What is Chutney music?

An exploratory essay by Amelia Ingram
Seminar in North Indian Musics
Wesleyan University
Fall 1997

Table of Contents:

  1. Background

  2. Musical Characteristics

  3. Notable Artists

  4. Sound Samples

  5. Works Cited

I. Background

       Anytime you visit Trinidad (especially during Carnival) you will eventually hear the exotic sounds of chutney music blaring from a maxi taxi, playing in a dance club, or on the street.  And surprisingly enough, you might be able to hear it in other parts of the Indian diaspora.  This presentation is designed to give an overview of my initial explorations into chutney music, its musical connections to India, and its role in the greater Indian musical diaspora.  Since this is a newly developing music, this project has been extremely difficult to research, and it will continue to be an ongoing topic/hobby for me within my studies of Trinidadian and West Indian music.

     First, I would like to give some quotes of sources that attempt to define chutney music.  TIDCO, the official tourist development company of Trinidad, gives this definition:

Chutney is an up-tempo, rhythmic song, accompanied by the dholak, the harmonium and the dhantal.  Originally, chutney songs made reference to deities and were offensive to religious leaders.  Within recent times, the chutney has become extremely popular and new compositions are being written.  Some of these contain calypso and soca rhythms.  There is also some extemporaneous composition and accompaniment (especially in the growing number of competitions) may be provided by bands which include Indian, Western and African instruments (TIDCO 1996, 16).


This definition indicates several important features to chutney.  First, it is a music with a religious background.  This is one of the only sources that suggests sacred origins.  Secondly, it is a popular music, which utilizes folk acoustic instruments.  This is important to note since many modern popular genres in Trinidad exclude the use of acoustic (or non-electrified) musical instruments.  Lastly, the definition gives the impression that the music has been integrated into other world music styles.  This is one of the most important features of this music, in my opinion, and one that ties it to other Indian diasporic musics such as bhangra.

    Then came the fourth phase, the final ingredient as it were, with the addition of Khimta (Chutney) into the already douglarised (bastardized) soca. Chutney is the music and song (and now dance) composed and sung by Indian women originally behind closed doors and now in the competitive arena for male and female...No doubt the Chutney Soca has become the  "beat" of the late 80's, and is heading into the 90's with astonishing vigour even deleving into the area of chutney soca parang (Constance 1991, 66).

    The identification of another, possibly Indian, term for chutney-- Khimta -- is an important step in further defining the genre.  Constance (1991) claims chutney as the former domain of women, since the instruments used in chutney, such as the dholak, were some of the few acceptable for performance by female musicians.  Another important feature is the fact that this genre has been coopted into other Trinidadian musical styles of soca and parang.  Hence, syncretism has been an acknowledged characteristic of chutney's history. Finally, I wanted to highlight the emphasis of chutney being music "and now dance", which suggests that the dance has been just recently integrated into chutney. I suspect this might be an influence from the format of the calypso tent shows, in which each calypsonian has his or her own dancers during the performance.  TIDCO's music homepage adds more to our increasing definition of chutney:

    Chutney, the East Indian foray into party music has been taking T&T by storm. Chutney music uses East Indian folk tunes, movie tunes and even bhajans (religious songs), over a fast calypso or Soca based beat. Today English words are added to the Hindi and as the calypso element becomes stronger, the music is moving from a melodic Eastern core to a more harmonic Western base. Studio recordings with an eye on the party circuit have increasingly incorporated use of keyboards and drum machines programmed with tassa (the exciting drums used in the Muslim Hosay festival) rhythms.

   The Sai Baba Movement whose philosophy includes praising God through music has been instrumental in keeping the music alive. The members use of Kirtans (short four line songs based on the East Indian ragas) which are repeated at increasingly faster tempos to a pitch of ecstasy have exposed many to the music (TIDCO 1997).

