Monday, October 5, 2009

The History of Chutney Music in Trinidad and Tobago (part one)

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. Part two..next entry.

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