Of pots, pans and chutneys

Raul Dias | Updated on May 22, 2020 Published on May 22, 2020

Banging away: The national musical instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, the steelpan is made from oil drums   -  IMAGE COURTESY: TOURISM TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO

The music of Trinidad and Tobago is replete with diverse and fusion-rich notes

* Steelpan is the national musical instrument of Trinidad and Tobago

* The island nation’s chutney soca muscial genre merges the drumbeats of Caribbean calypso with the sounds of tablas, shehnais, dhantals and sitars

* The Dattatreya Mandir in Port of Spain has chutney soca-style bhajan singing every evening

Never have I been made more aware of the currency of the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” than in the twin island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Carelessly strewn across the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea like a pair of emerald danglers, Trinidad and Tobago may be a mighty trek to get to from India. But once there, this happy-go-lucky country shows off its ingenuity and adaptability in myriad ways. Most noticeably in its music.

Limein’ and steelpanin’

Blessed with a unique vocabulary that is a fusion of everything from pidgin English to Bhojpuri and even old Hindustani, one of the words used most frequently by Trinbagonians is limein’. Put very simply, limein’ is the art of hanging out just about anywhere with friends or family. All this, with some music thrown in for good measure. Often, the choice of music is either that produced by a steelpan band or a unique hybrid genre called chutney soca.

The national musical instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, the steelpan is made from oil drums hammered on one end and divided into grooves and notes. The steelpan is also often touted as the only acoustic musical instrument to be invented in the 20th century. Panbands were said to have originated when erstwhile African slaves working on the sugar plantations were prohibited from participating in the annual carnival. So they came up with their own version, which they called Canboulay, where most of the percussion instruments were crafted out of household utensils and other items such as pans, oil drums, and garbage can lids. Today, panbands are a vital part of any Trinbagonian celebration.

One of the best ways to catch some solid steelpanin’ is by visiting a local pan yard. One such place is the Crazy Golden Eagles pan yard at the George Street Community Centre in downtown Port of Spain, the capital of the nation. This yard is a sort of community centre where steelpan bands comprising musicians of all ages — including kids — practise almost every day, honing their skills for performances across the country.

The desi connection

Yuh feel this Indian gyal cyah come and wine and wuk she waist

Take over the street make ah bacchanal in the place

Drop it to the ground and sh-sh-shake it all around

Push up on ah speaker beat it like ah Indian drum…

These are the opening lines of Indian Gyal, a monster hit of 2015 by the reigning queen of Trinidad and Tobago’s chutney soca scene — Drupatee Ramgoonai.

With its pulsating rhythms set to decidedly East Indian dance tunes brought in by immigrants in the mid-1800s, chutney soca is another national obsession of the islands. Taking on the drumbeats of the typically Caribbean ‘soul of calypso’ aka soca music and merging them with the sounds of tablas, shehnais, dhantals and sitars is the hybrid Indo-Trinbagonian chutney soca music genre.

And while it may not have been born out of necessity and oppression, like steelpanin’, chutney soca too is very much a 20th-century invention — late-20th century, to be more precise, when pioneers such as Lord Shorty gave it form in the early ’70s. However, it was only in 1987 that the term ‘chutney soca’ was coined by Ramgoonai with the release of her debut album Chutney Soca. Within a year, with the launch of her next single, Roll up de tassa, this style of music got co-opted by the neighbouring Indian immigrant-rich South American countries of Suriname and Guyana.

Interestingly, chutney soca even finds a place for itself in worship in Trinidad and Tobago. The Port of Spain suburb of Carapichaima is home to a gigantic 85-ft-tall Hanuman statue, which occupies prime place at the saffron-hued Dattatreya Mandir.

It is here that locals not just come to pay obeisance to the statue of the monkey god, believed to be the largest outside India, but also sit down to a rather sonorous chutney soca-style bhajan-singing session every evening.

And just when I thought that I’d heard it all, my driver of Indian origin introduced me to the three newest sub-genres of chutney soca that he insisted on playing on the car stereo. He called them chutney rap, chutney jhumar and chutney lambada. The music settled in nicely in my head, just like that spicy chutney that can liven up any meal.

Raul Dias is a food and travel writer based in Mumbai

Travel log

Getting there

  • As there are no direct flights from India to Trinidad and Tobago, one needs to fly to Port of Spain via New York, Miami or London. Indian nationals do not require a visa for Trinidad and Tobago


  • Despite being a relatively small city, accommodation options are abundant in Port of Spain. Perched atop a small hill that overlooks the city’s iconic Queen’s Park Savannah, the centrally located Hilton Trinidad & Conference Centre (www.hilton.com) is a good pick. The Hotel Normandie (www.normandiett.com) in St Ann’s is another great option.

BLink Tip

  • As a protective haven for the scarlet ibis, which is the national bird of Trinidad and Tobago, the Caroni Swamp sanctuary, located a little out of Port of Spain, is a great place to commune with nature. A boat tour down the meandering swamp gives you a glimpse of not just the habitat of the scarlet ibis but also snakes, spiders and other inhabitants of this vast ecosystem.

Published on May 22, 2020

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