Chutney Music History in Trinidad and Tobago 3d Logo 3d Logo

The following is an address I delivered on Chutney Music at Yale University on Friday April 18, 2000.

Chutney music, a syncretic Indo-Trinidadian popular music and dance idiom, is little known outside its own milieu. It is the product of the East Indian communities of Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname.

Indians had originally immigrated to the regions under a program of indentured labour sponsored by the British, and in Suriname by Dutch colonists from 1845 to 1917. Most of the immigrants came from the Bhojpuri speaking regions of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in India.

In recent years, Indo-Trinidadians have begun active participation in the country’s mainstream economic, political and cultural lives. Partly by virtue of high birth rates and the fact that they also constitute one of the largest ethnic groups in the country. Accordingly, the East Indian society in Trinidad and Tobago has been in a state of dramatic transition.With the decline of traditions like caste and orthodox religion, cultural entities such as music and dance have come to assume unprecedented symbolic importance.

Chutney music, traditionally performed by the use of a dholak (hand drum) a lotha (a brass jar) and two coins, has changed significantly since the 1970s provoking a storm of controversy within the East Indian community.

As a socio-cultural phenomenon, chutney music has become a dynamic Indian diasporic artform and a prominent fixture of the Indo-Trinidadian music and dance world. It emerged from the rustic traditions of rural Caroni and Penal, rather than the bourgeois Indian community of Port-of-Spain, the capital of Trinidad. Hence, chutney appears to be yet one more instance of the familiar phenomenon of dynamic artforms emerging from the proletariat and only later being accepted by the social mainstream.

It has given birth to versatile singers such as Devanand Gattoo, Rasika Dindial, Rakesh Yankaran, Heeralal Rampartap, Budram Holass, Ramraji Prabhu, Boyie Basdeo, Sam Boodram and the legendary Sundar Popo, whom you have just heard. There are many more names in the growing list.

Chutney music is booming. It has become a lucrative specialty music market. It is new, exciting and prosperous and major recording companies are now making huge investments in this rhythmic ethnic beat. The market is unique and almost untouched. Promoters and music producers are quickening the pace by developing a vision to tap the resources and trap new talents that are daily flooding the chutney arena.

With the advent of the new millennium, eclectic cultural mixes and ethnic diversity have become the most lucrative niche markets. The dynamism of the chutney beat is hypnotic and explosive. Recording companies and music producers such as JMC Entertainment Incorporated and Mohabir Records in New York, Moonesar Chanka and Praimsingh’s in Trinidad are trying hard to capitalise on these ventures in order to secure the next big singing star.

While they are injecting big bucks into the promotion of chutney music, artistes are competing for hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash prizes and motor vehicles in seasonal competitions in Trinidad. Although the chutney vogue is a recent phenomenon, as a music and dance tradition, it derives from the oldest stratum of folksong culture brought by the immigrants.

This musical legacy comprised a variety of genres, such as wedding songs, birth songs (sohar), devotional Hindi bhajans, narrative biraha, seasonal songs such as chowtal, hori, chathi, Urdu/Muslim qawalli and quaseeda and local classical music, commonly known as “tent singing.”

Modern chutney, however, derives primarily from a specific set of folk songs sub-genres, all of which share the use of fast tempo, simple refrain-verse and erotic Bhojpuri texts. By the early twentieth century, the word chutney, or “chatni” which denotes a familiar condiment made from the mango fruit, had become an informal term for such songs.

It originated from the bowels of the Hindu wedding. Typically, the cooking night at a Hindu wedding started with classical music like drupad, thumri and ghazals and later switched to chutney to commence the merriment and danging. In recent years, however, the chutney singing has, in some instances, entirely replaced classical singing.

Particularly important in the Hindu wedding ceremony is the matkor or matikor, maticoor, which takes place the Friday night before the actual marriage ceremony on Sunday.

On this occasion, women accompanied by male tassa drummers proceed to the nearest water course or a stand pipe, and perform a ritual by digging a small hole in the earth to bury flowers and sindoor (vermilion) which were used in the matkor ceremony. The drummers stand at a discreet distance with their eyes averted while the women sing lewd songs and perform erotic dances. A similar session follows on the festive “cooking night” held on Saturday and after the wedding ceremony.

