Pop musik: the sound of the charts in … Trinidad and Tobago

Calypso offers social comment, soca soundtracks carnival season, but what about chutney? That’s music to drink to, as Andrew Khan reports in London’s Guardian.

For a country of little more than a million people to have created one thriving pop style would be impressive. For Trinidad and Tobago to have spawned three – calypso, soca and chutney – is remarkable. Trinidad’s musical heritage is built on two solid foundations – its cultural diversity and its fundamental belief that nothing should get in the way of a party. Gang violence may have led to the imposition of a state of emergency and rolling curfews for much of 2011, but little short of Armageddon could have stopped February’s carnival from going ahead.

As with the other great national obsession, the West Indies cricket team, the days of calypso being a major international force are long behind it but the genre remains capable of brilliance. Traditionally a vehicle for satire and cutting social commentary, it’s still used by sharp-tongued lyricists such as Duane O’Connor and Karene Asche to hold the elite to account. Cabinet minister Jack Warner, who in the national government has somehow managed to find an employer with lower ethical standards than Fifa – he’s frequently been accused of corruption in his guise as head of Caribbean football – comes in for particular scorn.

Calypso’s faster cousin soca dominates the carnival season today, however. Soca-influenced songs have proved lucrative for foreign acts such as Sweden’s Mohombi and France’s Bob Sinclar in recent years but, at the international level, Trinidadian performers have largely been relegated to supporting roles. Machel Montano might only be known to overseas audiences via guest verses on Pitbull and Shaggy singles but there’s no disputing his star status at home. Winner of the intensely competitive Soca Monarch crown two years in a row, the veteran’s Pump Yuh Flag and Mr Fete may not have seen him at his most inspired but proved enough for a clean sweep of the awards.

A safer bet for a song to soundtrack the awkward jiggling of sunburnt policemen at Notting Hill this summer may be Kerwin Du Bois’ irresistible Bacchanalist. Based around the laid-back Antilles Riddim, it’s Caribbean party music at its most blissful and a welcome change of pace from the frenetic energy of the season’s “power soca” anthems.

One of the year’s most divisive hits has been Shurwayne Winchester’s Wining Addiction, with opinion split on both the Europop influence of the single and the skin-tight pedal-pushers he wears in the video. Europe may have suffered a deluge of questionable novelty dance records grafting flimsy beats on to crackly retro samples following Yolanda Be Cool’s We No Speak Americano but the Tobagonian’s effort, while not far removed, is tremendous fun.

In comparison to Jamaica, whose fearsome dancehall queens are an exception to an overwhelmingly macho rule, the gender balance of Trinidadian pop feels much more even, with stars such as Fay-Ann Lyons and Destra Garcia consistently challenging Montano for pole position. Carnival 2012 saw both outshone by the magnificent Nadia Batson. Her Shiver and No Pressure had a vivacity and self-possession nobody else could touch.

While calypso and soca have found a market in other countries, chutney, the music of Trinidad’s Indian community, remains largely unknown outside of the island. Chutney takes the soca template, itself a hybrid of African and Asian rhythms, and adds layers of traditional instrumentation and bilingual lyrics, often with a focus on the country’s complicated relationship with cane spirits. From Adesh Samaroo’s maudlin Rum Til I Die to the bullish swagger of Ravi B’s Ah Drinka, there’s a song about raging alcoholism to suit every mood and occasion.

More interesting is the light chutney casts on the mores of young Trinidadians blending laissez-faire social liberalism with the customs of the old country. The mix is perhaps most evident in the video for Rikki Jai’s classic Mor Tor, featuring sari-clad ladies at an Indian wedding grinding in a decidedly Caribbean manner. Whether being offered rum in lieu of a dowry by a prospective father-in-law or consulting his wife’s parents when he can’t keep up with her sexual demands, Jai’s chutney hits provide a fascinating window on the culture.

With roots in folk music made by and for women, chutney has always been a medium for strong female singers to take feckless men to task. Few do it better than Sassy Ramoutar whose Something Harder was one of the biggest songs of 2011. Rival Artie Butkoon, self-styled Goddess of Chutney, brings an equal fire to her Hindi smashes.

Trinidad’s local stars might struggle to match the international profile of its most famous daughter, Nicki Minaj, but with all the bounce and humour of dancehall, and none of the problematic political baggage, the island’s music has enormous potential for further crossover success.

For the original report go to http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2012/apr/04/pop-musik-trinidad-tobago?newsfeed=true

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