From Ragas to Ragga in Indo-Caribbean Music*
by Frederick R. Dannaway
Nearly every time I walk into my local Indian grocery, usually to make curry, there is the latest bhangra blasting by the young staff that samples some of the most identifiable elements from Jamaican dancehall. The evocative “hey” of Dave Kelly’s Showtime riddim can be heard punctuating Hindi chatted like patois over thunderous percussion. The shared history of the Caribbean and India go back beyond the days of slavery to Columbus, who mistook the islands as India, lingering in their designations as the West Indies. They arrived as indentured servants and have influenced the culture, language, religion, cooking and music ever since. Back to food, the early songs link Afro-Caribbeans’ immense appetites for the Indian roti dish, which is like curry in chapatti flatbread, and it remains a humorous topic in the romances of different races on the island. One contemporary example (among many, from as early as the 1930’s) is from Remy Rembunction, in some Bombay throwback chutney, dripping with orchestral sitars in Roti and Kuchela:
Though there are African precedents for the dreadlocks (as seen among the Baye Fall of Senegal), they might have come from India (Hindi jata). From East India came the Rastafarian cultural elements of the chillum pipe, and terms for ganja or kali are terms well familiar to the ascetic hashish smoking and dreadlocked sadhu of India. The Rastafari founder and elder Leonard Howell even took an Indian name, given by his Indian bodyguard, of Gagunguru Maragh (Gong Maragh or Tough King) traceable to the rudeboy status of Bob Marley as the Tuff Gong. Indian scales and melodies are known as ragas, which may be the etymological origins of reggae and ragga in Jamaica. The curries and chutneys that are found all over the various Caribbean islands speak to the unique commingling of flavors in a mutual love of textured spices and hot peppers. The same essence permeates much of the music of the various islands, some uniquely Indo-Caribbean while others fuse with African and European influences in the hyper-paced genres of soca (a spin off of calypso) or the Venezuelan parang of Trinidad and Tobago. Indians like Jit Samaroo helped steelpan evolve, composing many of the calypsos of Lord Kitchener. Indo-Trinidadian music breaks into overlapping sub-genres like the chutney jhumar, Punjabi chutney and chutney-rap/ragga and dancehall.
Calypso was the child of the oil drums and frying pans that were fashioned into drums by slaves when their traditional drums were banned. Slave masters knew the power of the drum on the beating heart of the oppressed as well as the ingenious use of percussion to coordinate attacks, rebellions and escapes. Soca is the infusion of East Indian into West Indian musical heritages forged in the tropical sun of enforced labor.
The Hindi word bhai, or brother, is a popular greeting in places like Grenada. It is a term like jhagis, or shipmates, as a term of friendship amongst indentured Indian laborers. Guyana has some truly early East Indian-Afro mashups such as those that date to the late 50’s with the Mootoo Brothers, who backed up the internationally famous Calypsonians. Similar fusions occurred on other islands like Grenada and Trinidad & Tobego (T&T) where pioneers of soca combined African drums with the Indian metallic percussion instruments like the Indian kettle drum tassa, the hand drum dholak and various metallic rods and triangles that accentuate the up-tempo pace. Lord Shorty, or Ras Shorty, is credited with being an early pioneer in allowing styles and patterns to converge, and for beginning to define new genres unique to each island. As a result, each island has a unique soca sound. Hindi-Surinamese and Guyanese music is born of the tan-singing and baithak gana, which feature frenetic drumming in patterns still found in contemporary arrangements. Reaching further back, there are Guyanese calypso laced with Hindi words dating back to at least 1939 with the artist Tiger.
East Indian immigrants in Guyana, Suriname and T&T account for half the islands’ population. In common with the dispossessed Africans, the East-Indians preserved their indigenous cadences and melodies in their work, festival and wedding songs as well as in songs of worship. The Hindi and Bhojpuri mix with the Creole languages and instrumentation that echo in the vocal patterns and drum beats in modern chutney-soca, with synthesizer replacing the harmonium that comprised much of the earliest recordings. Chutney’s first official recording might be from RamDew Chaitoe, the “King of Suriname”, but it was Sundar Popo as the “King of Chutney” in the 1970’s who truly created the electrified modern chutney of today.
Like soca, chutney-soca, and the various dancehall-flavored fusions, the music is swift, upbeat and joyous. It is approaching the militancy of a marching band, yet relaxed by rum and other island botanicals. The mostly-friendly competitive battles of calypso and steel bands, akin to the soundclashes of Jamaica, erupt in the Bachanals and Carnivals that crown the soca Monarchs with the crown of music royalty. The shows warm-up with playful numbers then quickly accelerate to the feverous pace that it somehow sustains until dawn in sessions all over the island. The sensuality of the music and the increasingly seductive dances and outfits of the festivals brought crowds of all types to see the amazing spectacles of the dancehalls and carnivals. Dance troupes like the Clico Shiv Shakti Dancers, as their Tantric name implies, pulse with a deep, skin-revealing sensuality to deep ragas in basslines and frequencies that pop up to great appeal in the hardest 90’s dancehall, especially in a host of brilliant Digital B and Penthouse productions in Jamaica.
