Chutney Soca Nana and Nani
There is a saying about Caribbean Chutney music among exiled Indians — you can hear it with your ears, but you feel it with your heart and soul
Nishi Malhotra Washington
In 1970, a young man by the name of Sundar Popo from Barrackpore, Trinidad, leapt to fame in the small Indian community in the Caribbean with a song called Nana and Nani. The song, almost comical in nature, described the affairs of a grandmother and grandfather, possibly his own. Sung in Hindi and Trinidadian creole, and backed up with the music of the dholak and dhantal (as well as the guitar and synthesizer), the song instantly became a number one hit in Guyana and Trinidad. Popo became known as the ‘King of Chutney’, the name given to this new form of music. Nana and Nani became the biggest- selling Chutney single of its time, with the lyrics ‘Nana drinkin white rum and Nani drinkin wine’ heard just about everywhere, from the wedding houses of Berbice, Guyana, to the rum shops in San Fernando, Trinidad.
In recent years, Chutney music has emerged from being an almost forgotten art form to an international moneymaker. The artistes that make up this industry have used their lyrics to reflect upon the world around them and to inspire a culture far removed from their homeland.
Chutney music came to the Caribbean with the arrival of East Indian indentured labourers. They were brought by the British as a replacement for the enslaved labourers on the sugar plantations, who were freed after emancipation. The majority came from the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Bengal. Many of these East Indians settled in the then British colonies of British Guiana (now Guyana), Trinidad and Jamaica. The Dutch also brought large numbers to Dutch Guiana, now Suriname.
Isolation from not only the homeland but other communities among whom they settled, helped the Indians retain much more of their ancestral homeland’s culture than could West Indian blacks, for example. One of the basic foundations of this culture was East Indian music itself. In its original form, it included the use of traditional Indian instruments such as the harmonium, sitar, tabla, dholak and dhantal. It would later go on to include the tassa drums with their fast, exciting and deafeningly loud sounds. The lyrics were almost always in Hindi, although with a noticeable West Indian creole accent; they revolved around basic Indo-Caribbean life, and often echoed the major issues of political repression, relationships and emigration.
Nana and Nani became the biggest-selling Chutney single of its time, with the lyrics ‘Nana drinkin white rum and Nani drinkin wine’ heard just about everywhere, from the wedding houses of Berbice, Guyana, to the rum shops in San Fernando, Trinidad
By the 1980s, however, it looked like Chutney would be lost in the folds of history. There was a lack of new songs from veteran singers. Besides, music within the Caribbean itself was evolving. The traditional West Indian Calypso was being merged into a new form of music called Soca, which was basically a blend of Calypso and American Rhythm and Blues. Chutney music was caught up in this change, which would later evolve it into a new style called Indian Soca.
This new style of music included the Indian instruments of the tassa, dholak and sitar. It also incorporated the more Calypso flavour of the steel pan and synthesizer and even the electric guitar. The lyrics were also mostly sung in West Indian creole with maybe the exception of a few Hindi words. However, by far the most significant change in this new style was the fact that it was almost solidly dominated by Afro-West Indians during its early days.
Not all East Indians welcomed this new fusion with open arms. This was the case with a song called Raja Rani: ‘Oh Rani, I want to marry Hindustani, I love curry, so beti (girl), gimme plenty’. Or, Marajin, a song where an Afro-West Indian singer, Sparrow, proclaims, ‘Marajin, Marajin, oh my sweet dulahin (wife)’. Clearly, the thought of an Afro-West Indian man and an East Indian woman did not sit too well with most East Indians, even in racially tolerant Trinidad. In fact, Sparrow’s Marajin, where he describes his love interest for a pandit’s wife, was banned in Guyana for several years after a huge outcry from the Hindu community in
It is interesting that most songs by Afro-West Indians usually contained their praise and adoration of East Indian women, while those sung by East Indians did the exact opposite. In 1989’s Give Me Paisa, East Indian singer Kanchan describes all East Indian women as gold-digging housewives who only want ‘jewellery, sari, necklace and t’ing, so just give me paisa (money)’. In ‘Darlin I Go Leave You’, (1994), Anand Yankarran labels all East Indian women as cheats and lazy. Nevertheless, these artistes and their songs went on to become huge hits throughout the Caribbean, and laid the framework for many future Indo-Caribbean artistes.