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Chutney 101

Written by: Tiara Chutkhan

The vibrant and colourful sounds of Chutney artists like Sundar Popo, Drupatee, and Babla & Kanchan have been a staple in many of our homes for generations. The up-tempo genre combine the Indian roots and Caribbean culture that Indo-Caribbean carry. The word Chutney derives from Hindi, describing a hot, peppery mix, much like some of the best Chutney songs we can think of. The exotic sounds and traditional instruments are a reminder of the new culture that was created when indentured labourers from India created a home in the Caribbean.

East Indians were fairly isolated even after the end of the indenture period, some of this due to racial tensions that had formed with their arrival. Keeping amongst themselves had one advantage; it allowed them to rebuild and recreate parts of the Indian culture they had left behind decades prior. One of the pillars of that culture was it’s music. The roots of Chutney or Chatnee stem from the Bhojpuri language and culture.

In its earliest forms, traditional Indian instruments like the Harmonium, Sitar, Tabla were used to create the distinct sound Chutney is known for.

The dholak (drum) and dhantal (iron rod) were essential ingredients used to create upbeat sounds. The genre later adapted influences from Soca, Calypso, and Bollywood with fast tempo tassa drums producing sounds that made it impossible to not whine yuh waist.

Songs were typically about love and life, food and drink, sometimes with a few subtle messages embedded in the lines.

Chutney made its debut in the 1940s, but didn’t reach its peak of popularity until the 1980s. The lyrics were almost always in Hindi, though a noticeable West Indian accent coated them. The music was first played inside temples, wedding houses and cane fields but here was also a spontaneous side to Chutney, with songs composed on the spot in rum shops. The songs were thought of as women’s songs and typically sung by women. On the night before weddings, women would gather with the bride to be and have their own private ceremony. There they would tell of the married life to come by way of sharing innuendo-laden songs and sensually dancing to the dholak and dhantal.

Males began to dominate the Chutney scene later on. In 1958, Ramdew Chaitoe of Suriname recorded the earliest rendition of Chutney with his album King of Suriname. He soon became a popular figure across the Caribbean. Although his songs lyrics were religious, there was a dance vibe in each track. This was a breakthrough for the Indo-Caribbean community; it was the first time they had a genre of music that spoke directly to them and their heritage. The hype eventually died down and in 1968, Chutney was reborn with female artist Dropati who released a wedding album called Let's Sing & Dance.

The release of these iconic albums proved the need for East Indian music that wasn’t religious— this development came not long after.

In 1970, a young Sundar Popo stepped on the scene with the song “Nana & Nani.” The song took a comical approach to the relationship between a grandmother and grandfather. “Nana drinkin’ white rum and Nani drinkin’ wine,” were heard everywhere from Trinidad to Guyana and more. The modern twist of western guitars and electronics made the song a number #1 hit in 1972. You probably still hear it on a weekend afternoon if yuh Nani is in the mood.

Lyrics also began to get political. In Guyana, artists like Nisha Benjamin used their music to describe the hardships of a woman living on a sugar estate. She also spoke on the political and economical state of Guyana, bringing attention to the dictatorship of the PNC (Peoples National Congress) party. The pattern of rigged elections and racial discrimination against Indo-Caribbeans forced many to flee. The PNC’s control over media outlets left little room for the Indian culture. In other countries like Trinidad, the racial tolerance was higher, allowing Chutney to flourish.

Chutney didn’t come without criticism, but it was mainly directed toward the female artists.

In 1987 Drupatee Ramgoonai released the single “Pepper Pepper,” where she sang of the hardships of being an East Indian housewife. She sings about wanting revenge on her husband who seems to have a lack of interest in their marriage. The song was a hit, but many conservative East Indians felt that women were disregarding their Hindu upbringing to behave vulgarly. Despite the critics, Drupatee continued rolling out hits over the next decade and earning her title as a Chutney queen.

The merge of Chutney and Indian Soca continued into the 90s and early 2000s. With Indo-Caribbeans relocating to the United States and Canada, the community grew. Nightclubs and record labels were established for new generations to create music and allow the genre to evolve and grow.

Whether it is blasting from a maxi-taxi or playing in your living room, Chutney is more than just music; it’s a reminder of where our journey as Indo-Caribbeans first began. Chutney has touched so many of us despite the language barrier. For many of us, we have heard these songs during family gatherings, weddings and other events, and despite not understanding what we’re saying, we continue to sing. History and geography have removed us from India, but through bits of our culture we are able to preserve some of those roots. Not only is Chutney hot and spicy like the people who created it— it is an expression of our creativity, our stories and our heart.

This article was written By Tiara Chutkhan. Tiara is a writer, "booktuber" and a "bookstagrammer." With a versatile taste, Tiara gives you a look into hundreds of interesting titles. Follow her at @bookwormbabee

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