On the drive back to Queens, New York, from Yale University, Connecticut, Sundar Popo was in a fiery mood. Far removed from the journey there when he stretched off on his side and napped, with a casual, “wake meh when we reach.”
He slurped loudly on a can of Coca-Cola while I stared through the darkly tinted window into the night.
“You know Susan, what we did today is a good thing.” he said, sucked his teeth loudly and peered at me through his thick horn-rimmed spectacles.
I sat opposite him in the sleek black stretch limousine as it snaked through late night traffic along the I-95 towards home. I was tired. Sundar, however, was not. It was past 10.30 p.m. on April 18, 2000, and I was relieved. I had been nervous all week, preparing to speak before an audience of teachers from colleges and Yale about Chutney Music in Trinidad. I worried that I would bore them, instead, they were fascinated and loved it. Afterwards they crowded around us for the Sundar Popo CDs we were handing out and to ask him about the harmonium and his songs.
Sundar didn’t sing out loud, he sang softly, miming from the boom box he had brought. Reason; he could not get his musicians, the dholak and dhantal players, to accompany us on the trip. He was upset about that, too. Still the audience was impressed with his harmonium playing and the way he, every so often, gesticulated his hand while singing. Those at the front, and myself, could hear him clearly.
I spoke, he sang.
Taking my attention away from the scenery, I asked. “What do you mean?”
He again sucked his teeth several times. For a while I thought he hadn’t heard me, then, he spoke. “The lecture we conducted at the University. How we talk about chutney music and how it developing in Trinidad and Tobago.What the people get from it and how it brings foreign money to the country. That is a good thing.”
He took a drag from the can, swallowed and shook his head. “Government should be proud of us. But they don’t care about chutney singers in the country. Boy, I does get mad when I think about the kind of recognition we bring to the country with chutney music. In other countries people rushing we for autograph, when they don’t have writing paper they putting money for we to sign and we own people doh care.”
Again he jabbed the can at his lips and sucked at the contents.
“Should you be drinking that?” I asked, concerned.
“What? The ‘cokes’. I going for dialysis tomorrow, I could eat and drink anything today,” he replied.
“You are diabetic, Sundar, and that (coca-cola) could make you sick. It’s not good for your sugar level. Aren’t you afraid of having a sugar reaction?” I persisted.
“You doh worry nah. When I get dialysis everything is drained from my body. If I follow that rule I will starve. The prime minister (Basdeo Panday) say he strong like a lion, but I am the tiger. I still have plenty life in me yet.”
” Doh worry nah. About what I was saying, them things you talk about, in the speech, all of that is true. Few people know about the real history of chutney music, it have money in it, too. Look way we chutney singers have to come to make some money, eh, yuh think it fair? We have to leave we country and come in a next man country, to be appreciated. Look at how them teachers and them listen and ask questions about the music.
“I feel so good. Today I feel good about the chutney music, when educated people like them what to know about it. This, what we do here today, is history, you know. If we people know how to sell this thing we go kill them dead. Ah vex eh, but inside I feel I do a good thing. I really want to thank you for that, I glad for this kind of opportunity, girl, I telling you the truth, I really glad for this.”
Three weeks later he was dead. I played that conversation over and over in my mind every time my thoughts centered on him. It was the longest we ever shared. Sundar being a man of few words, and replied mostly with a nod, but on that night he was riled by his musicians and the fact that he had done such a memorable thing and his government didn’t care.
The stint at Yale was Sundar’s last public appearance. He had accompanied me to demonstrate what chutney music was, while I delivered a paper on Caribbean Migration. The topic: The Development of Chutney in Trinidad and Tobago. Popo performed “Unity” and “Mother’s Love”.