is also a view into the lives of the artists that make up this industry and how they have used their lyrics to reflect upon the world around them and to inspire a culture far removed from their homeland.
EAST INDIAN ARRIVAL
Chutney music came with the arrival of East Indian indentured laborers to the Caribbean. They were brought by the British as a replacement for the enslaved laborers on the sugar plantations, who were freed after emancipation. The majority of the indentured laborers came from the Indian states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Bengal and the South Indian areas around Madras. Although some scholars might be under the impression that most East Indians came from the Bhojpuri region of North India, this idea is simply not true. A simple analysis of some of the songs in East Indian music, particularly 1970’s “Nana & Nani” and 1993’s “Bangalay Baboo,” will clearly prove this idea wrong. The words Nana and Nani are South Indian words from the Madras area, while Bangalay Baboo literally means Bengali Baboo, or someone from the Bengal region of India. Therefore, it is only fair to say that the majority of East Indians in the Caribbean had their roots mainly in the Western and Southern states of India.
Many of these East Indians settled in the then British colonies of British Guiana, now Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica. The Dutch also brought large numbers to Dutch Guiana, now Suriname. After serving out their contracted time, they were given the option of returning back to India, or acquiring property in their new homeland.
EARLY EAST INDIAN LIFE
Although life was hard, many of the immigrants chose to remain in the Caribbean, slowly re-creating segments of the the culture they had left behind in India. For the most part, the East Indians remained fairly isolated. Such isolation, along with other factors, helped the Indians to retain much more of their ancestral homeland’s culture than could West Indian blacks (Manuel 1995: 213). One of the basic foundations of this culture was the East Indian music itself. In its original form, it included the use of traditional Indian instruments such as the Harmonium, Sitar, Tabla, Dholak & Dhantal. It would later go on to include the Tassa drums with their fast, exciting and deafeningly loud sounds. The lyrics were almost always in Hindi, although with a noticeable West Indian Creole accent. East Indian music in its early stages were mostly Bhajans, or devotional songs. It would later go on to include renditions of songs from the Indian films of Bombay, which attracted huge audiences with Indians in the Caribbean. The music also evolved into folk songs, also called Tan singing and wedding songs which were most often heard at the wedding houses, where the Tassa drum, would dominate the festivities, sometimes beating until the early hours of the morning.
With the arrival of the early 1900s, indentureship came to an end, and many East Indians moved off the plantations and onto their own plots of land, mostly as rice farmers and small share croppers. Although this move signified a stratification in society for the East Indians, their music and culture as a whole was still relegated to the rural areas, and the villages of the East Indian sugar belts of Guyana, Trinidad & Suriname. Even as late as 1940, there were still no recorded East Indian artists, as the music remained confined to the temples, wedding houses and canefields.
PRELUDE TO CHUTNEY
In 1958, East Indian music finally made its debut on the recording industry with the release of an album of devotional songs, by Ramdeo Chaitoe of Suriname. His album titled, King of Suriname was quite appropriately named, as it made him a household name with East Indians not just in Suriname, but throughout the Caribbean. Although his songs were religious in nature, the use of the strong beats of the dhantal and dholak, coupled with his own creolised version of Hindi often had many listeners dancing as if it were a pop song. In fact, one song, “Raat Ke Sapna,” would go on to become a huge dance hit in the decades to follow.
Although the release of King of Suriname presented a breakthrough for East Indian music, it was quite short lived, as few artists managed to succeed Chaitoe in the years to follow. It was not until the 1960â€™s that another Surinamese would catapult East Indian music onto the scene once again. In 1968, a woman by the name of Dropati debuted with an album of traditional wedding songs, titled, Lets Sing & Dance. Once again, although religious in nature, Dropati’s songs, much like those of Ramdeo Chaitoe, went on to become huge pop hits within the East Indian community. Dropati’s epic songs such as “Gowri Pooja” and “Lawa” became such big hits that they firmly secured her name in history as one of the pillars of Indo-Caribbean music (Dropati, 1993). Lets Sing & Dance along with King of Suriname remain two of the best selling East Indian albums of all time, even to this day (Chaitoe, 1993). The effects of the release of these two albums were tremendous. Not only did they prove East Indian music as a legitimate art form, but they also united the East Indians of the Caribbean regardless of whether they were Guyanese, Trinidadian, Jamaican or Surinamese. However, these two albums also showed the need for a more popular, non-religious form of East Indian music, one that would combine the high pitched dholak, dhantal & tassa beats with the folk and Hindi lyrics that made Lets Sing & Dance and King of Suriname so popular.
