Rikki Jai Building Bridges

Rikki Jai

…20 Years Later

The bogey of race stares me in my face anywhere I go
Like a time bomb ticking, waiting to explode
But as an East Indian Trinbagonian, I want you know
Here’s where I stand in that scenario
When I sing Hindi and I sing chutney, that’s my heritage
East Indian drums echo from a land outside of my sight
But when I sing kaiso and I sing soca, that’s my privilege
My blood, my sweat, my joy and my copyright

‘Cause I’m a Trinbagonian, I’m a born Trini
I’m a chutney champion, all of that is me
And I’m a Trinbagonian, I’m a born Trini
I create my music in English and Hindi.
But I’m a freedom fighter with both my guns aglow
You see I blazing a trail in chutney and calypso
I want the world to know
I blazing a trail in chutney and calypso.

—From Identity, by Rikki Jai

By Sunity Maharaj

As a young Indian boy growing up in Friendship Village South Trinidad, Samraj “Rikki” Jaimungal had been determined to stand on a calypso stage and stake his claim to being Trinidadian and to the collective Calypso inheritance. And once the case was made, he turned around and took Trinidad and Calypso on a journey back to his Indian roots in Chutney, throwing wide open the door unlatched by Sundar Popo. In the twenty years since his breakthrough recording of “Sumintra”, neither calypso nor chutney has been the same.
Here, then, was the reason why, on this Sunday, Keith Smith, exponent of the art of Calypso Journalism, had pulled himself off his sick bed to attempt his first interview in years. Rikki Jai, he argued, was far too important a figure in the music to allow his twentieth anniversary in the business to pass unmarked. So with me in the role of back-up reporter, and a Dictaphone on the table, Rikki Jai was making a command appearance at Keith’s verandah in Laventille to discuss those two decades.
At various points over the past twenty years, he has been called a calypsonian, a soca artiste and a chutney singer. But above all, Rikki Jai is an entertainer whose performances combine the celebratory joy of the communal Chutney tradition into which he was born, with the expressive idiom of the Calypso in which he sought his identity as a Trinidadian.
Rikki Jai grew up with chutney music all around him in Friendship Village, a predominantly Hindu community outside San Fernando. His own mother and her sisters were well-known in the area as women who knew the traditional Bhojpuri folksongs sung to the rhythm of dholak drums, chac-chacs and brass lotaa-and-spoons to mark those celebratory moments of life: the birth of a baby, observed on the sixth day with the Chhatee and the twelfth with the barahee; and the broad range of wedding songs that accompany Hindu brides every step of the way, from the preparatory maticoor , hardee and lawaa rituals, through to the wedding ceremony and, ultimately, to the kangan ritual leading to the bridal bed.
And yet, despite the rich cultural reservoir at home, the young Rikki Jai’s head buzzed with dreams of an altogether different direction.
“I was going to come into town and sing calypso and you wouldn’t know the difference.” The “difference” was what Kim Johnson has termed the “Indian lilt” that distinguish singers of Indian songs from singers of calypso.
While Rikki Jai’s musical passion was lit at home, his musical ambitions were whetted on the piano at St Paul’s Anglican School in San Fernando by the musicologist/principal, a “Mr Mungal”, who played the great Christian hymns to the fascination of his young pupil.
“My father had decided not to send me to the village school,” he recalled.
For the Hindu boy from Friendship Village, the journey to primary school at St Paul’s Anglican, followed by high school at the presbyterian Naparima College, brought him in touch with a more vibrantly multi-cultural Trinidad where Calypso reigned as the music of the masses. The teenager was enthralled by Calypso and devoted himself to learning them all by heart.
Life after graduation seemed to pull him closer to the destiny that awaited. His job as a clerical officer with the Ministry of Finance took him to Port of Spain, capital of the Calypso world, and put him in close quarters with the admired calypsonian Errol ‘Bally’ Ballantyne who would later shepherd his entry into the music.
Most lives are changed, not in grand movements, but through happenstance. For Rikki Jai, the chance to show that he was an Indian Trinidadian completely at home in the quintessential Trinidadian musical idiom came one Sunday in 1986, at the age of almost 24, at a community bazaar in Oropouche, South Trinidad.
The orchestra, Naya Andaz, was on the stage delivering their set and as they made the segue from Indian songs to calypso, the band went instrumental:
“They were sounding like a longtime combo,” recalls Rikki Jai. Recognising that Naya Andaz had no Calypso singer, he promptly went up and offered his services:
No thank you, he was told, but if you’re interested, come for an audition on Tuesday.
Today, Rikki Jai marks the encounter as his moment of destiny. Performing Crazy’s “Pussycat” and David Rudders “Bahia Girl” and “The Hammer”, he bowled over the band and was immediately recruited.
He recalls the day he told his father he was going to sing with Naya Andaz.
“You could sing?” his father asked, incredulously.
Assured by his son that, yes, he could indeed sing, Mr Jaimungal gave his approval with some sagely advice on managing the tricky terrain of life as an entertainer- and left it at that.
Over the next year, the boy who had discovered the power of music and dance rhythms from his mother’s Chutney sessions, grew into the man who could make the masses move to the rhythms of Calypso and Soca. The only Indian songs in his repertoire were those of Sundar Popo. On stage, his biggest thrill was- and remains- to come out “and mash up the place”- which, invariably, he did.
It was inevitable, then, that Naya Andaz would lose its rising star to bigger prospects.
In 1987, Naya Andaz came up against the then hugely popular Triveni Orchestra. By the end of the night, Triveni was wooing the competition’s frontline singer who had blown the competition away from the moment he hit the stage.
Where Naya Andaz was limited largely to the south, Triveni performed in the biggest fetes all over the country, opening for the top Calypsonians and Soca acts of the day. After each performance, Rikki Jai would stand back and look at them perform.
“One of the best things to happen to me was joining Triveni. It put me from the small fetes in the South to the big fetes in the North. As a frontline singer, dealing with the African Trinidadian community and fete lovers… getting to see David Rudder, Colin Lucas, Ronnie McIntosh firsthand… I would watch the masters and learn.”
At 25, Rikki Jai was living the entertainer’s adrenalin-charged dream. Leaving home at 5 am to start work at 7 am in Port of Spain; then leaving work at 3 pm to head back home, chow down his mother’s cooking, collect the car from his brother who worked taxi all day and then head back to Port of Spain , or wherever the fete was, for the calypso/soca night shift.
In 1988, as Triveni’s frontline singer, earning roughly $350 to $400 a night, he thought he had it made. Until the night at an Airports Authority fete when he saw what Drupatee was doing with Bissessar:
“Drupatee sang one song and left with a wad of money. I thought ‘If this little lady could do this, there’s no reason why I couldn’t run through the door, too’.”

