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Unity of dougla music

The beat of a different drum


THE COUPLING of chutney and soca is like a dance, drifting now in the soca direction, now in the chutney direction, the partners none too skilled as yet. In the calypso season they move, in numbers such as Drupatie's "Mr Bissessar", towards the Afro-creole side of the floor (although that's changed since Sonny Mann's "Lotay La").

As Rikki Jai sang in a tune which was, like "Bissessar", written by an Afro-Trini, "Hold the Lata Mangeshkar, give me soca".

Other times, at the large chutney shows in Central and South, in the music of men such as Anand Yankaran and women such as Geeta Kawalsingh and Prematie Bheem, the movement drifts towards the Indian side.

There have also been men who wholeheartedly embraced the musical culture of the other group and made significant contributions in the effort. The Mootoo Brothers formed one of the most important back-up bands for calypsonians in the 1950s, while Bobby Mohammed of Cavaliers and Jit Samaroo of the Samaroo Jets have been central to the development of steelband.

The Hindu Prince has sung some marvellous social commentary calypsoes, while Johnson Blac-kwell and Roy Cooper were important exponents of Indian classical singing.

The contribution of such men was not in fusion, however, at least not directly. Their submergence into the other man's culture had been too complete for that.

The crossover of African and Indian music started a long time ago. And the first moves came from the black side.

Calypsoes about Indians in Trinidad often incorporated an Indian sound. Beginning in the late 1920s such calypsoes would string along Indian names or words, or be sung in a pidgin English "Me work for me money, me go back to me country," sang Tiger in 1939 in a calypso which resembled many Guyanese blend songs, "Gi Sita Ram Gi".

Using Indian rhythms, Killer made a hit in 1947 with: "Every time ah passin gal, you grindin massala." That very year, perhaps prompted by "Grinding Massala", Albert Gomes pointed out that, "the calypso singer has begun to announce in his songs that our ethnic 'potpourrie' is a reality". But not every skin teeth is smile. So too, miscegenation in our Afro-European world didn't begin with love, and many of these early "Indian" calypsoes celebrated bigotry and exploitation. Hindi words and Hindu names, real or invented, were ridiculed by black calypsonians: "Long ago was Sumintra, Ramna-lawia," sang Killer, "Bull-basia and Oosankilia."

Black participation in Indian feasts, weddings and religious celebrations-the main arenas of racial encounter-formed the background of many of these calypsoes. Killer's "Grinding Massala" takes place at a wedding; Fighter's "Indian Wed-ding" takes place at Phagwa; Executor finds "My Indian Girl Love" at Hosay.

"Indian Dinner" by Killer and "Indian Party" by Fighter are self-explanatory. There Indian food was consumed, sometimes through trickery, while the hosts and their culture were despised for being gullible and eccentric.

It was part of the general disparagement of immigrants. Vincentians, Bajans, Guyanese, Grenadians got their share, as did Chinese, Portuguese, Jews and everyone else. In a young, unformed society it was like the cruelty of schoolboy nicknames writ large. And Indians, being the most distinct in an Afro-western society, were the most vulnerable.

And they reacted to suit. "Nigger, nigger come for roti, all the roti done," goes a children's doggerel which evokes the Indian resentment towards such encounters: "When the coolie come for roti, all the nigger run."

The freeloading and stereotyping in calypso died in the 1960s, perhaps because a patronising "tolerance" had become the national motto. Today the rawness of colonial wounds are plastered over. The enthusiasm with which people jumped onto the NAR "One Love" bandwagon shows an eagerness to heal, although the sore has hardly been lanced.

Consequently, much to the chagrin of Indian traditionalists, the modern "Indian" calypsoes have drawn on motifs of spicy Indian food as symbols of the sexuality of Indian women. "I have a tabanca," sang the Mighty Trini before listing the hottest Indian foods, "curry tabanca".

With greater subtlety Sparrow managed to raise the hackles of Hindu brahmins by choosing to sing of saucy, tasty "Marajhin" at a time when Indian women had begun to shuck off the worst forms of paternalism, often by embracing creole culture: "Ah go work the land and gi you all me paisa," Sparrow sang with uncharacteristic sentimentality, "An will even drink your juta from the lota."

Sparrow was doing nothing he hadn't done before with far more mischievous humour. But Hindu leaders complained; letters were written to the press.

By then, however, soca had over a decade under its belt. And Sparrow's 1985 "Marajhin" became so popular, not only at Carnival but also at the mainly Indian Phagwa, that the calypsonian returned the following year to court with equal success "Marajhin Sister."

Now, Brother Marvin's "Jahaaji Bhai," to the great enthusiasm of Indians, has turned the joke back on black people, suggesting that the brotherhood of the boat, was also the brotherhood of both:

If you want to know the truth
take a trip back to your roots
and somewhere on that journey
you go see a man in a dhoti
saying his prayers in front of a jhandi

What made Afro-creole music so comfortable with Indian culture? How come Indo-Trinis have become amenable to calypso?

In 1971 Lord Shorty, the love man, embodying the promiscuous ethos of the black calypsonian, sang of "Indrani"-his old Indian chick: "So bony, skinny like a whip." Killer had come from Barrackpore, Fighter from Guyana, but it was Shorty, who spoke Hindi and had grown up in Lengua breathing Indian music from the air around him. His calypso was borne along on a sinuous Asian melody and the hop-and-drop Indian rhythm of a dholak drum:

When she come from the lagoon
drink she rum sing she Indian tune.

