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What Is Chutney Music?

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  • Written By: Marlene Garcia
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 03 November 2016
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Chutney music represents a quick-tempo genre similar to Calypso music and is popular in the party circuit in Trinidad and Tobago. It uses traditional Indian and African instruments fused with electronic instruments in modern times. Chutney music competitions are typically choreographed with female dancers in traditional outfits. The strong influence of soca, a West Indian style of music in Trinidad, leads some to refer to this style of music as chutney-soca.

Original chutney music incorporated only acoustic instruments, including a harmonium, hand drums, and a steel rod struck with a horseshoe device to keep rhythm. It provided a metallic beat that helped a group maintain its rhythm. Before the music became popular with the masses, its lyrics included references to gods that were deemed offensive. Women commonly performed chutney music in private.

Chutney is distinctive because previous music popular in Trinidad did not include acoustic instrumentation. The addition of keyboards and drum machines in the 1980s and 1990s helped chutney music break into the party circuit as a popular style. Modern lyrics combine religious, folk, and show tunes in Hindi and English. Some music scholars believe the addition of English words and popular dance beats appeal to a younger generation in Trinidad and Tobago who have been exposed to Western music.

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When Indo-Caribbean people were taken by the British to work as servants in the sugar cane fields, they brought their musical styles with them. Chutney music with religious lyrics was heard in temples and in the fields. The first recorded version of chutney music hit stores in 1958 in the small South American country of Suriname. Randeo Chitoes’ album consisted of religious songs that soon became popular throughout the Caribbean.

It wasn’t until 1968 when the first album performed by a woman entered this genre. It contained traditional wedding songs popular in the Eastern Caribbean region. This recording eventually brought chutney music to many East Indians as a reminder of their heritage.

Chutney competitions are fused with African, Indian, and Western lyrics and musical styles. Several categories are judged at these competitions, including chutney-soca and groovy soca. Annual competitions rate the clarity of lyrics and how the voice blends with the harmonic instruments.

Some contests require original songs composed by Guyanese. If lyrics are in Hindi, they are described in English, but may not be offensive or libelous. Judges look at the rhythm and poetry of the lyrics and the overall showmanship of the performers. Attire that helps tell the story is encouraged. Men and women alike participate in these musical contests.

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