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Indian Folk Music Brought To Trinidad Looks For Fans Outside The Caribbean


Trinidad and Tobago, a twin island nation in the Caribbean, is a small place with a big musical presence. It's the home of calypso and the steel pan and chutney but not the edible kind. Reporter Ike Sriskandarajah went to Port of Spain, Trinidad, and brought back this taste.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible) Rikki Jai and Ravi Bissembar...

IKE SRISKANDARAJAH, BYLINE: Musicians Ravi B. and Rikki Jai are about to play the media launch for Carnival...


RIKKI JAI: So are you ready for Carnival 2016? Let me see some hands in the air.

SRISKANDARAJAH: ...A festival so massive that it's having a press event now even though the party isn't until February.


RAVI B. AND RIKKI JAI: (Singing) This is the day. This is the day. Everybody start to say Trinidad.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Ravi B. is the young rising star of chutney, and Rikki Jai is its elder statesman. At Carnival this past February, the two artists teamed up, and their supergroup won the crown of Chutney Soca Monarch. Rikki Jai explains.

JAI: It's like Ms. Universe for the year. You get to travel, you know, represent Trinidad, Tobago at festivals. You are the monarch for a year. You are treated like a monarch for the year.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Which, in a way, is fitting, says Ravi B., since the creators of chutney music arrived in Trinidad as consigned subjects of the British Crown.

RAVI BISSEMBAR: Basically, chutney soca came from our forefathers from India. What really happened was that when they came to Trinidad on the indentured laborer ships, they came with folksongs.


KAVITA: (Singing in foreign language).

SRISKANDARAJAH: The evolution of music is inextricable from the history of the island. Going back to the 19th century, European colonies replaced African slaves with Indian indentured servants. The British Empire alone transported nearly half a million Indians to work sugar plantations in its territories.

JAI: You will find that in the entire Caribbean, Trinidad has the most intact cultural ties with India. I mean, we're doing things here religiously and culturally just as it was done back in India and even more elaborate, too.

SRISKANDARAJAH: It doesn't get any more elaborate than the Hindu wedding, which is where chutney began.


RASIKA DINDIAL: (Singing in foreign language).

SRISKANDARAJAH: One of the events leading up to a wedding is called Maticoor Night where the bridal party goes off on their own to cut loose and sing songs that joke and advise about matters of an intimate nature - well, sex.


DINDIAL: (Singing in foreign language).

SRISKANDARAJAH: As chutney moved beyond the wedding, the genre itself became promiscuous with other forms of music in Trinidad. Here's Ravi B.

BISSEMBAR: Folk songs evolved into traditional chutney, and traditional chutney now evolved into chutney soca.


DRUPATEE RAMGOONAI: (Singing in foreign language).

SRISKANDARAJAH: Soca is short for the soul of calypso, another homegrown island style. When chutney wedding music met soca, Rikki Jai says the new hybrid captured the identity of the island.

JAI: Chutney soca music is probably the most unified sound out of Trinidad and Tobago because it kind of marinates with Afro and Hindu and everything else that we can put into it.


RAMGOONAI: (Singing in foreign language).

SRISKANDARAJAH: About a third of the island's population has its roots in India, a third in Africa, and the remaining third are a uniquely Trinbagonian mix of the first two and the rest of the world. And that's about right for chutney music as well. Africa supplies the beat.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing in foreign language).

SRISKANDARAJAH: India gives the instruments.


SRISKANDARAJAH: And some of the language.

JAI: The sad part about it is that we don't speak Hindi.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing in foreign language).

JAI: But we are able to reproduce it (laughter).

SRISKANDARAJAH: Over the past quarter century, Rikki Jai's trophy cup runneth over. Jai's performed in Suriname, Guyana, Toronto and Queens, N.Y. His tours trace the Indian diaspora, a built-in international immigrant audience. But chutney remains largely unknown.

JAI: The world is telling me in a very slow-but-sure way that chutney soca is something that is embraceable, just not enough people are hearing it.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Maybe it's because the largest potential audience of this Indian-inspired music is in India, and it never really took off there. But Rikki Jai stays hopeful.

JAI: In the words of one of my favorite singers, Lionel Richie, if in my lifetime, I can get the world to sing a chorus of one of my songs, I'm a happy man. I can't ask for more. If they sing too, well, I'm much more happier (laughter).

SRISKANDARAJAH: And the world might be a little happier too. After all, this music comes from a large part of it. For NPR News, I'm Ike Sriskandarajah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ike Sriskandarajah
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