For the new Indian site Scroll.in, I wrote about my affection for chutney music. Here’s the piece:
Bollywood and my mother’s bhajans were the background music of my childhood. Growing up in New Jersey in the 1980s, any and all yearning for lost homelands was set to the score of ‘Love Story’, ‘Dostana’, ‘Silsila’. Hindi film music was the approved soundtrack of our nostalgia. Arguably, since I am an Indian roughly a century out of India, born in Guyana, chutney should have been. Chutney is Indo-Caribbean dance music that evolved from the Bhojpuri folk songs taken by indentured immigrants to British Guiana, Trinidad, Jamaica and elsewhere in the West Indies. Like the sugar cane blossoming out of muck and mud on the Demerara Coast, the music was a thing original to India that then was grafted into the Caribbean landscape. Both cane and chutney grew on plantations where Indians replaced Africans as coerced labor, their sweat and their blood extracted in successive measure, distrustful of each other despite that fact, and susceptible to each other’s cultural influence despite themselves. The music is a hybrid, percussive, anchored in the gyrations of hips liberated because the feet have been shackled. It is more than a bit wild. It did, after all, grow at least partly from the jesting, suggestive songs that Indian indentured women sang for each other, among themselves, on the night before a wedding and its consummation. As a respectable girl from a respectable family, chutney was not supposed to be my anthem. I associate it with my mother’s disapproval. I associate it with dance floors at diaspora weddings in New York and Toronto, South Florida and London, where “de people getting on bad” but in a socially permitted way—aunts and uncles, cousins and grandmothers “wining up their waist”, next to each other. I associate chutney with transgression. I also associate it with Creolese, the English dialect that evolved from plantation pidgin in the West Indies, which was also the English spoken in my immigrant home in the United States, distinct from the proper English I spoke outside it. The joy of the music, separate from the pleasures of transgression, is the joy of hearing the secret language of my private world spoken out loud in a public space, among people who come from the same history. (The lyrics can be in Creolese, Bhojpuri or a combination of the two.) In form and content, chutney is the music of indenture and migration: stubbornly surviving, heartbroken and raw, its own mutt thing rejecting purity, celebrating its roots but unafraid to transplant them, glorying in syncretic new grafts. Neither Bollywood nor bhajans, warm as they are under my skin, provide me with the thrill of that particular, local intimacy. Here, at Scroll.in, are seven tracks that I like or think are canonical.