Oh gosh look at my nani...Neighba neighba come and see/ Naani get bounced down/ By a big big big maxi...I miss she pholourie/ I miss she roti / I’ll do everything I can for my nani...
On the surface, chutney soca queen Drupatee Ramgoonai’s Lick up Mih Nani is about the rash driving on the streets of Port of Spain. But delve into the street slang of Trinidad and you see why this spirited woman outrages many of the conservative members of the Indian community. Nani is street slang for the vagina.
Documentary film-maker Surabhi Sharma’s Jahaji Music is full of such musical stories of people who come from an amazing mix of cultures in the West Indies. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many Indians, mostly from the North, went as indentured labour to the West Indies. According to stories, on their long voyage from the port of Kolkata on ships with names such as Pagla Jahaj, they took with them fistfuls of tamarind and mango seeds. And many folk songs from the rural heartland.
While the migrants fused peacefully into the local cultures, they hung on to some small pockets of the life back home—the rituals, the songs, and the food. Chutney soca (mix of East Indian and calypso) tycoons such as Trinidadian Rikki Jai grew up listening to their mothers and grandmothers crooning songs they did not understand a word of. But they made the most of it by amalgamating these with lilting calypso sounds. Bollywood hits are also a big source of inspiration, and Jai shows how he fused Bindiya chamkegi with calypso music to create a big dance-floor hit.
Sharma’s film takes you through the homes of singers and ordinary people, the sugarcane fields, the concert stages and the recording studios of the region. To her credit, she does not limit her film to the Indian community, but takes a long look at the many problems of the Caribbean communities—the crime and the grinding poverty beyond the breathtaking beaches and reggae.
She starts her journey in Kingston, from the legendary dance halls and the poor streets of Trenchtown where reggae, Rastafarianism and the Bob Marley cult are a way of life. The film also takes a close look at the lives of the raunchy queens of the dance halls, Lady Saw and Stacey.
The only thing that rankles in the film is musician Remo, who was supposed to see if he could draw some musical inspiration from the project. Far from joining the infectious proceedings, he sulks in corners, looking very self-conscious and distant. The only time he comes alive is when he jams with the irrepressible Denise Belfon and replies to her hit Lookin’ for an Indian Man. You hear him tell Jai to improvise a duet with “coconut” in it because it is common to Goa and the West Indies. You watch him reply to Jai’s wide-eyed questions about Bollywood music with a sneer: “I look down upon it.” And you cringe at his bad grace.
Jahaji Music, 4 July, 10.30am, Kamala Raheja Institute of Architecture, Juhu Scheme, Mumbai. The film will travel to Pune in July and New Delhi in August.