It did not begin with Nana and Nani as some believe. The song being neither chutney nor chutney soca, but a local composition with an appealing combination of Trini dialect and Hindi by the late singing legend Sundar Popo, about how indentured labourers spent their free time on the sugar cane estates. After a hard day’s work in the cane fields, they knocked drinks, “white one,” as explained in the song, and sang, until their eyes glazed, speech slurred and they staggered. The song would become the defining factor in a new genre in the evolution of music in contemporary Trinidad.
The year was 1971, he, a round-faced young man, 27, debuted on the weekly television talent programme, Mastana Bahar, with his actors, Nana wearing a dhoti (loin cloth) and riding an old bicycle with a shiny bell and Nani with orhni on her head. They portrayed every stanza of the song while he sang to music by Harry Mahabir and the BWIA Indian Orchestra.
It’s incredible how certain memories have a way of embedding themselves deep inside the brain. Sundar Popo’s appearance on TTT Channel 2 that day was one that got stuck in mine. I remember nothing else of the show, except the hilarious skit portrayed on stage, and of course, the lyrics since everyone, after that, sang what they could recall of it, daily. Moreso, because Mastana Bahar was a programme the whole family gathered to watch and lapped up every second like they were culture depraved, given that that and Indian Variety, with Pat Mathura and Moen Mohammed alternating weekly, were the only east Indian shows on television at the time. My grand-parents, aunts and uncles, it was a large extended family, laughed, some gripped their bellies, during the performance. That’s what drew me to focus on the television screen, curious about what had big people laughing like crazed monkeys. Twenty-years ahead, the memory would be revived, when I meet the singer for the first time. The name had eluded me but the melody had lingered in the recesses of my mind. His grasp was relaxed when we shook hands. He was aloof. He replied to questions with few words, cordial. I was ashamed, I had not heard any of his other songs besides Nana and Nani. I needed to catch up, fast.
The moment the song left his lips it had created an awareness among local artistes, who had noted the public’s appreciation for the local composition and Sundar’s immediate popularity after that. It prompted an experiment with a combination of the two genres, the melody of chutney music and the rhythem of soca, the result: an infectious uptempo rhythm that swept across the local music industry like a storm racing inward. While Sundar refined his local compositions with a fast paced chutney melody other artistes composed chutney soca songs.
Nana and Nani: A Life in Song