After the tumeric anointment of the bride, the women also sing ribald songs behind closed doors and perform erotic dances. The same is done in private chatthi and barahie, childbirth celebrations. Such traditional women songs are clear antecedants of contemporary chutney compsitions.

As the spoken Hindi declined, such songs often became “creolised” by the introduction of English words.

Dance is the focus of chutney and is an essential aspect of the folk genres from which it emerged. Chutney dancing was performed largely by lower-class women in the sexually segregated contexts of the wedding or chatti. The dancers engaged in a fairly limited, but expressive set of standard movements, typically combining graceful hand and arm gestures with sensuous pelvic rotation, in Trinidadian parlance this simply means “wining.”

The loosening of social restrictions on dance occurred over a period of several decades. Alice Jan and Champa Devi, earned local renown as hired dancers at Hindu weddings in the country. Although such women were generally regarded as socially unrespectable, their prominence helped loosen proscriptions for the next generation.

Equally important was the gradual relaxation of inhibitions regarding men and women dancing in the same space. Traditionally, men who danced with women, e.g. at a wedding, would have been considered effeminate, while a woman who danced with men, whether at a wedding or a rum shop would be considered of loose morals.

In the 1970s such inhibitions gradually loosened as many Indo-Trinidadian private weddings included animated chutney dancing performed by women and a few men – not necessarily in couples, but in the same space, in merry disregard of prior taboos.

In terms of music and dance, chutney is not, on the whole, original, but constitutes a revival and repacking of the folk genres described earlier in this text, some of which have otherwise declined in their contexts. Thus, what is dramatically new about modern chutney is not its form but its flouting of the social inhiitions previously restricing dance, and its recontextualisation as a form of public culture enjoyed and performed by men and women together.

Accordingly, as a socio-musical phonemenon, its emergence has been conditioned by the broader transformation taking place in Indo-Trinidadian society since the 1970s. These processess include the decline of various ancestral traditions and of orthodox Hinduism, this however, should not be interpreted as a decline of Hinduism, per se. Chutney, in its own way serves to popularise songs about Krishna and is one part of the lively resurgence of Hinduism and Indian culture taking place in the country.

The emergence of chutney music as a public dance phenomenon dates back to 1963, when cultural promoters Sham Mohammed, now deceased and his brother Moen, hosted shows with performances by a troupe of Surinamese singers, among them Ramdeo Chaitoe and Dropatie. They specialised in uptempo chutney music.

In the following two decades Sham, Moen and another brother, Kamaluddin, radio personality and politician, introduced chutney to the airwaves on the Indian oriented radio programs and hosted public shows. They soon dominated the growing artform through their energetic entrepreneurship.

One of their protégées, Sundar Popo, who is now considered a legend in the pioneer of chutney music, enjoyed great popularity from the 1970s onwards with his light chutney compositions, which included Hindi and English verses termed “local song.”

His inaugural hit, Nana and Nani, propelled him to national fame. And his follow up pieces, Kaisay Bani, Scorpion Gyul, Kunjagaliya, Hum Na Jaibay, Surajie, Unity and the immortal “Mother’s Love,” were examples of his creativity and versatility as a chutney singer.

But more than a decade would pass before the definitive public emergence of chutney would take place, and quite dramatically, in the mid 1980s. Weekend chutney dance-fetes hosted by the Mohammeds, became for the first time, popular on a mass level, regularly attracting hundreds of patrons.

From then on, one or more weekend chutney shows were held throughout Trinidad, usually on a Friday or Saturday nights or Sunday afternoons at popular venues like Rienzi Complex, in Couva, the Himalaya Club in Barataria and D’ Triangle, in San Juan.

By 1982, chutney music began to cross the ocean from Trinidad and other Caribbean countries to the United States of America (USA). In the same year, Sundar Popo and chutney singer Drupatie Ramgoonai, thrilled audiences of some 2,000 at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum. The show was hosted by Mohan Jaikaran, who at that time was chief executive officer of Jamaica Me Crazy Records. He now produces, promotes and markets 95 percent of the chutney artistes and chutney music in the U.S.

The years 1995-1997 marked a consolidation of the East Indian presence in national culture and politics and the institutionalisation of a new, explicitly pluralistic conception of national identity. Chutney music blossomed one step further giving birth to another heady and raunchy offspring, chutney-soca. Defined by promoter of the annual Chutney Soca Monarch Competition, George Singh, as the melody of chutney mixed with the rhythm of soca

That however, is still under debate by many, since some compositions have been dubbed as either too much soca or too much chutney. A clear definition of what chutney-soca really is, is yet to be determined.