CHUTNEY MAKES ITS DEBUT
The year 1970 would mark perhaps the biggest turning point in East Indian music. In this year, a young man out of Barrackpore, Trinidad by the name of Sundar Popo lept to fame with the song “Nana & Nani.” The song, almost comical in nature described the affairs of a grandfather and grandmother, perhaps his own. Sung in Hindi and Trinidadian creole, and backed up with the music of the dholak and dhantal as well as that of the more western Guitar and synthesizer, the song instantly became a #1 hit in Guyana & Trinidad (Popo, 1972). Sundar soon became known as the King of Chutney, the name given to this new popular form of music. The word Chutney was derived from the Hindi word that was used to describe a hot peppery mix. “Nana & Nani” became the biggest selling Chutney single of its time. Sundar’s lyrics of “Nana drinkin white rum and Nani drinkin wine,” were heard just about everywhere, from the wedding houses of Berbice, Guyana to the rum shops in San Fernando, Trinidad.
THE KING: SUNDAR POPO
Sundar knew that Chutney was his ticket to fame. Shortly after “Nana & Nani,” he released an entire album of Trinidadian folk songs. Many of them were sung in Trinidadian creole, such as the ever popular “Caroni Gyal,” a ballad about his love for a girl from the village of Caroni, whose parents disapproved of their relationship. However, Sundar did not forget his Hindi roots as he also included popular wedding songs, “Dulaha Kay May Ah Chinaar” and “Hum Nah Jaibay.” He even did a cover of Ramdeo Chaitoe’s hit, “Raat Kay Sapna.” Sundar’s humble lyrics revolved around basic Indo-Caribbean life, and often echoed the major issues of political repression, relationships and emigration. In an interview prior to his death, Sundar confessed that the motivation for songs such as the ever popular “Mother’s Love,” came from his own love and admiration for his maternal aunt, who raised him from childhood, while the inspiration for “Nana and Nani,” came from his own experiences of seeing East Indian children emigrating overseas, and leaving their elders alone at home to fend for themselves (Saldehna, 2000). In addition, lyrics suchs as those in “Subhaji Gyal,” where he comments, “Look at yuh Subhaji, walkin out de plane, walkin in a mini (skirt) an shakin up yuh waist,” speak volumes about the emigration of East Indians to North America & Europe at that time, as well as the usual infatuation of East Indian men towards women. It was these simple messages which had by the mid 1970s, enabled Chutney to become the dominant form of music in the Indo-Caribbean community.
CHUTNEY & POLITICS
Of course, Sundar was not the only artist who had gained fame from singing about these issues. By the late 1970s, artists such as Nisha Benjamin out of Guyana were making #1 hits such as, “Na Manu Na Manu” & “O’Maninga,” where she describes the hardships of a woman working and living on a sugar estate. She also used her songs to speak of the political and economic situation in Guyana, mainly referring to the then dictatorship of Forbes Burnham’s Peoples National Congress (PNC) government, and of their efforts at putting down East Indians within that country.
Even with the success of Nisha Benjamin’s songs, the Chutney music sensation remained confined to just a few artists in Guyana. This was mainly due to the often high racial tensions in that country, which had been present since the 1960s when the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) government of Indo-Guyanese Dr. Cheddi Jagan was toppled by the pro Afro-Guyanese Forbes Burnham and his People’s National Congress (PNC) regime. The PNC’s tradition of rigged elections and racial discrimination against East Indians forced many to flee (Manuel 1995: 213). The PNC’s total control of the media in Guyana also provided very few outlets for East Indian culture within that country.
Trinidad on the other hand had quite a flourishing East Indian community and music industry. This was mainly due to the higher racial tolerance in that country, as well as with the help of such television shows as Mastana Bahar and radio programs such as Chutney Train, both of which were instrumental in discovering many of the Chutney artists of today (Manuel 1995: 215).