The desi-dancehall trends are influencing Jamaican productions as well, and more and more artists like Beenie Man and Busy Signal explore soca with that raw yardie energy. Indian-influenced riddims like the Coolie Gal riddim give dancehall that ancient feeling like Chinese strings drenched the ambiance of Wutang movies with Shaw Brothers atmosphere. Versions by Popcaan and the Gaza crew made this an anthem for 2012 in throwback to the Diwali sounds and dances.
Though East Indians formed much of the sound of soca, and form a significant part of the population, they remained largely segregated culturally and musically. Sexuality proved an efficient solvent and Drupatee Ramgoonai’s overt sexuality is seen to have desegregated the dance and fusing racial tensions. The various racial groups began less and less to identify with their countries of origin, and increasingly saw themselves as natives of Trinidad. Ramgoonai’s erotic movements are somewhere between the classical Indian Bharata Natyam and the traditionally raunchy Mapouka of the African Ivory Coast. Footage of these mid to late 80’s shows present gorgeous Indian and Trinidadian women dancing to a brand new chutney soca, rippling with the guitar influences of soukous and zouk as well as Jamaican basslines. Like the rums of the island, Ramgoonai seems to have improved with age, both in hits, dance moves and as a sex symbol, like perennial T&T soca queen Alison Hinds. The tradition of sexy chutney goddess continues with Artie Buktoon’s incredible stage presence and cross-over appeal.
Here is Ramgoonai with Satnarine Ragoo, sampling Showtime Riddim in a 2012 chutney soca anthem featured in Bollywood blockbusters:
The drinking songs, musically complex odes to white rum, are a favorite subject of most Caribbean music, and chutney is no exception. Ivory-like drum hits and accordion-like harmonium scales bounce around over wild synths dotted with Hindi-creole-patois praising or cursing the night’s drinking. Performers like Adesh Samaroo Rikki Jai, consummate entertainers of almost staggering intensity, will set Trini flags flying, and dancehall airhorns will erupt in East Indian crowds and Afro-Caribbean crowds alike. Rikki Jai and Jamaican female dancehall superstar Lady Saw recently released a Johnny Walker chutney-soca that characterizes the frequent collaborations that defy categorization, incorporating deep house and dubstep-like ambiance over top traditional but computerized soca and chutney instruments.
There is some truly great soca from Indian artists that transcends the genres, like some of the offerings of the Indo-Jamaican born Apache Indian in Jamaican dancehall, that effortlessly combine Indian and Afro-Caribbean sounds with hardcore dancehall riddims. Such is the sittar and Showcase sampling Tek Meh Gyul by Ravi B, Andy Singh ft. Hitman of 2009. The crossover success of this and countless others may have arisen from the groundbreaking Diwali riddim from Steven “Lenken” Marsden in 2002. The sound no doubt influenced Punjabi bhangra and kindred genres in India refluxing back to the Caribbean in chutney. Remix/refix soca/chutney mashups with artists like Busy Signal by Indian djs fits the delivery perfectly and shakes hips from Southern Tamil to south Kingston. Beenie Man, ever-adapting and evolving as the king of the dancehall, sings with the shape-shifting Scorpion Nisha B. in a 2009 Chutney dancehall hit. Busy Signal, savior to Jamaican music, cut an official remix with Nisha B., Lying Man, and both singers are potentiated by the unique arrangement of synthesized Vedic resonances and an oldschool dancehall drum machine pattern:
The swagga of chutney soca and Hindi dancehall is pure party music, with global dancehall sounds reverberating in the vocoding fades and chorus with digitized tassa, dholak, tabla and dhantal. Soca monarch and badman Machel Montano cuts chutney flavored songs with Ramgoonai and brilliant combinations with Pranava Maharaj and Beenie Man. New acts deepen the dutty chutney-soca explorations into African sound dimensions, creating a Hindu bass culture, rum soaked and dancing in the roads in Tantrik bliss. The soaring trance-like heights of the classical Indian female voice contrasted with the island slangs approaches perfection, and the sonic novelty is encouraging more of the guru producers and djs to experiment. The Caribbean culture of the remix or version has created an almost infinite array of combinations of regional sounds that fit seamlessly together. The furious, marching island music that somehow manages to increase intensity with each passing month is now pushing the sonic borders of sanity with rhythmic foundations that sound like a cross between a Kali puja dancehall alien-hybrid Vybz Kartel. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this 2012 dutty chutney-soca mix by DJ Naxim must be worth a billion:
*Like the American slang term “gravy,” to describe things as “curry” is to mean ‘it’s all good’ in Jamaica, and “everything curry” is a common dancehall lyric.