This addition to our definition implies that chutney has become synonymous with 'chutney soca'.  This was also confirmed in a a personal interview I conducted with Paddy Gorea, a Trinidadian musical enthusiast who currently lives in Queens, NY (one of the homes of chutney in the United States).  The homepage also mentions that the incorporation of electronic instruments has been the product of the party circuit.  One interesting (and rather confusing element that they mention is the cultural maintenance by the Sai Baba Movement.  I find this aspect to be a bit confusing, and I will have to investigate this further before I entirely discount it.  Nevertheless, it is one of the few definite ties that I have found to a specific Indian religious movement, and it is worth considering.  Lastly, the incorporation of English lyrics into Hindi ones reflect the distance that East Indians in Trinidad have had to get accustomed to.  English lyrics also might reflect a younger generation of Indians (born abroad in Trinidad or in the U.S.) that have been more influenced by Western music with English lyrics.

    Before moving on, I would like to sum up the defining characteristics of this genre that I have found:

II.  Musical Characteristics

    I'm sure that the difficulty of defining chutney has been made obvious in previous section.  The list of instruments that have been incorporated into chutney are numerous, however those that have been mentioned most frequently are dholak, harmonium, and the dhantal.  This excerpt from TIDCO also includes Trinidadian tassa in the 'modern' versions of chutney. I suspect that the use of tassa in chutney has also affected the rhythms formerly played on the dholak, which might be interesting to trace.

    Originally the instruments used to accompany chutney songs were minimal; the harmonium for melody, the dholak (drum) and the dhantal (along metal rod struck with a small u shaped piece of metal bent at both ends) for rhythm. Studio recordings with an eye on the party circuit have increasingly incorporated use of keyboards and drum machines programmed with tassa (the exciting drums used in the Muslim Hosay festival) rhythms (TIDCO 1997).

    From listening to several recent albums, I have concluded, as in the excerpts above, that chutney shares several musical traits with soca.  Most striking is its upbeat tempo, which has definitely become a driving force behind soca , much more so than with calypso, which has traditionally been more laid-back and relaxed.  Another is the off-beats played by the dhantal , accompanied by the off-beats of the dhol, or dholak.  I have decided that these are most likely performed by a dhol instead of a dholak, since they tend to be significantly deeper than the moving rhythms of the dholak .  In the more modern versions of chutney (or shall I call it chutney-soca ?) the dhol's off-beat pattern has been taken over by an electric bass playing a single drone-like pitch.  This is very similar to another recent genre began by Eddie Grant in Barbados called ringbang.  I have strong suspicions that ringbang has taken these elements of chutney and combined them with techno-pop in a fashion that might parallel bhangra.
    Other consistent traits are noticed in the decidedly Indian style of melody-shaping, using ornamental figures that are more similar to light classical genres such as thumri .  Harmonies, although probably 'Westernized' in a sense, are found to have some elements of major/minor keys.  Since my knowledge of its original folk background is limited, I will have to leave that discussion for another time.  Lyrics are also another difficult subject to tackle, other than I find them to be fairly consistent in content and style to calypso-- this could be purely coincidence, however.
    My final comment on chutney's musical styles comes in the form of the musics that are incorporated into chutney.  The influences upon chutney are as diverse as the ethnic backgrounds of Trinidadians, and it is especially obvious in those that are closer to soca.  One example below is very striking:  the use of 'Chinese' or oriental melodies in "Chanie Batie" by Satrohan Maharaj.

III.  Notable Artists

    I have only listened to a limited repertory of chutney music, however I have discovered a few more noticeable artists that  should be looked out for in the future. Sundar Popohas evidently been one of the pioneers in the artform, breaking many boundaries, and most importantly, forming the bond with calypso and soca,for which he is noted (Constance 1991, 77).