EVOLUTION OF CHUTNEY
Despite these outlets, Chutney music had gradually diminished by the 1980s. With a lapse in new albums from any of the veteran singers, it seemed as if Chutney was about to be lost in history. The music within the Caribbean itself was changing. The traditional West Indian Calypso was being merged into a new form of music called Soca, which was basically a blend of Calypso and American Rhythm & Blues. Chutney music was caught up in this change, which would later evolve it into a new style called Indian Soca.
This new style of music included the Indian instruments of the tassa, dholak & sitar. It also incorporated the more Calypso flavor of the steel pan and synthesizer and even the electric guitar. The lyrics were also mostly sung in West Indian creole with maybe the exception of only a few Hindi words. However, by far the most significant change in this new style was the fact that it was almost solidly dominated by Afro West Indians during its early days. Songs such as Baron’s “Raja Rani”, Mighty Trini’s “Curry Tabanca,” Sugar Aloe’s “Roti & Dhalpourie” & Sparrow’s “Marajin” dominated the Indian Soca scene from 1980-1987. Of course, there was nothing unique about this, as Afro West Indians had been singing songs about East Indians since Atilla’s 1939 hit, “Dookanii.” What was significant is the fact that Indian Soca and East Indian music as a whole was now being given a wider audience. East Indians were finally being pulled away from the vail of isolation which they had been behind for so many years.
RACE, GENDER & CHUTNEY
However, not all East Indians greeted the success of these songs with open arms. This was the case with “Raja Rani,” where Baron sings, “Oh Rani, I want to marry Hindustani, I love curry, so beti (girl), gimme plenty,” or “Marajin,” where Sparrow proclaims, “Marajin, Marajin, oh my sweet dulahin (wife).” Clearly, the thought of an Afro West Indian man and an East Indian woman did not sit too well with most East Indians, even in racially tolerant Trinidad. In fact, Sparrow’s “Marajin,” where he describes his love interest for a Pandit’s (Hindu Priest) wife, was banned in Guyana for several years, after a huge outcry from the Hindu community in that country. To make matters worse, East Indians had become quite agitated by the onset of “Nani” songs. The word Nani was an East Indian one used to represent the grandmother on the mother’s side of ones family. Songs such as Crazy’s “Nani Wine,” Scrunter’s “Nanny” and Becket’s “Nanny Revival,” had become popular hits, not because of their lyrics about East Indian grandmothers, but rather because the pronunciation of the word “nanee” sounds too much like one of the Trinidad street names for vagina (Constance 1991: 59). East Indians were clearly not impressed with this mockery of their culture. However, it is quite interesting to note that most songs by Afro West Indians usually described their praises and adorations for East Indian women, while those sung by East Indians did the exact opposite. This is quite evident in songs such as 1989’s “Give Me Paisa,” where Kanchan describes all East Indian women as gold digging housewives, who only want “jewelry, sari, necklace and t’ing, so just give me paisa (money),” to 1994’s “Darlin I Go Leave You,” where Anand Yankarran labels all East Indian women as cheating and lazy. Perhaps, it is this reason why East Indians felt so threatened by the words of a few Afro West Indian artists. Nevertheless, these artists and their songs would go on to become huge hits throughout the Caribbean, and would lay the framework for many future Indo-Caribbean artists.
One such artist was Drupatee Ramgoonai, a young woman from the village of Penal in the deep south of Trinidad. Drupatee emerged onto the Indian Soca scene in 1987 with the release of the single “Pepper Pepper,” a song in which she describes the hardship of being an East Indian housewife. In the song, she sings, almost in a comical manner of how she plans to seek revenge on her husband, whose lack of interest in their marriage drives her insane. Her solution is simply to put pepper in his food, and to hear him say, “Pepper, I want Panni (water) to cool meh, Pepper I want plenty Panni.” While “Pepper Pepper” went on to become a hit on the Soca charts, many conservative East Indians looked upon Drupatee with scorn. “The Indian community which was so prepared to defend their name when sullied by the words of the Calypsonian was not now willing to allow one of their members to be part of this tradition. “No Indian woman has any right to sing Calypso,” and “Indian women have been a disgrace to Hinduism” were cries from the fraternity (Constance 1991: 51).
Other critics were not as subtle. Mahabir Maharaj writing in the Sandesh Paper made his viewpoint quite clear by saying, “for an Indian girl to throw her high upbringing and culture to mix with vulgar music, sex and alcohol in Carnival tents tells me that something is radically wrong with her psyche. Drupatee Ramgoonai has chosen to worship the Gods of sex, wine and easy money (Constance 1991: 51).”
