sunday sounds

A quick guide to Sundar Popo, the Don of Trinidadian chutney music

For the descendants of Indian indentured labourers in the West Indies, chutney music heals the traumatic past with hopes for a better future.

The first Indians landed in Trinidad (sold to desperate Bhojpuris as “Chini-dad”) as sugar slaves (euphemistically known as ‘indentured workers) in 1848. In the more than 150 years since, the East Indian community of the West Indies has struggled to forge a distinct and meaningful identity that captures both their roots in (mostly) eastern UP, their present, as a large and powerful group across the Caribbean, and a hopeful, as-yet-in-formation, future.  In recent decades, that search for an identity that connects history with future prospects has been played out in part in popular music.   In particular, the form of diaspora music known as chutney or chutney-soca, has been a mass experiment and experience of communal self-realisation for the Indian populations of the West Indies.

Emerging out of the traditional north Indian female practice of singing wedding songs to brides on the eve of their marriages, chutney music has over the years added Hindi filmi rhythms, modern electronic and western instruments and calypso beats to create a spicy genre of intoxicating dance music.  Men may have now taken centre-stage but not by any means have they displaced the women.  Rather, the music has given women an opportunity to move out of the shadows where they once sang their saucy tunes, to shake and strut their stuff in public.  Naturally, this has freaked-out the bearers of traditional values, but seems to have done nothing to slow the growth or popularity of the music.

Sadly, though the form has received some scholarly attention in recent years, the music itself is grossly underappreciated outside of the Caribbean and West Indian diaspora communities in North America and the UK.

If there is one name that is associated with the development of chutney more than any other it is that of Sundar Popo.  Born Sunilal Popo Bahora in Barrakpore, Trinidad, to musical parents, the young boy became possessed by the music from the day he was born. His parents who sang and performed at weddings and other Indian functions dragged Sundar with them where he absorbed everything.  Before long he was part of the show. “I was the best dancer in the country,” he claimed many years later.  Until his death in 2000 at the age of 57, Sundar Popo, who favoured a red lounge suit with a big “P” on the pockets, was the acknowledged Frank Sinatra-Kishore Kumar of the Caribbean.

 Nana Nani



Popo recorded his original breakthrough hit in 1969 after a meeting with music promoter Moean Mohammad at a matikhor (pre-wedding song fest). The song which tells the quirky story of a wine-loving grandpa and grandma was an instant hit and revolutionised Caribbean music by mixing English and Bhojpuri lyrics (“aage aage Nana chale, Nani goes behind/ Nana drinking white rum/ Nani drinking wine”) and setting the stage for what would eventually be loved as chutney.

I Wish I Was a Virgin



Sadly this clip is ends too abruptly, but is worth listening to. The song captures the upbeat tassa beat that the East Indians introduced into the slower rhythms of calypso. The lyrics are also particularly hot, telling of a rather racy “virgin” while a wonderful wave of brass worthy of the Memphis Horns underpins Popo’s tongue-in-cheek storytelling.

She said she was a virgin/and wanted to get married/she never married a taxi driver
So he got drive/and she got drive/ and drive upon another/so milke/bechurige ankiyaan/ Hai Rama!/milke bechurige ankiyan.

Kaise Bani



Another song that mixes Hindi and English gives Popo a platform to demonstrate his ability to sing in a completely different style than the highly produced, western-instrument-dominated dance numbers. Here Popo delivers what is essentially a novelty number, made famous by the Indian duo of Babla and Kanchan, which moves from funny propositions to kids nursery rhymes but is embedded in a folky environment of dholak, tabla and shehnai-sounding clarinet.

Scorpion Gyal



With a dholak driving the beat and a snake charmer-like clarinet swaying between lyric and beat, Popo expresses the eternal and universal attraction of the temptress whose sexiness includes a painful sting! “Scorpion sting me/darling if you love me /come lie down in my bed.” A huge chutney hit and Popo favorite.

Chaadar Beechawo Balma



A rapid fire Bhojpuri duet calls for the woman to spread out her blanket and get ready for loving while leaving the parents asleep.

Listen to these songs as a single playlist on our YouTube channel.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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