Tuesday, December 11, 2007

WE SPOTLIGHT - Chutney Soca is Terry Gajraj

By Natasha G. Samuels

At the table where we are gathered, sits saffron and green placemats, (reflecting the colors of the flag of India) while the tracks from a Bob Marley CD plays softly in the background, setting the mood for a chat with Terry Gajraj about Indo-Caribbean culture, Chutney Soca and “Berbice River,” his new album. Gajraj is one of the few Guyanese born musicians who have achieved success at the international level.

With lyrics that evoke memories of Guyana, his 1992 album “Guyana Baboo,” remains one of the best selling Indo-Caribbean albums of all times. Gajraj has topped Chutney charts worldwide and has performed for Indo-Caribbean communities in the Caribbean, North America and Europe. Last year, Gajraj also made full-circle back to his Indian originals where he performed at the 7th annual Bollywood Music Awards, the Indian nation’s equivalent to the Grammys.

Ironic that Gajraj would find success as a Chutney Soca artiste after being heavily influenced by Guyana’s assimilation with the Western world’s culture, which included music. As a result, he learned to play the guitar, a stereotypical prerequisite for Country and Western singers, which is what he initially wanted to be.

However, in addition to learning to play the guitar, his family taught him to play traditional Indian musical instruments. He may not have thought it was hip at the time, but he says now he is truly appreciative of the fact that his family introduced the instruments to him. He said, “as I grow and mature I realize… it’s a good thing they taught me, cause I’m so much more into my identity cause this is who I am.”

Chutney he says is a combination or a blend of music from India and the Caribbean. “If you listen to it, it has the beat like Soca or Calypso, but then you have the Indian instruments like the harmonium and the dholak. We also sing in Hindi —not totally, but we do include a few Hindi words in the song[s],” Gajraj said.

Chutney music emerged in the Caribbean amongst East Indians who remained after indentured servitude ended in the early 1900’s. Through music, they recreated segments of the culture they had left behind in their native India using traditional instruments. Later, the tassa drum, which is an Indo Caribbean version of the Indian and Persian precursors, was introduced to accompany the traditional instruments and songs that were almost always sung in Hindi but in the distinctive West Indian dialect and accent.

In the early stages, the local music, as it was called, was mainly devotional songs, folk songs and wedding songs. The music remained confined to the temples and wedding houses until 1958 when Ramdeo Chaitoe of Surinam released an album of devotional music.

In 1960, Drupati released an album of traditional wedding songs, which along with Chaitoe’s music became pop hits in the Indo-Caribbean communities. The two albums united the East Indian communities and also established Indo-Caribbean music as a legitimate art form.
The turning point of Indo Caribbean music came in 1979, when Sundar Popo a Trinidadian, released the song, “Nana & Nani”. Unlike Drupati’s and Caitoe’s, Popo’s song was non-religious but used Hindi words and the traditional instruments in the composition. Thus, Chutney or Indian Soca as some call it, was born.

Gajraj says when he heard Popo’s “Nana and Nani,” he knew it was him. “ [His song] was about local life unlike the lyrics typical of those in Country and Western songs,” he said. He describes Sundar Popo as the Bob Marley of Chutney Music. “Reggae was there but Bob Marley made it popular and more internationally recognized. That’s the same with Sundar Popo,” he said. “The Chutney was there but he kind of brought it more to the forefront,” Gajraj said. Popo became Gajraj’s main influence and his lyrics are often compared with those of Popo.

“Berbice River,” Gajraj’s newest compilation, brings the count to 29-recorded albums since he released “Soca Lambada,” his first album, in 1989.

“Berbice River,” he says is slightly different than his previous albums. The traditional instrumentation of Chutney music can be clearly heard on the album, but influences of reggae, almost a Chutney Reggae flavor, can also be heard on some of the tracks. The reggae influence is unmistakable on tracks like “Guyana, Guyana” and “Bigan Farmer”. “Nasty, Nasty” promises to be a big hit in Soca clubs and “Ayi Yo, Ayi Yo” and “Dance the Maticore” are more traditional in nature, reminiscent of Dropati’s and Ramdeo Chaitoe’s wedding and devotional songs.

For more info visit http://www.terrygajraj.com/

No comments: