Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Hot Fusion, Tropical Beats

The spicy pepper mixture known as chutney in India has a second meaning in the Caribbean, where it’s also a type of Indo-Caribbean music with deep roots but a short history. It's also as diverse as the people who created it.

Chutney music goes back to the late 1950s, when a dance album called The King of Suriname released in the tiny South American nation of the same name. The music made a splash among East Indians across the region, and the singer, Ramew Chaitoe, became known as the father of chutney music.

Chaitoe sang primarily Indian religious songs known as bhajans in a Creolized Hindi. One song in particular, Raat Ke Sapne, became a dance hit that was popular for decades. The song is about separation, an apt subject for Chaitoe’s primary audience whose ancestors were brought by the British to the Caribbean sugar belt as indentured laborers to replace the freed slaves.

A decade after Chaitoe’s historic recordings, another Surinamese, Dropati, released an album (Let’s Sing and Dance) of traditional wedding songs that became another hit and earned her the title of the mother of chutney music. The King of Suriname and Let’s Sing and Dance remain two of the bestselling East Indian albums, though the genre itself has changed dramatically.

In 1970, a Trinidadian named Sundar Popo had a #1 hit song in Guyana and Trinidad with his song Nana Nani (which means “grandfather" and "grandmother”). Sung in Creolized Hindi and English, with lyrics like “Nana drinkin' white rum and Nani drinkin' wine,” the song was heard all over the islands in the ‘70s, and gave way to the term chutney for this form of music. Sundar Popo sang folk songs with influences of West Indian calypso sounds on topics that reflected life of the Indo-Caribbeans, touching on themes of emigration, repression, and discrimination in his songs. Other chutney music artists emerged, singing about everything from female oppression to life on a sugar plantation.

Today chutney music has gone mainstream, an amalgam of calypso and Trinidadian soca, using electric guitars and synthesizers, and Indian popular music and traditional instruments, such as the dholak (a double-headed hand drum played horizontally), the dhantal (a long steel rod played with a metal horseshoe-type piece), and the harmonium (something like a small keyboard similar to a reed organ). And it’s not just East Indians creating this music; Afro West Indians have gotten in on the act, and the genre has spread to a wider, mainstream Caribbean audience. A musician named Atiya all the way over in Holland shot to fame performing her own Indian soca music.

And as Afro-Caribbeans and Indo-Caribbeans migrated north, to the United States and Canada, so did the music. Record companies and nightclubs promoting this popular party music emerged, especially in Toronto and New York, spreading the Caribbean music scene further. Often, recordings done in the north make their way back to the islands. 

Earlier, some Caribbean governments banned or repressed chutney music because of ethnic discrimination. But by the early to mid-‘90s, both Trinidad and Guyana had East Indian political leaders, which helped lead to a renaissance of this type of music. In Guyana, Terry Gajraj had a top hit with an album called “Guyana Baboo” (Child of Guyana) that evokes nostalgia for Guyanese immigrants everywhere.

In fact, the music has splintered into a dozen other subgenres – dance, folk, hip hop, rap, even appearing in Bollywood films – but even as it moves from the islands onto the international stage, the music remains popular throughout the region and the Caribbean diaspora as the music of their roots, for East and West Indians alike.

Here are just a few popular chutney songs, old and new:

Chutney Pressure: 

Nani Nana:


Guyana Baboo:


  1. As an Indo-Trini follower I am delighted to read this post!!!If you like I can recommend a few more "chutneys", thank you!

  2. Woohoo, Geets, thanks for your kind words, and yes--we'd *love* to hear your recommendations! I was a little challenged to find something, er, family friendly to share here. :)

    So thrilled to hear from you!

  3. Love this one. Thanks for including the music too!

  4. I'd never heard of this musical genre before, so again I learned something new! Do you know how it earned the name chutney (I suppose there were other Indian associations that could have lent their names)? Did the chutney musicians always use the term themselves, or was it given to them by others?

  5. Supriya, I sent you some recommendations via e-mail, let me know how they are.
    Heidi,I have no idea how the name chutney came to be associated with this type of music, however I wouldn't be surprised if it was a result of the "spicy" nature of the music! Chutney originated from East Indian folk music, and because most of the indentured labourers who came to the Caribbean after slavery spoke Bhojpuri one finds a lot of Bhojpuri lyrics and traditional songs in chutney. The musical tradition from India is very rich and a huge part of our culture. There is a dying tradition where groups of married women would sing some rather raunchy songs to brides to be, while sometimes dancing and even gesticulating!!! It is a rich culture but which has adapted to suit a new country and life, and our music is a demonstration of this, so who knows maybe the chutney singers themselves did name their music "chutney"!

  6. Edith, thanks for stopping by!

    And Geets, thank for the answers to Heidi's questions -- I love your explanations! However, I didn't receive your email! Could you resend to Thanks so much!!

  7. Supriya took me up on my offer to recommend a few more "chutneys" and invited me to share them with everyone else. So here is some more "chutney",of a more family friendly flavour, because some have Hindi/Bhojpuri/local slang I have tried to provide a synopsis of them, I hope you enjoy all of them!!!

    1. This is a recent chutney, also a "tabanca" song, it is family friendly, and rather easy to sing along to, here the singer asks his love, Radhica, why she left him:

    2.This song is by Sundar Popo, who defined an entire generation with his music and is still very popular today, most of his music is ummm spicy at the least, but this is one of his more family friendly songs. Here we call it a "tabanca song" "tabanca" being simply heartbroken/lovesick/unrequited love;

    3.One of my favourite songs, it is in praise of Lord Krishna, and demonstrates the religious base of chutney, I chose this video because it is one one of the best live performances ever, winning the artiste many local awards that year, so do forgive the video from back in 1991, for it's poor quality;

    4. This chutney speaks of "pichkarie" more popularly known as "holi", I believe it is adapted from a Bhojpuri song with few changes;

    5.This is another family friendly one, its a love song to my country Trinidad and Tobago;

    I hope you all enjoy them!!!

  8. This is just fascinating, Geets, and we so appreciate you're sharing all this good stuff with us! Interesting how even the famous Holi festival has taken on a new name in the Caribbean. Also, I seem to hear about Bhojpuri in connection more with the Caribbean than in India. Wonder why that is. Off to check out these songs now--many thanks!