Indo-Caribbean music refers the music culture of the Indo-Caribbean descendants - now numbering over a million - of indentured immigrants who came from India between 1845 and 1917 to various parts of the Caribbean, primarily Trinidad, Guyana, and Suriname.
Most of the indentured workers were peasants from the Bhojpuri-speaking region of North India. Accordingly, Bhojpuri-derived folk music constituted the single largest category of Indo-Caribbean traditional music, comprehending a wide variety of genres. Prominent among women’s music have been wedding songs, including ribald songs and dances associated with all-female matkor (matticore) celebrations. Women also traditionally sang childbirth songs (“sohar”), work songs like jatsar, and other miscellaneous Bhojpuri songs. In English-speaking Trinidad and Guyana, where the Bhojpuri language has largely died out, these songs are no longer flourishing as amateur collective folksongs, though it remains common for singers —perhaps hired semi-professionals— to be engaged to sing them at Hindu weddings, perhaps with the aid of notebooks with the words written in the Roman script. In Suriname, where Bhojpuri is still widely spoken, these traditions remain more vital.
A variety of other songs derived from Bhojpuri tradition were more associated with male performers. These included renditions of the narrative heroic ballad Alhâ, songs associated with folk theater like “Harichand dance,” and a shorter narrative song-type called birha. Birha has declined dramatically in recent decades, and Alhâ and foilk theater have disappeared (though Ramlila theater remains popular). Clubs of (primarily) male singers also formed to sing the “Râmcharitmânas” of Tulsidas, and chowtâl, associated with the vernal phagwa (“phagwah”) or holi festival. Both are sung in a vigorous antiphonal style, with animated dholak drumming. “Mânas” singing, although by no means extinct, has declined in tandem with the decline of Hindi comprehension. However, chowtâl remains very popular in all three countries and among their secondary diasporas in the US and Holland, where innumerable groups convene every phagwa season to sing, despite the texts being only partially understood by the Trinidadians and Guyanese. Indeed, chowtal appears to be thriving more in the Bhojpuri diaspora —including among the Indo-Fijians— than in the Bhojpuri region itself, where it is declining. There are in fact several sorts of marginal survivals in Indo-Caribbean music culture, including the archaic form of birha that was formerly common in the region. One entity in the category of marginal survivals may be the dantal (dandtal, “dhantal”), a metal rod struck with a clapper, that, although evidently of subcontinental Indian origin, is now rare in that country, while pervading Indo-Caribbean (and Indo-Fijian) music-making.
Other forms of Indo-Caribbean music may be regarded as neo-traditional in that they have evolved in forms quite distinct from counterparts or sources in India, while not becoming overly creolized. Primary in this category is the genre known as “local-classical music” in Trinidad, “tan-singing” in Guyana, and “baithak gâna” in Suriname. This genre comprises idiosyncratic forms of sub-genres like thumri, dhrupad, tilâna, and bihâg which are quite distinct from their namesakes in subcontinental Indian music. Trinidadian local-classical music has suffered, like other genres, from the erosion of its linguistic base, but it remains reasonably strong, and constitutes a truly unique feature of that island’s music, alongside such better-known creole styles as calypso and steelband.
Another remarkably lively and original neo-traditional music in Trinidad is tassa drumming, which combines traditional Indian features with various innovative rhythms in a rich and complex system of “hands” (composite rhythms). Tassa is indispensable at Hindu weddings, and is also heard at various other festivities, as well as the Muslim commemoration of Muharram, called “Hosay.”
Trinidad, with its political stability, relative affluence, and lively creole music scene, has been the most dynamic center of Indo-Caribbean music. The once-vital Indian music scene in Guyana has been weakened by poverty, political repression, and emigration since the 1960s. While folk music culture remains relatively strong in Suriname (especially due to the persistence of the Bhojpuri language), that country has not hosted the same sort of vigorous renaissance of Indo-Caribbean culture such as occurred in Trinidad since the 1970s. Perhaps inspired by the creole calypso competitions, lively competitions have become features of the Indo-Trinidian music scene—including competitions in “tassa”, chutney-soca, “chowtal”, Ramayan-singing, and other genres.