    There are massive chutney "explosions" in Trinidad and Tobago and internationally, chutney greats such as Sundar Popo, Anand Yankaran and the Queen, Ramrajee Prabhoo are often billed by promoters to perform with

calypsonians as well as on their own. Narsaloo Ramramaya, Research Officer at the Ministry of culture in Trinidad and Tobago has noted that the popularity of chutney has relegated local Indian classical singing to the
background and a move is afoot to record the local folk songs to preserve them (TIDCO 1997).
    The mention of chutney explosions "internationally" in the above quote are rather ambiguous.  I would like to investigate the artists mentioned above to see if they tour internationally as well.  I just noticed recently that Rakesh Yankaran, one of the artists mentioned above, has also just recently become the National Chutney Monarch in Trinidad.  Rakesh Yankaran proved to be the runaway winner in the National Chutney Monarch Competition at Guaracara Park, Pointe-a-Pierre, on Saturday night.  With spirited performances in both the traditional and soca chutney categories, Yankaran edged out 20 of the country's top chutney artistes and copped five of the 14 national titles at stake.   Yankaran, of Brickfield Village, Carapichaima, is the new Chutney Monarch.  He will receive an $80,000 Toyota Tercel. He also copped the titles in the Chutney/Soca, Traditional Chutney and Best Harmonium Player competitions, while his group was adjudged Best Dressed Group.  Altogether he will collect some $12,000 apart from the car (Gosine 5/6/97).
    On one of the most recent albums I bought, Chutney Party Mix 2, Yankaran performs a song called "Julna Jhulaway".  I didn't include it in my sound samples, but at least the connection has been made with his name. Another name which has recently become very popular amongst the soca audience is Sonny Mann, who remade the song "Lootayla" which gave him the Chutney Soca title in 1996.  One of the most popular female singers in the nineties is Drupatee Ramgoonai.  She has also been one of the first women chutney singers to successfully bridge the gap into the soca market. Chris Garcia has become idolized by many women, young and old.  He was also popular in the soca/calypso tents in 1996 with his song "Chutney Bacchanal".
    Ultimately, I only began to touch the surface of the chutney genre, and the artists that struck my eye mostly were those who successfully made the cross-over into fusions styles.  Artists that make the cross-over into the Indian market seem to be less popular amongst the Afro-Trinidadian audiences, which has made it very difficult for me to find out about them.  Examples mentioned in Peter Manuel's Caribbean Currents book that have made the crossover are Babla and Kanchan.  Zeno Constance mentions that  "Indian superstar" Kanchan has been translating and performing calypsoes in Hindi, most known for her renditions of Arrow's "Hot, Hot, Hot"(1985) and Cassel's "Tiney Winey"(1986) (79). She also performed in Trinidad in 1986 and 1988 (beyond that, I haven't found any sources).  Constance also mentions that the two songs above were performed by her in the Indian movie "Dhaanu".  This is really important in making the connection that I have been searching for between chutney and its appropriation into Indian film.

IV.  Sound Samples

Finally, I wanted to give you the chance to listen to the music I've been talking about.  All of these sound files are in .aiff format.  Their sizes are from 300-600k, so please be patient while they are loading.

Works Cited

Constance, Zeno Obi.  1991.  Tassa, Chutney & Soca:  The East Indian Contribution

    to the Calypso .  Trinidad:  Jordan's Printing Service.

Gosine, Susan.  1997   "Yankaran's night, Five times a Chutney winner."

       Trinidad Express, 6 May 1997.  Cited December 1, 1997.

     <http://anansi.mit.edu/tnt/news/express/970506/features.htm >

Manuel, Peter.  1995.   Caribbean Currents:  Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae.

    Philadelphia:  Temple University Press.

Personal Interview.  1997.  Paddy Gorea (Queens, NYC) conducted December


TIDCO.  1996.   Arts & Entertainment Directory 1996 Port of Spain, Trinidad:

    Tourism & Industrial Development Company of Trinidad and Tobago Ltd.

_____.  1997.    " Music of Trinidad and Tobago " Port of Spain:  Tourism &

    Industrial Development Company of Trinidad and Tobago Ltd.  Cited 9 November,

    1997. <http://www.tidco.co.tt/arts/music/music.html#Chutney>

Return to top

Page written and designed by Amelia Ingram, 12/16/97.  All rights reserved.
For publication and copyright permission, please contact the author.
Thank you for your cooperation.