“From Oral Tradition to Carnivalization: Chutney Soca, the Indian Sound of the Caribbean” by Darrell G. Baksh
by JESSICA DILDAY on DECEMBER 15, 2014
Transported from the ‘Cow Belt’ of India – the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar – under conditions of indentured labour to Trinidad, chutney soca is the name ascribed to the dance-oriented fusion of chutney, the ‘hot’ and ‘spicy’ Trinidadian re-mix of Bhojpuri folk music, and soca, the contemporary African-derived music of Trinidad’s illustrious Carnival. This mixtape presents a chronological survey of the evolution of this genre, complementing the doctoral dissertation that I am in the process of completing.
It opens with the intoxicating rhythms of the core folk percussion instruments of chutney and chutney soca – the dholak (hand drum) and the dhantal (metal idiophone) – before moving straight into the heart of chutney’s roots in the simple, repetitive female folksong traditions of the matikoor (Bhojpuri-Hindu prenuptial ceremony), with harmonium accompaniment. Paralleling a male-dominated calypso tradition, male artists emerged as the early chutney recording artists in the 1970s, with Sundar Popo becoming the most successful. By the 1980s, faster, livelier soca began to eclipse calypso as the Carnival music of choice. Drupatee Ramgoonai would emerge as the first female ‘calypsonian’ of Indian descent, much to the displeasure of the Hindu community of Indian purists, introducing the sounds of traditional tassa (goatskin) drumming and folksy vocal styles to soca audiences.
While the importance of Hindi film music to cultural formations of Indianness in Trinidad since the importation of the first film in 1935 has been underscored by the emergence of the chutney soca cover version, Mumbai duo Babla & Kanchan validated Indian music through a filmi aesthetic at a time when it was (still) alienated from national constructs of Trinidadian culture, and when breakthrough Trinidadian singers of Indian descent were few. Yet, it was not until the ascendance of Trinidad’s first prime minister of Indian descent in 1995 – after over thirty years of African political governance that privileged cultural expressions of African descent – that chutney soca publicly emerged as part of an Indian cultural awakening in national spaces. The Chutney Soca Monarch competition – to judge the best chutney soca artist – was established as part of the Carnival celebrations in 1996, with Sonny Mann taking the inaugural crown.
While Bhojpuri, as the ancestral tongue of the Indian community in Trinidad, and themes centred on the Indian experience (e.g. Hindu marriage and childbirth traditions, village life, kinship) have authenticated chutney soca, Trinidadian English has been on the rise – because of its mother tongue status – alongside changes in themes that embrace the Carnival ethos and vocabulary of alcohol, sex and hedonism. These developments have been led by a new, younger generation of chutney soca artists – especially Ravi B and KI – and producers like Zaheer ‘Big Rich’ Khan (D’ Pungalunks Factory) and Rishi Mahato (Maha Productions).
Beginning in 2005, the Hindi film song came full circle when chutney soca compositions decelerated in tempo and began to directly lift older film melodies which were readapted to Trinidadian contexts and lyrics. By 2012, chutney soca had come under heavy criticism for its banal, rum-centred lyrics, its use of Hindi film melodies, and its perceived lack of creativity, prompting artists and producers to return to the language, themes, instruments and styles of chutney past, but combine them with contemporary sounds (such as EDM aesthetics) and digital technologies.
Chutney soca has very much become a narrative about musical accommodation – whereby Trinidadian artists of non-Indian descent have increasingly begun to tap into the chutney soca market – and compromise, as artists of Indian descent toggle – and struggle – between tradition and modernity. Far from over, the evolution of chutney soca is a complicated tale of fusion, confusion, and contradiction. It illustrates how popular music can destabilize notions of originality, authenticity and purity in favour of creativity through continuous re-mixing, re-invention and re-cycling of remembered (and ‘re-membered’) traditions, speaking to similar processes of negotiation in formations of ethnic and national identities that are always in a state of flux.
Darrell G. Baksh is a PhD candidate in the Cultural Studies program at The University of The West Indies, St. Augustine Campus, Trinidad. A first-generation Canadian born in Toronto to Caribbean immigrants of Indian descent, his research examines chutney soca music as a form of re-mixed culture that impacts and is impacted by changing formations and meanings of identity in Trinidad. He is also an aspiring deejay, DJ Maco (www.facebook.com/macociousvibes, www.soundcloud.com/dj-maco2), specializing in Trinidadian popular music. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Chutney rhythm (dholak, dhantal)
Chutney soca rhythm (dholak, dhantal, drum machine)
Ganesh Kirtan Group – Anari Raja Nebula (1979)
Sundar Popo – Phulowrie Bina Chatnee (1979)
Drupatee Ramgoonai – Mr. Bissessar (1988)
Salima Mohammed & The Gemini Band – Mohe Lagee Re (1989, cover of “Mohe Laagi Re Zulmi Umariya” from Suhaag Raat, 1968)
Babla & Kanchan – Station Pe Gadi (1995)
Sonny Mann – Lootala (1996)
Heeralal Rampartap – Basmattie Dance (1997)
Rikki Jai – Galeekay Moray Godinaa (1999)
Rakesh Yankaran – Mousie (2001)
Devanand Gattoo – Bacchanal (2002)
Adesh Samaroo – Rum ‘Til I Die (2003)
Vedesh Sookoo – Daal Belly Indian (2003)
Rooplal Girdharrie – Dulhaniya Chalay (2004)
Neeshan ‘Hitman’ Prabhoo – Mr. Shankar (2005, adapted from “Jai Jai Shiv Shankar” from Aap Ki Kasam, 1974)
Lalchan ‘Hunter’ Babwah – Bring It (2008, adapted from “Chahunga Main Tujhe” from Dosti, 1964)
Kenneth Salick – Radica (2009, adapted from “Ek Masoom Sa Chehra” from Zinda Dil, 2003)
Ravi B – Ah Drinka (2010, adapted from “O Saathi Re Tere Bina” from Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, 1978)
Rikki Jai – Barman (2010, adapted from “Dil Mera Ek Aas Ka Panchhi” from Aas Ka Panchhi, 1961)
KI – Single Forever (2012)
Drupatee Ramgoonai – Mousie Chamkay (2013)
Rajin Dhanraj – Lilawattie (2013)
Sassy Ramoutar – Good Time (2013)
Lalchan ‘Hunter’ Babwah & Rikki Jai – Mor Laawa (2013)
Rooplal Girdharrie – Dulhaniya Chalay (2013 Remix)
Ravi B – Prescription (2013)
Michelle X – Indian Man (2013)
Prophet Benjamin – No Lookani (2013)
Rakesh Yankaran & Ravi B feat. D’ Pungalunks – Double Trouble (2014)
Kavita Maharajh – Bowjaiya (2014)
Ravi B – Bread (2014, adapted from “Chane Ke Khet Mein” from Anjaam, 1994)
KI – Runaway (2014, chorus adapted from “Ladki Hai Ya Shola” from Silsila, 1981)