Accordingly, it was in Trinidad in the 1980s (albeit partially under Surinamese inspiration) that women’s matticore (matkor) songs and dances came to be reinvented and repackaged under the (traditional Indo-Surinamese name) of “chutney.” These songs and dances literally came out of the closet, that is, instead of being performed only by women, with no men present, they started to be performed socially first at neighborhood weddings, by men and women together, and then, from the 1980s, in public dances, with hired chutney ensembles. The traditional ensemble consisted of a singer with “harmonium”, “dholak”, and dantal, but by the 1990s it was more common to use dance-band instruments and “soca”-style drum machine; hence the name “chutney-soca,” and the style also was often further creolized by the use of English rather than Hindi lyrics. Within the Indian community, the chutney vogue was controversial, as conservatives were embarrassed by the sight of women drinking and dancing uninhibitedly in public. Fusions with soca were also controversial, but most Indians, as well as many creoles, have come to appreciate and enjoy chutney-soca as a lively enrichment of the national music scene, and as a festive symbol of racial collaboration, creativity, and merry-making. Trinidad is now often projected accordingly as “the land of calypso, steelband, and chutney-soca.” It might be appropriate to include tassa as well in this rubric, as tassa drumming is extraordinarily popular and vital, and is often heard at creole functions as well as Indian ones.
In Hindu temples, young and old sing devotional bhajans, typically of mainstream North Indian rather than Bhojpuri derivation. However, some styles—such as some of the Kabir bhajans accompanied by khanjri hand-drum—appear to be legacies of Bhojpuri tradition. Muslims also sing group devotional qasidas and other songs in styles akin to bhajans.
Also worthy of mention are the distinctive songs, dances, and drum traditions associated with the South Indian (or “Madrasi”) immigrants and their descendants, including worship of the goddess Mariamman, overlapping with worship of Kali.
Meanwhile, many Indo-Caribbeans are avid fans as well as amateur performers of Bollywood music. Trinidad, once again, exhibits the most active scene in this genre, especially in the form of the Mastana Bahar amateur competition network. In general, many Indo-Caribbeans —while being patriotic Trinis, Guyanese, or Surinamese— are also proud of their ethnic ancestry, and find in cultivation of various forms of Indian music a way of maintaining that identity. Elderly fans of traditional musics lament that the younger generations seem to be oriented less toward traditional culture than toward pop chutney and film music (not to mention reggae, soca, hip-hop, and the like). However, traditional and neo-traditional musics—from tassa to chowtal—continue to exhibit remarkable resiliency. These traditions, as well as pop chutney, also flourish in secondary diaspora sites like New York and the Netherlands.
- Afro-Caribbean music
- Calypso music
- Chutney music
- Chutney Soca
- List of Caribbean music genres
- Music of Trinidad and Tobago
- Soca music
- Manuel, Peter (2001). "Indo-Caribbean Music". Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. New York and London: Garland Publishing. pp. 813–818. ISBN 0-8240-6040-7.
- Manuel, Peter. East Indian Music in the West Indies: Tan-singing, Chutney, and the Making of Indo-Caribbean Culture. Temple University Press, 2000
- Arya, Usharbudh (1968). Ritual Songs and Folksongs of the Hindus of Surinam. London: E. J. Brill.
- Manuel, Peter (2000). East Indian Music in the West Indies: Tan-Singing, Chutney, and the Making of Indo-Caribbean Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.ISBN 1-56639-763-4
- Manuel, Peter (2000). Tan-Singing of Trinidad and Guyana: Indo-Caribbean "Local-Classical Music.” Documentary video.
- Manuel, Peter (2009). “Transnational Chowtal: Bhojpuri Folksong from North India to the Caribbean, Fiji, and Beyond.” Asian Music 40/2: 1-32.
- Manuel, Peter (2010). “Tassa Thunder: Folk Music from India to the Caribbean.” Documentary video.
- Myers, Helen (1998). Music of Hindu Trinidad: Songs from the India Diaspora. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Tewari, Laxmi Ganesh (2011). Music of the Indian diaspora in Trinidad. Coconut Creek, FL: Caribbean Studies Press.