A couple of weeks ago I mentioned an article written by David Edgar in which he presented the arguments for and against state funding of the arts. According to Edgar, one of the most popular claims is that art “promotes continuity with the past, community cohesion and a sense of national pride.” This is where Edgar made his counterpoint—that art’s place in society is to challenge these norms, not promote them. But, while I appreciate this position (clearly, since I wrote about it), I don’t necessarily buy it. Well, let me rephrase: I don’t think these claims are mutually exclusive and I’m going to use Chutney Soca to explain why.
So, first: what is Chutney Soca? Well, it’s a form of music originating in Trinidad that blends—wait for it—Chutney and Soca. It seems simple enough, but in reality, the coming together of these two genres was more than just musical evolution—it represented a dialogue between two cultures trying to accommodate (and accept) each other’s place within a shared space. How did Chutney Soca take on such a task? Well, let’s follow the evolution from Chutney and Soca, to Chutney Soca.
On one hand, these two genres could not be further apart: Chutney originated in the Indo-Caribbean community in Trinidad, whereas Soca was a revival of Calypso, music associated with the African working class community. Even further, Chutney was generally associated with women, and was performed during rituals, such as preparing for weddings, and provided instruction for young girls on the appropriate behaviors. In order words: Chutney was the music of the Indo-Caribbean woman’s private realm.
Then there’s Soca, which again, was an attempt to revive Calypso—the music of the working-class man. Like other forms of Caribbean music, Calypso represented the economic and political views of this group—including their perceived discrimination relative to the Indian class in Trinidad. And yet, despite all of this these two music forms have one thing in common: they’re both hybrids.
Soca was originally envisioned as a new national music for Trinidad—a revival of Calypso. According to Ras Shorty I, the “Father” of Soca, Calypso was dying a “natural death,” and the efforts to revive by linking it to “soul” it had failed. So, rather than linking Calypso to Soul, Ras took the “soul” of Calypso, incorporated elements from the island’s Indian music, and called it “sokah,” to reflect the blending of the two cultures. At the same time, Chutney was not just representing the Indian community; it was representing the Indian community in the Caribbean. And, to this end Chutney was already incorporating elements of Soca into its rhythms.
With the incorporation of calypso rhythms and the eventual breakdown of the gender barrier in Chutney, the music form gradually moved into the public realm. As Drupatee Ramgoonai, the “Queen of Chutney,” explained—she saw calypso going international, and she thought it would be the perfect way to introduce Chutney to the nation and the world. Still, as Ras was criticized for “playing Indian,” the change in Chutney did not come without its own criticism.
According to Satnarayan Maharaj, the Secretary General of Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, while there were no objections to chutney being accepted on a national level—they were concerns about the “obscenity.” Whereas Chutney had originally served as a way to educate young girls on the appropriate behaviors, and had been reserved for women’s performance in private, it was now a vehicle to display women’s sexuality to the whole world. And it was not only the “chutney dancers.” As Maharj explained, there was also the problem of language, as “some of the Hindi words which are not understood by the national community… [could] be really obscene.”
For some, the transformations in the music was unacceptable—it represented the “douglarization,” of culture (dougla being a pejorative term akin to mulatto). But, the mixing of two cultures and races is exactly what was happening at the time. And, in fact, many of the musicians leading the way in Chutney Soca were of mixed descent and were using this music as a way to establish their place within the Trinidadian culture. Essentially, Chutney Soca represented a new identity in Trinidad—one that was purely national. As one artist put it, there was, “No More Mother Africa, No More Mother India, just Mother Trinidad.” And, even the Prime Minister, Basdeo Panday described the “harmony that exist[ed] between Soca and Chutney [as] a symbol of the type of complete harmonization,” that needed to characterize Trinidad in years to come.
So, let’s stop there for now (although I could go on for a while) and return quickly to our two claims from the beginning: art can either challenge societal norms, or it promote national identity and cohesion. Now, what happened with Chutney Soca? Two musical forms came together to produce a new national music, that symbolized the unity that society had not yet achieved. How did Chutney Soca do this? By criticizing and challenging the existing norms, which no longer applied to the changing demographic and identity of a nation. In other words, I think it would be safe to say that Chutney Soca was both a forum for social dissent, as well as, a promoter of national identity and community cohesion.
On a final note, I highly recommend the documentary “Chutney in Yuh Soca,” If you think you’ve learned anything here, you’ll learn even more by watching.