As I have ascertained, Chutney Music is an evolving artform, and will continue to be as long as there are innovative artistes and fresh talent entering the industry. Not to mention hefty cash winnings at annual competitions. Take Nisha Bissambhar of Karma Music Band fame, she’s a versatile singer who dabbles in different aspects of music; chutney, chutney soca, calypso, reggae, Indian film song remixes with a chutney melody and lately another twist: dancehall chutney. Her 1999 release The Scorpion, a chutney song that gained popularity with every spin on the airwaves boosted her singing career. It was one of her best songs at the time. And she took it beyond cultural boundaries with Jamaican artiste, Beenie Man. They remade the song into a peppy dancehall chutney ditty. And that too rose to new heights. Not that they were the first to mix up the music, when you think of Sonny Mann and Denise Belfon with the Lotayla remake, Marchel Montano and Drupatie's Aap Jaisa Koi Mere and Real Unity (club mix), it's really the same concept, they all have dancehall rhythm and are still chutney soca songs.
Admittedly, Nisha has come full circle as a local singer. She has graduated from a shy little girl performing Indian film songs on Children of Mastana and then on MastanaBahar to a carefree stage performer. Gone are the days when she stood on the spot and swayed slightly until the song was completed. She has learned to embrace the stage and the crowds that come with it. In fact, she is very much at ease rolling her hips and gyrating her body and making bold eye contact with her fans. As a lead singer with the family band, she has performed in America, Canada, Guyana and other countries of the world. It’s clear she will not stop there and will one day visit India and appease her desire. More on Nisha and Karma in future posts.
Chutney music, like most genres in the world is a hot commodity. And it's raking in huge sums locally and abroad for the best singers. But when did it become less about singing and more about money? And when did lyrics and modesty lose balance? When did singing become a competitive job and less about entertaining? This blog seeks to explore many issues relating to the origin and development of chutney music and its future in a dynamic music industry that has become more about commercialisation than entertainment. Trinidad and Tobago is the birthplace of chutney music and chutney soca, among other genres. It is home to the top chutney singers in the Caribbean and is spinning out new talent and new compositions daily. The artform is competitive and artistes go to extremes to compose their songs. There is no control over lyrics, except profanity. Lyrics are bold, laced with double entendre, most are centered around the female anatomy. Men sing aboout them and women respond likewise. Lyrics are sometimes tasteless, erotic, meaningless or funny. And in few instances a song will emerge that carries a message or a story. Some may argue that chutney music is boring without a bit of eroticism. Or that it would not be chutney without such. Traditionally speaking, it evolved from a religious base. So when did the religious influence fall away from chutney music? Can anyone truly tell? Chutney music is an evolving art, but how does one determine its value? How does a particular genre fit into a society that is constantly introducing new talent and new music. Where does one genre end and another begin, for instance, chutney music and chutney soca are like sybiotic twins, feeding off each other for survival with each artiste bending and breaking musical notes to suit their own appetite. How many trebles of chutney to a soca note to produce the sweet chutney soca blend? I don't know, but the blend is undeniably a heady sensation that invokes one action only-dance.
Feel The Rhythm
Chutney music while still in the evolutionary stage is enjoyed by millions across the Caribbean, America, Canada, England, Suriname and many other countries in the world. Essentially a genre with birthright in Trinidad and Tobago, the ranchy compositions are among the most popular dance songs in the country. They are loved by all who appreciate east Indian music. Trinidad boasts of such greats as Sundar Popo, Sonny Mann, Rikki Jai, Rasika Dindial, Rakesh Yankaran among others, Guyana has its crop of famed chutney stars in the likes of the original Guyana Baboo, Terry Gajraj, Ashni, Niesha Benjamin. Suriname's stars are Ramdeo Chaitoo and Dropatie. Many have attempted to capture the spirit of chutney music in words, but such a dynamic artform, stretching into the annals of the indentured's ancestry and carried in their hearts like a priceless artifact, has to be experienced to be truly appreciated. Words cannot represent an artform that evolves with every new composition. Like its namesake, chutney, a peppery condiment made with a combination of spices, have to be savored until the tongue stings and the eyes water. Similarly, one has to immerse oneself in the rhythm of the dholak, dhantal and harmonium to feel the sensation of authentic chutney music. To experience it is to tap into this rich cultural legacy and truly engage its evolution. This blog seeks to explore chutney music and in part, its spin-off, chutney soca. It will focus on everything chutney and will explore, in excerpts, the life of the late Sundar Popo and his contribution to the artform. Readers who knew Sundar are urged to share their memories of him with Chutneyroots. Email: email@example.com
Was Sundar Popo the real pioneer of chutney music as some believe? Many writers have acclaimed him as such, and at one time, myself. But further research has prompted me to revise that opinion. I believe there is need for clarity, and I mean no offense to writers or to the late chutney legend. Sundar Popo was one of the pioneers of chutney music. And it did not start with his Nana and Nani song. That song itself was not a chutney song but created an awareness of what could result from a combination of Hindi and English lyrics to the accompaniment of the dholak, dhantal and harmonium.
The humble Sundar would attest to such had he been alive.
Like the late King of Pop, Michael Jackson, Sundar, too, did not fulfill his last obligation to perform his immortal "Mother's Love," at Mother's Day concerts in Canada and New York, instead, he was called away, too soon, perhaps to perform to an audience that adores him as much as the one he left behind.
The day before Sundar left New York for Trinidad, he visited me to say good-bye and shrugged away my concern about his health saying, "if I have to creep, walk or swim, I going home." When he walked away I had the uncanny feeling I would not see him again. Two days later he was dead, leaving me with the memory of him in his red-signature suit singing to an appreciative audience.
I met Sundar late in his life and knew him only as a humble man with failing eyesight and bad kidneys. Our first meeting was at the Chutney Soca Monarch Competition in Skinner Park, San Fernando. His hand shake was slack. He spoke little and only responded to questions. When it was his turn to go on stage, he asked me to hold his hand and take him up the stairs. I couldn't understand why, and then someone whispered to me "he cyar see good."
After that, we became friends. A month before he died he had accompanied me to Yale University, Connecticut, where I lectured on "The Origin of Chutney Music in Contemporary Trinidad," and he sang chutney songs. We distributed copies of his CDs to the attendees and to Yale Library.
Sundar's journey is complete. He left the world as humbly as he entered. Sickness did not prevent him from doing what he loved more than his health-sing.