How Bhojpuri Founded Chutney Music In The Caribbean

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What do you get when you take a handful of Bhojpuri folk songs, slowly blend in West Indian Creole, add a dash of English, and stir firmly on a bed of instruments such as the harmonium, dhantal and dholak? There’s only one word to describe this delicious mish-mash of musical styles. It’s called ‘Chutney’ or ‘Chatnee’ music, and it’s the staple of the Indian community in the Caribbean, the South American nations of Suriname and Guyana, and islands with a large Indian population such as Fiji and Mauritius.

Although it originated in the Caribbean islands in the 1940s, Chutney music has its roots in the mid-19th century, when indentured labourers from Eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal were shipped by the British to the Caribbean, to work on sugarcane, banana and other plantations there.

Slavery had been abolished in the 1830s and there was a sudden, great need for agricultural labour in these small Central American nations. Indentured Indian labourers were first taken there by the British in the 1830s, followed by the Dutch in the 1860s, who took them to their colonies like Suriname.

Girmitiya Labourers | Wikimedia Commons

Life was oppressive for these early settlers for whom the pain of separation from their motherland was almost too much to bear. They were treated no differently from slaves, except for a contract they had signed with their colonial masters. The only balm they had to ease their suffering was the music they had carried with them from India – Bhojpuri folk songs that they sang in the fields as they worked shoulder-to-shoulder, met at weddings and festivals, and reminisced wistfully in their homes. With their hardship finding expression in music, Chutney further strengthened the ties they shared and gave them an identity in an alien land.

Chutney Music started out as Bhojpuri folk songs woven around religious themes. This devotional music was classical in genre and relied on ragas. It evolved into festival music, pop songs and much later incorporated into Hindi film music.

Like the people who sang these songs, their themes were simple, the words even simpler and sometimes delightfully jumbled and oddly juxtaposed. It was not uncommon to sing of marital bliss, childbirth, romance, family ties and everyday life.

Girmitiya labourers in a musical meeting | Getty Images

Sample the charming 1969 hit number Nani And Nana in ‘Caribbean Hindustani’ sung by Sundar Popo, the ‘King of Chutney Music’:

Nana-Nani Ghar Se Nikale, Dheere-Dheere Chalke Gaye,
Madira Ki Dukaan mein, Dono Jaake Baithe,
Nana Chale Aage-Aage, Nani Going Behind,
Nana Drinking White Rum, Nani Drinking Wine…

Until the late 1950s, Chutney Music was purely an oral tradition. Things began to change when artists from Suriname like Ramdeo Chaitoe and Drupati released albums of their music. With a definite dance tempo, their songs were upbeat and spoke to a wider audience.

But it was only in the late 1960s that the term ‘Chutney Music’ was coined, by two Trinidadian radio producers, Sham and Moean Mohammad, who broadcast Ramdeo and Drupati’s songs across the airwaves. The brothers promoted this music on Indian-oriented radio shows and at public dances, playing an important role in further popularizing this genre of music.

Ramdeo Chaitoe's Idol at Netherlands | Wikimedia Commons

A turning point came in 1969, when Sundar Popo burst onto the music scene. Born Sundarlal Popo Bahora, he was an Indian-origin Trinidadian who with his quirky lyrics set to the guitar and electronic beats, gave the spicy Chutney mix a completely new flavour. By now, Chutney music had become fun, popular and sometimes even mischievous. Popo made it easy for listeners to appreciate this genre of music, which was now laced with up-tempo Calypso beats.

In the 1960s and 1970s, as many Caribbean nations gained independence from colonial powers, Indian-origin people began to migrate to countries like the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and the Netherlands, taking Chutney music with them. That is why it is not unusual to find a DJ suddenly belting out a rendition of Sonny Mann's Lotalal, Vedesh Sookoo's Dhal Belly Indian or Ravi B’s Rum Is Meh Lova, in nightclubs and pubs in the West.

Sundar Popo's idol in a Trinidad Locality | Wikimedia Commons

Back home, Chutney continued to evolve and artists were having a field day experimenting with it. In the 1980s, musicians began to blend more and more Calypso, Soca and American Rhythm and Blues into their music, whose lyrics relied less and less on Bhojpuri and more and more on West Indian Creole with a smattering of Hindi. A sub-genre called ‘Chutney Soca’ burst onto the scene, with a new Trinidadian artiste called Drupatee Ramgoonai.

In just 50 years, Chutney Music changed considerably, from Bhojpuri folk songs, to devotional and festival music, songs about everyday life, to popular dance numbers and songs laced with innuendo. Over time, the harmonium, dhantal and dhola, had given way to the keyboards, guitar, drums and electronic music.

Chutney has come a very long way in a very short time, from being a therapeutic release for suffering and a yearning for one’s homeland, to catchy and intoxicating party numbers and pop tunes. But it's unmistakable ‘Indian’ style remains. Far from the sugarcane fields where their ancestors toiled, artists like Adesh Amaroo, Ravi B and Rikki Jai are keeping the tradition of their forefathers alive – a journey that began almost 200 years ago, away from their motherland.