Chutney soca, however, played a symbolic role in the institutionalisation of this new pluralistic conception of national identity. Black Stalin, an Afro-Trinidadian calypsonian, won the Calypso Monarch Prize with a whimsical song entitled “Sundar Popo,” dedicated to Sundar himself.

Perhaps the most dramatic manifestation of the belated “Indian arrival” on the national scene was the unprecedented prominence of chutney in the 1995-1996 Carnival season. In December 1995, Scrunter, another Afro-Trinidadian calypsonian, won the soca parang competition with a chutney-style tune-Chutkaipang.

The following month, the first Chutney Soca Monarch Competition was held to a crowd of more than 15,000. The timing of the event and the offering of prizes as large as those of the Calypso Monarch, effectively established chutney soca as a fixture in the Carnival season.

Chutney soca also became a colourful part of the calypso/soca competitions. The season saw contributions from Marcia Miranda, Tony Ricardo, Chris Garcia, Brother Marvin, Luta, among others.

But it was the Mighty Sparrow, who, with great subtlety managed to raise the hackles of Hindu Brahmins, by choosing to sing of a saucy, tasty “Marajhin,” at a time when Indian women had begun to shake off the worst forms of paternalism, often by embracing “creole” culture. “Ah go wuk the land and gee yuh all the paisa,” he sang with uncharacteristic sentimentality and continued with, “Ah go even drink yuh jutha from the lota.”

Then came Brother Marvin. His “Jahaji Bhai,” turned the joke back on the black people suggesting that the brotherhood of the boat was the brotherhood of both.

But what is it that made Afro-creole music so comfortable with Indian culture? And how is it that Indo-Trinidadians became so amenable to calypso?

Perhaps it stemmed from way back in 1971 with Lord Shorty, the Love Man, when he sang of “Indrani,” his old Indian chick, so bony, skinny like a whip.

He had been experimenting with Indian rhythms since the 1960s. His “Om Shanti Om,” set a standard which is yet to be surpassed either lyrically or musically and his timing of release was perfect.

But to consummate the marriage with soca, chutney needed to come of age.

Enter Sundar Popo, as a contestant on the television program-Mastana Bahar. With a string of hits, that borrowed from local chutney and Indian film music, particularly with “Nana and Nani” he cleared the way. His melodies were simple, catchy, and his lyrics in a blend of Hindi and English were comprehensible to everyone. But Sundar Popo could not have done it without the help of Harry Mahabir, leader of the BWIA Indian Orchestra. Mahabir adapted Indian linear melodies to western techniques and the new beat was conceptualised.

The 1970s made chutney ready for soca as it made soca ready for chutney. Mastana Bahar and the annual Indian Cultural Pageant, when it began to include a chutney segment, helped in this regard. And the weekend shows groomed the chutney singers for the international stage.

Then India’s singing diva, Kanchan and her music whiz husband, Babla, visited Trinidad to sing “Kaisay Bani,” with Sundar Popo. She later performed her, “Hot, Hot, Hot,” the lead song on the cover of Arrow’s album along with other calypsos. That opened the door for Drupatie Ramgoonai to call on “Mr. Bissessar,” to “roll up the tassa.”

Soca artist Rikki Jai, who won the Chutney Soca Monarch Competition in 1998 and 1999, returned to the fold with “Hold the Lata Mangeshkar Gimme Soca.” The popular song instructed neophyte audiences to dance chutney by gracefully curling their hands in the air.

Chutney soca was becoming a national fad, and for the first time an Indian musical form was being widely enjoyed, and even cultivated by Afro-Trinidadians. Prime Minister Basdeo Panday publicly hailed chutney soca as “a symbol of the type of complete harmonisation that must characterise our society in years to come.”

That season concluded with Brother Marvin’s “Jahaji Bhai” (shipmate), a thoughtful and melodious hymn to racial unity which won him second prize in the Calypso Monarch Competition.

Perhaps, the exhilarating heights and sobering limits of chutney’s popularity, and of Indian acceptance in the Afro-Trinidadian mainstream, were illustrated most dramatically by the inclusion of chutney singer Sonny Mann in the Carnival season.

