"Roll up the tassa, roll up the tassa, Bissessar...roll up de tassa Bissessar, Oh beta!"
Chutney Soca Queen, Drupatee Ramgoonai used to be my favourite chutney artiste growing up. Her "Roll up the tassa" release, her groundbreaking debut into the chutney soca arena, was a big hit and a road march contender in 1998.
I could remember myself dancing up a storm to the beautiful fusion of tassa and soca at my school bazaar. Ramgoonai stunned the local masses when she entered a realm where Indian women never dared to venture, the soca stage. All she knew at that time was that she loved singing and dancing, she couldn't imagine that she would be the brainchild of new genre of music and thriving facet of T&T's Carnival culture.
Its 2013 and several years have passed. The Penal native who used to sing in temples as a child with her mother has made historical leaps since her first offering. Since "Roll up the tassa", the first East Indian woman to ever sing calypso, has blazed her trail with later releases "Hotter than a Chulha", "Special Brew" and "Real Unity", a monster hit for which collaborated with aoca Taipan, Machel Montano, and many more
For Carnival 2013, 12 years after her "Real Unity" collaboration, she is mashing up fetes once more with "Indian Gyal" yet another collaboration with Montano. "She wa meh wuk up the larki, wuk up the larki". Her vibe has changed. Her tune is a more modern version of Chatnee Soca (the name of her first album in 1987). Everybody is into chutney soca now, there is even a separate Chutney Soca Monarch competition and the Indian female artistes in the industry are not jeered and frowned upon. Its a new era, the "Chatnee" queen has made a royal return.
As I sit to chat with her, in the heat of the Carnival season, I tell her that she was my favourite artiste and she laughs. "I enjoyed doing "Roll up the tassa" but entering the golden stage of soca as an Indian woman wasn't easy. I was ridiculed and chastised because an Indian woman's place back then was in the home and not Carnival. But I never quit. I got support from my parents, siblings and husband," Ramgoonai remembers. "When I released 'Lick down meh nani' they accepted me more but it was still hard. It was about my grandmother who was waiting for a maxi and the driver was driving reckless and he bounce her down!"
The 55-year-old woman smiles and sings a line from "Lick down meh nanny". Indeed my icon of yesteryear loves to sing and she can strike a chord anywhere, in the bathroom, on the road, in a fete and in this interview. "'Oh lalal, oh lalala....' That's the words of a Bollywood song I sang at a Mother's Day show last year. It's actually from a Bollywood movie, Dirty Picture, a love story!" continues the Bollywood afficionado
We switch gears back to "Indian Gyal". "What inspired you to release this tune for Carnival 2013, what brought you out of hibernation?" I ask. She responds. "Girl, songwriters David Millien, Emanuel Rudder and Stevie Sealey, wrote the song and gave it to my manager, Mona. When she heard it, she loved it; she knew that I would like it as well. When I heard it, I started to dance one time. I loved it. Like if it had my name written all over it. But only one thing...the chorus was 'Wuk up the nanny'". The woman hailed as the undisputed Chutney Queen in Dr Kumar Mahabir's, magazine Portraits of Chutney Singers, is in singing mode again. "She want meh wuk the nanny, wuk the nanny, wuk up the nanny!" She claims that she refused to sing a next song about nanny."Nanny is the Hindu word for grandmother. I couldn't go down a next nanny road girl. I tell Mona, I not singing it and so Mona and the writers worked and changed the line to larki. Larki is the Hindi word for girl. With this change I decided to sing it and one day Machel (Montano) was walking through the studio and he heard the song and turned back and asked about it. He wanted to collaborate on it with me and so we hooked up!"
Stating her delight in working with Montano, Ramgoonai was happy to release a next mega hit with Montano, 2011/2012 Soca Monarch King meets timeless Chutney Soca Queen, a royal combination. "Indian Gyal" is bringing people to their feet at fetes and parties, motorists are playing it repeatedly, the story line which speaks of an Indian girl (Drupatee's sister) who comes from India and experiences Carnival for the first time, is popular, catchy and ready for the road.
"My sister has a split personality. She is conservative by day but wining and having a time in fetes at night," the mother of two explains. "When was your first time on stage as a performer?" I quiz. "It was when I was 12 years old. I sang a Hindi bhajan for the Charlo Village Best Village show. It was my first time singing in front of a crowd. Jai jai Shiva Changar...," the Nafieta Awards recipient ends her statement with the words of her favourite Hindu song of praise. I am enjoying every moment of her musical interludes. She is a chutney ambassador indeed having performed throughout the Caribbean, North America, Europe and even India alongside many internationally renowned stars but what makes her stand out the most is her easygoing, melodious way of telling her story and the story behind Chatnee Soca. And so, it's almost time for us to conclude the interview as Ramgoonai has one of many appearances to make for her busy Carnival 2013 season. I take the opportunity now to confess to her that I can't dance chutney soca and she is surprised. "Girl all you need is some rhythm to dance chutney. You have to swing your hips to the beat and move your hands!" "I must move my hands?" I inquire. "Not really but it gives the dance more fluidity!" I can't remember doing this dance to "Roll up the tassa" but I take her advice nonetheless.
In the future, in addition to vowing to make my chutney dancing more crisp, the musical pioneer intends to continue to fly her T&T flag high throughout the world promoting the art form of chutney soca. "As I long as I am alive I will sing chutney soca. This is who Drupatee is and who she will always be," she decides. Commitment and guts in an industry in which she carved her own niche, from "Roll up the tassa" to "Indian Gyal", Drupatte Ramgoonai will always be one of Trinidad and Tobago's most celebrated female artistes and guess what? Her reign isn't over, she still has some more tassa-filled chutney-dancing hits to release ... stay tuned.