Thursday, October 8, 2009

The History of Chutney Music in Trinidad and Tobago (conclusion)

Harry Mahabir     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.

Harry Mahabir's photo was sourced from RafiMohammed.com, all others from the internet.

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