Global Music

Trinidad’s chutney music: You don’t need to understand Bhojpuri to love the spicy beats

Brought to the West Indies by Indian workers, Bhojpuri and calypso share a love for uptempo beats and innuendo.

Do you know what it means:Patthar mor kahī ahiyā lehanavā bhuī dole re?’” Trinidadian chutney star Rasika Dindial, better known as D’Rani, asked over the phone. She was quoting the infectious refrain from one of her songs, the 2009 blockbuster Maticoor Night. Didn’t she know what her lyrics meant? “I have no idea what it means,” she admitted. “It just sounded so good.”

Bhojpuri occupies a strange place among Trinidadians of Indian origin. The language arrived in the Caribbean with shiploads of indentured labourers who had been brought to the islands between 1849 and 1917 to work on the sugarcane plantations. Today, as a spoken language, it is dead, edged out by Creole. But there is one place where it is alive, kicking and dancing – the uptempo mish-mash of calypso and Bhojpuri beats called chutney music.

Over the decades, the rural folk forms like biraha, hori, chaiti, kajri and jhoola that came to the West Indies from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar over a century ago found a new shape and new fans. Chutney music and chutney soca (as soul calypso music is known) is heard everywhere in Trinidad, Guyana and Surinam – on dance floors, fêtes and weddings. The familiar (and limited) melodies are now set to steel drums, synthesiser and electric guitar, instead of just the traditional harmonium, dhantal and dholak.

But the lyrics are mostly in Creole, with residual sprinkling of words and phrases from the old language – sometimes used cheerfully out of context by singers.

Cultural bridge

Bhojpuri and Hindi references found their way into earlier calypsos too. These spoke of the forbidden love between kirwal or men of African origin who had been brought to the West Indies as slaves and Indian women (forbidden by furious Indian male relatives). Some of these songs include Dictator’s Moonia from 1955, Killer’s Grinding Massala and Sparrow’s Marajhin from 1985.

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A cover of Killer's Grinding Massala.

Bhojpuri was the first language of the community in the decades that immediately followed the arrival of the jahajis or ship-borne workers in “girmitiya des”– the “girmit” how the indentured workers described the agreement they signed, which fixed their wages and guaranteed them passage home after a few years. A great many chose to stay. Gradually, linguistically agile workers began to pick up creolised English on the sugarcane plantations. But the language at home and among peers remained Bhojpuri. In his article The Impact of Hindi on Trinidad English published in the Caribbean Quarterly in 1999, Kumar Mahabir describes a first-generation Indian woman saying: “My parents say “Hindii bool-tuu kirwal baatee?” or, “Speak Hindi! Are you an African?”

With the arrival of Canadian missionary schools, Indian workers wanted to educate their children and move out of the plantations. The attachment to Bhojpuri dimmed during this time. Families actively discouraged the young from using the language, recalls Peggy Mohan, a Trinidadian linguist of Indian origin. The elders would still use it, especially for conversations they wanted to hide from the young but speaking Bhojpuri indicated a backslide, a return to the dark ages.

Mohan wrote about the death of the Bhojpuri language in Trinidad in her paper, Two Faces of A Language Death. Bhojpuri in chutney music, she said, is the lowest use of a language. “Speaking in Bhojpuri now elicits embarrassment and discomfort in society,” she said. “People laugh. I am more or less the last dodo.”

Darell Baksh, a chutney soca scholar at the University of West Indies, said Bhojpuri stopped being the primary language in his family around the time his mother was born, in 1947. The only words that survived were those connected to food, rituals and kinship. “So chutney soca became a way to bridge the two worlds Indians inhabit in Trinidad – their own and the Afro-Caribbean one,” he said.

In fact, D’Rani’s song was originally part of a Punjabi ladies’ sangeet or pre-wedding ritual to appease the earth, called maticoor or mitti koorna – which means tilling the soil. The Trinidadian version is an occasion for women to let their hair down with some wild, often unabashedly ribald revelry: “Maticoor night is for dem ladies to get away, they don’t really care what anybody say,” D’Rani declares.

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Spice and sex

Bhojpuri and calypso became natural musical partners in the 1970s because both worked with uptempo, danceable beats and both revelled in innuendo. Popular Bhojpuri dishes, an integral part of the composite Caribbean culture, feature prominently as lyrics. Soca star and reggae singer Prophet Benjamin refers to both the sexual and culinary tastes of his beloved when he sings:

“Baigan Chokha
Mujhe de do larka
She want my baigan chokha
She don want no dal and rice” 

Prophet Benjamin says his lover wants his baingan chokha (a spicy, savoury eggplant dish) not a dish of dal rice (a bland, staple meal of lentils and rice). It is a measure of how far chutney has come, that no one bats an eyelid when he later refers to why his baingan chokha is more appealing than a “squidgy cucumber”.

Similarly, phulourie or fried balls of dough in Sundar Popo’s Phulourie Bina Chutney Kaise Bani, covertly bemoan the drabness of sex without spice.

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When Sunny Mann sang the saucy Lotayla in 1995, the outrage came as a delayed reaction. The word lootala, which means let us roll together in conjunction, has come to be associated with sexual mischief. Not many understood what the lyrics implied back then, said ethnomusicologist Tina Ramnarine, author of Creating Their Own Space: The Development of an Indian Caribbean Musical Tradition. The lyrics “Daru peeke bhauji khub loota la, bhaiya leke gadi khub kam karela, leke sabun bhauji khub lagawela” were about a wildly seductive, inebriated sister-in-law seeking to “lotay” with her brother-in-law.

“The sound of the words can be retained for their intrinsic properties and association with the past, rather than their meaning,” said Ramnarine.

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Trinidadian physician Visham Bhimull hosts social media-driven events around Bhojpuri culture in Trinidad, but chutney stars rarely attend these events. To compose fresh songs or remix older Bhojpuri numbers, musicians consult elders who still speak the language, the community’s pandits or people of Indian origin in Surinam and Holland, who still speak and sing in Sarinami (Surinamese Bhojpuri). There are also handy songbooks like Rukmini Holass Beepath’s Veevaha Geet, that documents 108 wedding songs.

Another Indian influence on local Trinidadian culture may have come through Hindi films, notes Tejaswini Niranjana in her book Mobilizing India: Women, Music, and Migration between India and Trinidad. This influence began with Bala Joban, screened in 1935 and grew with passing decades (bolstering the formation of popular film music bands in the 1940s, with names like Naya Zamana and Choti Sangeet Saaj).

“The interest in Hindi films songs for most East Indians today doesn’t derive from any understanding of the lyrics, since even singers like Drupatee and Rikhi Jai who include these songs in their repertoire assert they don’t know Hindi,” writes Niranjana in her book. Fortunately, the nonsense lyrics have never truly bothered listeners – chutney music is too much fun for that.

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