I used to listen to Howard Stern a lot and always enjoyed when Roger Ebert would make an appearance on the show. My favorite appearance of his was soon after Stern had moved to satellite radio (this would have been around 2006-2007), when Howard and his staff would take every opportunity to crow about how great things were now that they were on satellite. So when Ebert came on the air, and congratulated Howard on his new gig, they proceeded to go on and on about how great it was, how great the other stations were, etc. Gary even got in on it and started bragging about the music selections on satellite, which led to one of my favorite exchanges:
Gary: “There are stations for every kind of music! Here, watch – Roger, what’s your favorite kind of music?”
Ebert: “Chutney Soca!”
Gary (utterly deflated): “Well, OK, I don’t think there’s a Chutney Soca station.”
This exchange was so memorable not only because it was so funny, but also because Ebert had stumped me. I take great pride in knowing a lot about music, and at the time I had never even heard the term “Chutney Soca”, let alone heard any of the music. I was intrigued, and that has stuck with me ever since.
Roger Ebert passed away on April 4, 2013. It was a very sad day for me not only because I so enjoyed his movie reviews, but also because it was his writing that inspired me to write about music on this website. I’ve been trying to come up with some sort of fitting tribute for the past weeks, even though nothing I could do or say could really qualify. It was my wife who finally suggested, “Why don’t you actually learn something about Chutney Soca, and write about it?” Damn, wish I’d thought of that.
So here we are. Now let me say, I am very, very far from being any kind of expert on Chutney Soca. I have listened to it and studied it for mere days. It is really not fair to the music for me to write this so soon, but I felt I needed to get this down while the feeling is still fresh.
Knowing nothing about Chutney Soca, I figured I’d start with a basic Wikipedia primer. It tells us that Chutney Soca is “a crossover style of music incorporating Soca elements and Hindi-English lyrics, Chutney music, with Indian instruments like the dholak and dhantal. It is distinguished from regular soca music by the referencing of rum, alcoholism, infidelity and suicide in the lyrics.” Sheesh. What a definition. Sounds so heavy. And boring. Let’s see if we can do better.
I went to high school with a guy who was originally from Trinidad. I remember having a conversation with him one day about the music he grew up with. He was trying to explain to me and a few other guys about Calypso. The other guys just had blank stares. I thought I was Joe Cool and piped up, “Yeah, like Harry Belafonte, right?” Um, not exactly. I remember him shaking his head, and getting frustrated trying to explain it to us, the uninitiated. “You just have to hear it for yourself,” he kept saying.
He was right, of course. Chutney Soca, like Calypso and so many other forms of music, is an immense melting pot of influences, so much so that it’s sometimes tough to get a handle on. Inevitably any description of Chutney Soca quickly unravels into an endless list of other influential forms. For instance, when I listen I hear elements of jazz (complex polyrhythms and vocal improvisations), 70’s disco/funk (dig the funky rhythm guitar, even with a wah from time to time), hip hop (much more in the beats of modern Soca music, but it’s there in the old stuff too if you listen), raga (the hypnotic Indian rhythms are prevalent), gospel (vocals), ska (the sharp brass hits), reggae (in the vocal rhythms and the guitar ostinatos), and South African Mbaqanga (the interplay between the percussion and harmonic instruments like keys and guitar). And that’s just from my limited knowledge of Caribbean music in general – I’m sure someone schooled in all the various forms would have a field day.
So how do you explain a musical form that encompasses all that??? Well, you pretty much just have to hear it. But I will say this – more than anything, this is dance music. It is designed to get the listener moving. Anyone who has listened to Indian percussion music will immediately recognize the driving, relentless rhythms at play here. This is not passive music – it is active, in your face, “get your ass up and move” music.
Moving forward in my study, I wanted to start at or near the beginning, where Chutney Soca began, with the foundational artists who created this amalgam of Indian and Caribbean sounds. Wikipedia also tells us that the Godfather of Chutney Soca is Garfield Blackman, aka Lord Shorty. So I sought him out, and came upon his 1978 album Soca Explosion.
Over the course of several nights I listened to this album, along with several others both classic and new. Here are some of my impressions of a few songs…
“Higher World of Music” – check out the syncopated rhythms of the guitar playing off the percussion during the vocal breaks. And the Flamenco-inspired Phrygian chord changes and horn lines. I can almost hear Paco de Lucia jamming on this tune. The Flamenco connection actually makes sense when you think that Flamenco originated with the Romani culture in Spain, whose origins can be traced back to India.
“Keep In Touch” – you can really hear the reggae/gospel influences in this one (“Jah, oh Lord, can you hear me people?”).
“Om Shanti Om” – the Indian influences are obvious in this one, not only in the title and lyrics, but also in the percussion and vocal rhythms.
“Soca Fever” – my favorite tune on the album. This one has it all. The infectious driving rhythms, the evocative chord changes, the vocal gymnastics, the rich brass counter melodies. This one just moves. But it also has so much going on melodically and harmonically that it never gets boring or tedious.
Yet, other songs sometimes do. I can definitely say that I have a tremendous new appreciation for this music, however ultimately I can’t quite say that I’m a fan, at least not yet. I loved examining the DNA of Chutney Soca, and I enjoy many aspects of the music, but overall, well, it’s just not my thing. At this point I still don’t feel any emotional connection with the music the same way I do with, say, jazz or rock or the blues. But even that isn’t really fair, because I don’t enjoy ALL jazz, or ALL rock…a lot of it is awful. I guess the best way to say it is that I have a lot more listening to do. And that’s OK. That’s what is so great about the world of music – it is so vast, there is more than enough for everyone.
Before I wrap up, an honorable mention must go to the undisputed queen of Chutney Soca, Drupatee Ramgoonai. Her song “Mr Bissessar (Roll Up de Tassa)”, usually referred to as simply “Roll Up de Tassa”, was another groundbreaking hit and one I listened to over and over again while studying. She deserves much more attention than I’m able to provide here. Go check her out, she’s bad.
In the end, I hope my sojourn into the world of Chutney Soca turned out to be a kind of fitting tribute to Roger Ebert. Preparing for and writing this essay took me way out of my comfort zone and forced me to really think about an art form I (still) know so little about. And I realized, that’s what Ebert’s movie reviews did for me. Reading his reviews led me to discover some of my favorite movies, many of which I never would have seen or sought out had I not read an enthusiastic review on his website. Movies like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away (and all of Miyazaki’s works, for that matter), Hoop Dreams, Some Like it Hot, Fitzcarraldo, A Town Called Panic, and The Third Man come to mind. I hope someday maybe I can do the same for someone else.
(here’s a YouTube link to the entire Soca Explosion album: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C1d5uCZCZg8&playnext=1&list=PL0F05F0FC9911D4CD&feature=results_main)