Words by Rishi Bonneville
Ten blocks of brightly-painted shops along Liberty Avenue, strung between the last stop on the A-train and the Van Wyck Expressway in Queens, are the vertebrae that together form the backbone of New York’s Indo-Caribbean community. Trinidadian eateries serve roti and phoulorie (deep-fried balls of chickpea batter, $1 per bag), while Guyanese spots offer heaping plates of Chinese-style noodles and meats. When night falls the menu changes: less food, more beer and rum. At Kaieteur Sports Bar on Lefferts boulevard, laborers, realtors, cheating spouses and hustlers congregate, sharing drinks and shouting conversations over the sound system. The theme music for this daily drama is chutney—a peppery blend of Bhojpuri-inspired folk music and calypso sensibilities. On any given day, chances are good that the song you’ll hear when you walk in features the late troubadour Sundar Popo, the “King of Chutney”, who would have been 67 today.
Sundar Popo Bahora was an unlikely star. Born in 1943 in the humble Trinidadian hamlet of Monkey Town, Barrackpore (named after a city in West Bengal, where “barrack” originally indicated it was a depot for the East Indian Tea Company) he did not much resemble the Hindi film celebrities of the day. His family, although musical, was modest, and his schooling had been very limited. He spent much of his teen years singing with his parents and at weddings for 15 to 30 cents a show. Although Indians had been represented (and misrepresented) in the calypsos of famed singers like Beginner as early as 1930 there were no Indo-Trinidadian calypso artists. Furthermore, the regional Indian singing sensations—Dropati and Ramdeo Chaito—were from Dutch Suriname, not Trinidad.
But in 1970 the musical landscape of the Caribbean and Sundar’s life both changed in a flash. Supporting himself with a security job, he was discovered while singing at a wedding by radio host Moen Mohammad, who brought him to Harry Mahabir and BWIA National Indian Orchestra to record. He soon released his first hit “Nana and Nani,” which sketched melodious vignettes of an elderly rural couple, sung in a mix of Bhojpuri (a Hindi-variant spoken by indentured servants from Uttar Pradesh) and creole English. For some, it was a simply an infectious tune. Others saw in the tale of the illfated Nana and Nani (maternal grandfather and grandmother), who drink, fall, and eventually die, a tragicomic look at the daily hardships in Indo-Trinidadian life. “Nana and Nani” spread like a brushfire through rum shops and radio stations in Guyana, Trinidad and even reverse-migrated back to India.
Perhaps unknowingly, Popo was laying in his subsequent songs “Kaise Bani,” “Scorpion Gyul,” (watch below) and “Don’t Fall in Love,” a philosophical framework for a way of living as both an Indian and Trinidadian. Hindu religious leaders opposed his secular subject matter—sensuality, hardship, and drinking—but common folk, still bound to the vestiges of plantation life, crowned him, with his bluesy meditations on modern Indo-Caribbean life, and his funky disco beats, their spokesman. Sundar’s songs also reached a wide Afro-Trinidadian audience who appreciated his voice, English lyrics, and the high production quality. Years later, in 1995, calypsonian Black Stalin, competing in the annual Calypso Monarch competition in Trinidad, sang “Tribute to Sundar Popo,” praising Popo’s legendary songwriting and contribution to Trinidadian life. He won first place. In a dramatic end to the performance, Sundar, wearing white pants and a red jacket with golden epaulettes, dances onto the stage, and embraces his dreadlocked countryman, fellow artist, and friend of thirty years.
The current generation of chutney artists like Ravi B, Hunter and D’Hitman–who sing primarily about rum drinking and failed relationships–model themselves after Sundar Popo’s original, iconoclastic example. Often they even sample or interpolate his songs. However many feel that the genre—which has developed into a lucrative global market, with international competitions and tours—does not produce songs with the subtlety and the texture that Popo’s music provided. Stylistically, chutney has been replaced by chutney soca, which favors simpler lyrics and is designed to elicit crowd response during the carnival system. (In the feedback loop of culture that is the Caribbean, soca, too, is a hybrid. Invented by Lord Shorty, also from Barrackpore, soca provided a much-needed pep to the lagging calypso scene through the use of Indian drum patterns).
Popo found himself left behind in the emergence of this international chutney soca industry, and in his last days—just before he died in 2000 of diabetes–had to appeal publicly for help with his medical bills. Without Sundar’s voice and contribution the social, cultural and political landscape of Trinidad would be unimaginably different, and bleaker. On Liberty Ave, at the bar at Singh’s Roti, patrons often offset their rum consumption with oily, bready phoulorie dipped in a sugary, spicy tamarind sauce. Perhaps this image, captured in one of Popo’s most well-known songs, is the best metaphor for his absence: pholourie ke la chutney kaise bani. Pholourie without chutney is no good. Indeed.