Mann, 61, had been a second-ranked chutney and classical singer for years. In the early 1990s he recorded a catchy but fairly typical chutney song-“Lotay La.” It enjoyed moderate success in the fickle chutney market, until, mid-1995 when it became a smash hit, breaking records for cassette sales and propelling the homely Mann to local stardom.
Everybody Dancing-Sonny MannLotala-Sonny Mann During the Carnival season the song was at the peak of its popularity. A few steel bands adopted it as their road-march tune, and several African and Indian singers recorded their own renditions of it. Mann won a car as first prize when he performed the song with soca artists General Grant and Denise Belfon at the Chutney Soca Monarch Competition.

To quote a colleague at the Express Newspaper, Kim Johnson: “The coupling of chutney and soca is like a dance, drifting now in the soca direction, drifting now in the chutney direction, like partners, none to skilled as yet.”

History would show that the crossover of African and Indian music began a long time ago. And the first moves to marry the two were made from the Afro-Trinidadian side. Calypsos about Indians in Trinidad often incorporated an Indian sound. The first was in the 1920s by Tiger, who sang a calypso with a Guyanese twang-“Gi Sita Ram Gi.” And in 1947, Killer, another calypsonian sang, “Every time ah passin gyul yuh grinding massala.”

With chutney soca Indians had finally arrived in the mainstream of Trinidadian culture and on their own terms, rather than on the traditional steel band and calypso. And many Trinidadians are now speaking of their country not as the proverbial “land of steel band and limbo,” but as the home of “steel band, calypso and chutney.” In this sense, chutney has not only symbolised but also played a formative role in the emergence of a new social paradigm of multiculturalism.

With the advent of the Chutney Soca Monarch and the National Chutney Monarch competitions, the traditional harmonium, dholak and dhantal were replaced by a music band. As a musical style, chutney is valued less for its intrinsic features than for its ability to accompany social dance and to express a distinctively local kind of Indianness. Chutney’s style and structure reflects this character partly by their very adherence to stereotypical conventions. Chutney, like “wine and jam,” soca, functions as dance music rather than listening music, and its lyrics are accordingly of relatively little importance.

If soca songs lyrics are generally unimportant by virtue of their brevity and triviality, chutney lyrics are semantically insignificant because of their conventionality, and more obviously because of the fact that they are sung in a language (Bhojpuri Hindi) which is largely unintelligible to most Indo-Trinidadians. The lyrics themselves are derived from a number of sources. Some are traditional folk songs while others are composed by the singers. Chutney lyrics are simple and repetitive. If Indo-Trinidadians seldom understand the lyrics, they do intuitively recognise the formal structure, which carries its own musical momentum and flow.

Still, Indo-Trinidadians cherish and enjoy the usage of Hindi for its cultural resonance. Inevitably, however, the use of English, or mixed English and Hindi, or even nonsense words is increasing, much to the scorn of traditionalists. And if chutney music is semantically unimportant, the musical style and structure of chutney songs are also simple and stereotyped, again reflecting chutney’s function as a dance music.

What is most important is that a song adhere to certain familiar conventions and meets certain basic criteria. Providing a fast, dance able rhythm is a primary requirement. The emphasis is on the animated singing, and the obligatory catchy refrain, sung in a clear strong voice. Since chutney’s focus remained within the network of weddings and live fetes, its mass media dissemination has been relatively slow and limited. Chutney receives some radio airplay on the privately owned Indian radio stations in the country. However, most of the time is devoted to Hindi film songs.

Nevertheless, the 200 or so cassettes of chutney music released each year enjoys their own niche in the market and are played as dance music at informal parties. Each of the leading singers generally records one cassette a year, the release of which is often timed to coincide with the Christmas season. These are sometimes produced at the expense of the singer. Most cassettes sell around a thousand copies, producers regard as a hit any with sales exceeding 5000. But cassette piracy dampens profits in Trinidad and completely stifles local production.

In its own way, Chutney has become an international genre with New York City and Toronto, Canada, emerging as appendages to the West Indian scene. Top singers are routinely flown to these cities by promoters for chutney shows which are are attended primarily by immigrant Trinidadians and Guyanese, with the occasional handfuls of Asian Indians. End.


By Chutney Music

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