Chutney Soca Nana and Nani

Published: Mon, 09/09/2013 - 07:39 Updated: Sun, 02/02/2014 - 20:36

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
that country.

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.

One such artiste was Drupatee Ramgoonai, a young woman from the village of Penal in the deep south of Trinidad. Ramgoonai emerged onto the Indian Soca scene in 1987 with the release of the single ‘Pepper Pepper’, a song in which she describes the hardship of being an East Indian housewife. In the song, she sings, almost in a comical manner, of how she plans to seek revenge on her husband, whose lack of interest in their marriage is driving her insane. Her solution is simply to put pepper in his food, and to hear him say, ‘Pepper, I want Panni (water) to cool meh, Pepper I want plenty Panni’. While ‘Pepper Pepper’ went on to become a hit on the Soca charts, many conservative East Indians looked upon Ramgoonai with scorn. The Indian community, which was so prepared to defend its name when sullied by the words of the Calypsonian, was not willing to allow one of its members to be part of this tradition. “No Indian woman has any right to sing Calypso,” and “Indian women have been a disgrace to Hinduism” were cries from
the fraternity.

In 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’

Other critics were not as subtle. Mahabir Maharaj, writing in Sandesh, made his viewpoint quite clear: “…For an Indian girl to throw her high upbringing and culture to mix with vulgar music, sex and alcohol in carnival tents tells me that something is radically wrong with her psyche. Drupatee Ramgoonai has chosen to worship the gods of sex, wine and easy money.”

Nevertheless, these criticisms did not stop Ramgoonai, as she pressed on with her music, releasing another album a year later. In the summer of 1988, she was once again on the charts with a new song entitled Mr Bissessar. The song described her admiration of a certain Trinidadian tassa player by the name of Bissessar. The world would later come to know this song as ‘Roll Up De Tassa’. By mid-July 1988, just two weeks after its release, Mr Bissessar had hit #1 in every country in the English-speaking Caribbean, from Antigua to Guyana. A few weeks later, this was repeated on the Soca charts in the US, Canada, and England. Ramgoonai had made history as not only the first East Indian woman, but the first East Indian to successfully cross over onto the Soca charts and to have a #1 hit. If Sundar Popo was the king of Indo-Caribbean music, then Ramgoonai was its queen.

In later years, perhaps, no Guyanese singer was quite as successful as Terry Gajraj whose album of Guyanese folk songs, entitled Guyana Baboo, rocked the charts. His songs, much like those of Popo, spoke about everyday Indo-Caribbean life. In the song, Lillawattie he professes his admiration for a young girl named Lillawattie by saying, ‘Oh Lillawattie, yuh body like a gold, yuh face like an angel yuh take away meh soul’. In the epic Bangalay Baboo, he evokes memories of Guyana by singing, ‘I come from the land, they call Guyana, land of de bauxite, de rice and sugar’. Terry’s songs were hugely successful, especially with the Indo-Caribbean communities in the US and Canada, as they often brought back memories of a homeland many had forgotten. 

By the time Sharlene Boodhram’s Calcutta Woman debuted on the charts, Chutney had already gained recognition as one of the leading music forms within the West Indies. Although the song itself was only mildly popular in the Caribbean, its real success came when it debuted on the American charts. Its background music and ‘Wine Yuh Waist’ lyrics were constantly being sampled by American disc jockeys. It was even sampled by artistes from India, such as Lil Jay, who featured it on his album of Indian film remixes. Chutney had now moved out of the Caribbean and onto the international stage for all the world to hear.

The Indian Soca trend has continued well into the 2000s. Its popularity has been greatly advanced with the help of the growing number of Indo-Caribbean communities in the US and Canada, especially in New York and Toronto. Many of these immigrants have established their own record companies, for example, the hugely successful Jamaican Me Crazy (JMC) Records, Spice Island Records, Mohabir Records & JTS Productions. The establishment of nightclubs such as Soca Paradise and Calypso City in New York, and Connections and Calypso Hut in Toronto, coupled with these new recording companies, have all been factors instrumental in promoting Indo-Caribbean music overseas and in the West Indies.

She sings of how she plans to seek revenge on her husband, whose lack of interest in their marriage drives her insane. Her solution is to put pepper in his food, and hear him say, ‘Pepper, I want Panni to cool meh, Pepper I want plenty Panni’

The success of Chutney really makes one wonder if Popo knew what he was unleashing that fateful summer in 1970 when he released Nana and Nani. Who would have thought that Chutney would go on to have such a huge impact on so many lives? The fact that most East Indians don’t understand Hindi also makes their love of this music all the more intriguing. However, ask anyone how they know the words of a song, and the reply will almost always be the same. One fan told me: “I love these songs; we listen to them all the time, so I know all the words, even if I don’t really understand them.” Another fan put it even more simply: “I cyan understan’ dis t’ing, but I mus’ hear it.”

For these people, Chutney is more than just music. It is their life, their culture. For a people twice removed from their native land, Chutney is their connection to the traditions they might otherwise have never known. There is a saying about Chutney, and it goes: you can hear it with your ears, but you feel it with your heart and soul.

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 

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This story is from print issue of HardNews