The harshness of these comments really makes one wonder whether these commentators were really angry at Drupatee for being a Calypsonian or for her speaking out about the plight of East Indian women.
THE QUEEN: DRUPATEE RAMGOONAI
Nevertheless, these criticisms did not stop Drupatee, as she pressed on with her music releasing another album a year later. In the summer of 1988, she lept onto the charts once again with a new song entitled “Mr. Bissessar.” The song described her admiration of a certain Trinidadian Tassa player by the name of Bissessar. The world would later come to know this song, as Roll Up De Tassa. By mid July 1988, just 2 weeks after its release, “Mr. Bissessar” had hit #1 in every country in the English speaking Caribbean, from Antigua to Guyana. A few weeks later, this was repeated on the Soca charts in the United States, Canada, and England. Drupatee had made history as not only the first East Indian woman, but the first East Indian to successfully cross over onto the Soca charts and to have a #1 hit. If Sundar Popo was the King of Indo-Caribbean music, then Drupatee was its Queen. The success of “Mr. Bissessar” would push East Indian music once again into the spot light and paved the way for many future Indo-Caribbean artists such as Rikki Jai and Chris Garcia. “Mr. Bissessar” would go on to become one of the most successful Soca songs of the 1980â€™s, and it became the best selling Indian Soca song of all time. In fact, it remained at #1 until almost the end of the decade when it was finally knocked out by Crazy’s Indian Soca hit, “Nani Wine,” which incidentally was inspired by the story of “Mr. Bissessar.” (Scaramuzzo, 2000).
CHUTNEY GOES GLOBAL
By the end of the 1980s, no less than 20 new Indo-Caribbean artists had emerged into the new Indian Soca scene. Among these were Babla & Kanchan, a veteran husband and wife team out of India who had risen to fame after a successful career in providing music for the Indian movie industry. They emerged onto the Caribbean scene in 1984, when they released 2 albums doing mostly Indian Soca covers for some of Sundar Popo’s older songs (Manuel 1995: 218). In 1986, they did another cover of Arrowâ€™s “Hot Hot Hot” & Baron’s “Buss Up Shot.” Babla & Kanchan have continued to produce songs well into the 1990s releasing no less than 15 albums, including, “Na Manu Na Manu” in 1995 where they did covers of Nisha Benjamin’s title hit and of Dropati’s “Lawa.” Another new artist on the scene was Atiya out of Holland. She was discovered on the Mastana Bahar television program while doing a cover of the Guyanese folk song, “Ke Ghunguru Doot Gaye.” After releasing this song in 1989, Atiya shot to fame and went on to do a cover of Mighty Trini’s, “Curry Tabanca” in 1990.
EMIGRATION TO NORTH AMERICA & EUROPE
The Indian Soca trend would continue well into the 1990s. Its popularity was greatly advanced with the help of the growing number of Indo Caribbean communities in the United States & Canada, especially in New York and Toronto. Many of these immigrants were now able to establish their own record companies, free from government interferance. These included the hugely successful Jamaican Me Crazy (JMC) Records, Spice Island Records, Mohabir Records & JTS Productions. The establishment of nightclubs such as Soca Paradise and Calypso City in New York and Connections and Calypso Hut in Toronto, coupled with these new recording companies were all factors instrumental in promoting Indo-Caribbean music oveaseas and in the West Indies for they provided the necessary outlets for the music to grow.
Another boost for the Indo Caribbean music industry came with the return of a pre-dominantly East Indian government to Guyana in 1992 and to Trinidad in 1995. Following both of these events, there was a tidal wave of new recordings and artists that flowed onto the music scene. This was especially true of Guyana, which saw hundreds of “local” artists as they are called, emerging after years of never making any recordings due to the repression of the previous government. Among these were Nisha Benjamin who re-released some of her songs, and veteran Guyanese singer, Joyce Urmela Harris whose song “Taxi Driver,” depicting the life of her husband, hit #1 on the Indo-Caribbean charts.