Soca is a catch-all category embracing many up-tempo rhythms with diverse roots-Baptist, Shango, cadance, reggae. Indeed, Shorty's calypso "Soul of Calypso" incorporated a North American Soul sound. But Shorty had been experimenting with Indian rhythms since "Indian Singers" in the 1960s. And whether his was one of the influences which introduced a new bounce into calypso, "Om Shanti Om" set a standard which is yet to be surpassed, either lyrically or musically. And socially his timing was perfect.

Between skinny Indrani from the lagoon and Marajhin the queen of beauty, an oil boom had intervened. Money flowed; country Indians moved to town; Indian women, educated and independent, broke away; Shorty turned to religion; the nation partied, and calypso's step quickened, became simplified into soca-a dance music. And the dholak sound in Indrani's music, played on the bass guitar, took root. Calypso, an Afro-creole folksong, through one of its soca avatars, moved closer to India.

To consummate the embrace, however, chutney, an Indo-creole folksong, needed to come of age.

The Indian culture brought to Trinidad has a wide variety of folksongs, some of which are closely analagous to the calypso. A biraha, for instance, according to U. Arya, "may be composed instantaneously by any person on any subject. It may break all bounds of propriety and social rules. It may protest against any practice, custom or person, or may praise these."

In addition there are Hindu devotional bhajans and ritual sohars, Muslim ghazals and qaseedas. There are chowtals sung at Phagwa, erotic chatthi songs sung by women six days after childbirth, and many others. On the public farewell nights at weddings some of the traditional women's songs were lifted out of their context and accelerated to a traditionally rapid breakaway rhythm to the sound of the harmonium, the dhantal iron and the dholak drum.

"Rosie gal, whey you cookin for dinner," goes one of the first of these suggestive women's songs sung in English, "She makin choka, it ent have no salt."

These up-tempo versions still form the substance of chutney, but they had to evolve to become compatible with soca. In 1971 only five of 88 compositions in a Mastana Bahar audition were local. Enter Sundar Popo.

With a string of hits that borrowed from local chutney and Indian film music, in particular "Nani and Nana", Popo showed the way. His melodies were simple, catchy, and his lyrics in a blend of English and Hindi were comprehensible to everyone though sung in an Indian style:

Nani goin behind
Nana drinkin white rum
Nani drinkin wine

Sundar Popo would have been impossible without the work of Harry Mahabir, the leader of the BWIA National Indian Orchestra.

Though trained in India, Mahabir used western instruments; he simplified the Indian rhythms from their irregular, shifting patterns into a consistent Afro-creole beat; he adapted Indian linear melodies to western techniques of harmony. And he did this with almost every Indian singer in Trinidad through Mastana Bahar.

"It was Harry's clean sound, his electric instruments," explains musicologist Mervyn Williams, "that made Indian music palatable to all Trinidadians."

The result was no less Indian for that. Usually there was some characteristically Indian instrumentation, tassas or a harmonium. Lyrics, even when in English, were sung in the nasal way of Hindi phrasing. Certain melodic lines had a distinctive Indian flavour, but even when they didn't they could be played with an Indian lilt.

"I remember an Indian man playing Blakie's 'Sing a Simple Calypso' on a sax," recalls Gordon Rohlehr, "and he make it sound like an Indian tune."
The 1970s made chutney ready for soca as it made soca ready for chutney. But social life in Afro-creole Trinidad is a stage, whereas for Indians, who tended to be private, defensive, to some, "clannish," the idea took some getting used to. This was heightened by the fact that, unlike calypsonians, many chutney singers are women who are even more enjoined to public modesty.

Mastana Bahar and the annual Indian Cultural Pageant, when it began to include a chutney segment, helped here. Many contestants performed calypso-type Indian songs. But it was the weekend chutney shows with their wild and almost orgiastic atmosphere, a cross between calypso tent and Carnival fete, that groomed Indian singers for the public stage.

Indian music had grown up in the large weddings which were the main social functions of rural Indian life. But for social and economic reasons, these were now in decline and the gap was filled by a more public, more commercial function-the chutney shows. There Indian music found its new venue in the mid 1980s. This, however, was still a private Indian affair.

Then Kanchan visited from India to sing "Kayse Banie" with Sundar Popo. She performed her hit "Kuchi Gard Badh Hai" cover of Arrow's "Hot, Hot, Hot", "Tiny Winey" and other calypsoes. That was what opened the door for Drupatee to call on "Mr Bissessar" in the tent to roll up the tassa:

A section from Debe
Join an start to play
Indian lavway and they
Jammin the soca.

On both sides the music is still rudimentary. Catering for dancers, like most popular music since the 1970s, chutney soca or soca chutney is generally banal in its lyrics. Its melodies are still primitive.

Crazy's "Nani Wine" represented an all-time low in popular taste (at the time). Sitarist Mungal Patasar, himself an important crossover innovator, has criticised the continued use of old melodies in chutney tapes. He suggests that Indian musical creativity in Trinidad is hampered by an ignorance of the classical ragas, just as a jazzman would be hampered by an ignorance of jazz chords.

The unifying feature of this dougla music, rhythm, is simple, the as-yet-untutored lowest common denominator.

But to hear Andre Tanker's "Jumbie Walk", or Shorty's "Om Shanti" is to savour a potential sweetness, a pungency that is only waiting to be mastered. "Lotay La" by Sonny Man, who won the first Chutney Soca competition, is a step in that direction. And when that happens the people of Trinidad and Tobago will taste the true sensuousness of the Orient.

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