Perhaps no Guyanese singer was quite as successful as Terry Gajraj, a young man from the small village of Fyrish on the Corentyne coast of Guyana who lept to fame in 1993, when his album of Guyanese folk songs, entitled Guyana Baboo hit #1 on the charts. It became one of the best selling Indo-Caribbean albums of all time (Gajraj, 1994). His songs much like those of Sundar Popo, spoke about every day Indo-Caribbean life, from “Lillawattie” where he professes his admiriation for a young girl named Lillawattie by saying, “Oh Lillawattie, yuh body like a gold, yuh face like an angel yuh take away meh soul,” to the epic “Bangalay Baboo,” where he evokes memories of Guyana by singing, “I come from the land, they call Guyana, land of de bauxite, de rice and sugar.” Terry’s songs were hugely successful, especially with the Indo Caribbean communities in the United States and Canada, as they often brought back memories of a homeland many had forgotten.
INDIANIZATION OF CHUTNEY
This feeling of nostalgia slowly began having an impact on the Indian Soca style. There was now a stronger demand for a return to the more traditional Chutney, which had been almost unheard of since the late 1970â€™s. The style of music that emerged out of this demand was given the name Chutney Soca. Sung almost entirely in Hindi with heavy emphasis on the beats of the dholak and dhantal, this new style became an instant hit within the East Indian community. Artists such as Anand Yankarran of Trinidad with his album of traditional Chutney Soca titled Zindabad often topped the charts with hit after hit, including the ever popular, “Nanda Baba.”
Despite Yankarran’s success, there were few artists willing to put out Chutney Soca albums. However, this was about to change. In the fall of 1994, a Trinidadian by the name of Sonny Mann debuted with an album of Chutney Soca songs, entitled Soca Chutney. Slowly, the album began climbing the charts. By the summer of 1995, the title song from the album had hit #1 in every country in the Caribbean as well as in the United States, Canada & England. “Lootala” went on become the most successful Indo-Caribbean single of all time, even knocking out Drupatee’s “Mr. Bissessar.” The Soca Chutney album was also declared the best selling Indo-Caribbean album ever, beating out Terry Gajraj’s Guyana Baboo (Mann, 1995).
POPULARIZATION & COMMERCIALIZATION
“Lootala” success throughout the Caribbean not only made Sonny Mann a household name, but also signaled the return of Chutney to the world stage. There was now a onslaught of new artists debuting with Chutney Soca singles of their own. “Lootala” popularity also led to the creation of a Chutney Soca Monarch, modelled after the Soca World Monarch contest, to determine the best Chutney Soca artists and songs for each year. Chutney Soca proved to be a huge money maker for the Indo Caribbean music industry. More artists and albums emerged in the four years from 1995-1999 than in all the 30 years of Chutney music combined. Chutney Soca’s success spread like wildfire throughout the Caribbean, and now included more than a dozen artists of Afro West Indian descent. In fact, the second highest grossing Chutney Soca hit was not from an East Indian, but rather from Afro Trinidadian singer, Cecil Funrose, and his 1996 #1 hit, “Kirki Na Din” (Funrose, 1996).
By the time Sharlene Boodhram’s “Calcutta Woman” debuted on the charts in 1996, Chutney had already gained recognition as one of the leading music forms within the West Indies. Although the song itself was only slightly popular in the Caribbean, its real success came when it debuted on the American charts. Its background music and Wine Yuh Waist lyrics were constantly being sampled by American Disc Jockeys. It was even sampled by artists from India, such as Lil Jay, who featured it on his album of Indian film remixes (Boodhram, 1995). Chutney had now moved out of the Caribbean and onto the international stage for all the world to hear.
It really makes one wonder if Sundar knew what he was unleashing that faithful summer in 1970 when he released “Nana & Nani.” Who would have thought that Chutney would go on to have such a huge impact on so many lives? The fact that most East Indians don’t understand Hindi also makes their love of this music all the more interesting. However, ask anyone how they can know the words to a song, and the reply will be the same, for as one fan comments, “I love these songs; we listen to them all the time, so I know all the words, even if I dont really understand them” (Manuel 1995: 214). Another fan puts it even simpler by saying, “I cyan understan’ dis t’ing, but I mus’ hear it” (Manuel 1995: 214). For these people, Chutney was more than just music, it was their life, it was their culture. For a people twice removed from their native land, Chutney was their connection to the traditions they might have otherwise never known. There is a saying about Chutney, and that is, you can hear it with your ears, but you feel it with your heart and soul.