******

Drupatee

Drupatee, the charmer from Charleau Village Penal, had made history as the first female Indo-Trinidadian to sing in a calypso tent, having risen through the ranks of Chutney as a young back-up singer for the pioneering Sundar Popo, and later, in 1983 and 1984, claiming the top prize in the local composition category of the Mastana Bahar competition. It was Drupatee who, in 1987 had popularized the genre “Chutney Soca” in a song of the same title composed by Kenny Phillips on an album of the same name.

Later that year, she had the place hot with “Pepper, Pepper”. In the hands of Kenny Phillips, the cloistered world of Chutney that belonged to the mothers of Rikki Jai and Drupatee, became the launch pad for sending a new wave chutney into international orbit. In 1988, Drupatee’s runaway hit, “Roll Up The Tassa, Bissessar” composed by Wayne McDonald , topped Soca charts all over the Caribbean and the North American diaspora, making Drupatee the first Soca best-seller of East Indian descent and the top female recording Soca artiste of the year.
In that moment, as he watched Drupatee receive her wad of money, Rikki Jai the Entertainer who covered other people’s songs, became Rikki Jai the Calypsonian. The challenge now was to find a song- and sound- of his own. Lucky for him, the quest could begin right in his backyard.

*****

Like Rikki Jai, Errol “Bally” Ballantyne, lived the double life of a customs officer by day and calypsonian by night. On the stage, they were performers; on the job, Rikki Jai was Bally’s supervisor which made the task of approaching him, that much harder:
“It took me a whole month to bring up the issue of recording my first Calypso. He proved to be one of the most selfless, genuine persons. He told me everything he knew, took me to meet G.B. (Gregory Ballantyne- no relation) who said he had a song, “Rampersad” for $1,500. I didn’t have the money and asked for two weeks to come up with it.”
In the end, he couldn’t raise more than $800 and lost the song to Claude Martineau of Spektakula Forum who purchased it for the man who would become Chutney first icon, Sundar Popo. Rikki Jai was heart-broken.
He recalls going home “dejected” but still not yet ready to give up. He phoned GB and asked for another song. GB came back with a song that had been written for a visit by Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv. But there was an idea buzzing around in Rikki Jai’s head which he wanted worked into the song: “Hold the Lata Mangeshwar/ Give me Soca aha aha.”
With GB going back to work to transform the song into “Sumintra”, Rikki Jai went into high gear, fired up by the thrill of getting his first record out within the constraints of the slimmest of financial margins:
“I did my research and found out Drupatee had done her recording at Kenny Phillips. He encouraged me to do two songs.”
Possessed by the idea of wanting to go on stage and “get on”, songwriter Allison Ayres suggested the more hardcore Soca number, “Getting On”, for his second song.
“I thought “Getting On” would be the big hit but to my surprise, The Goose (Ian Eligon) and Gerard Agostini (Radio DJs) wouldn’t play it. The stations liked Sumintra because it was “different”.
In 1989,, with Sumintra in arm, Rikki Jai walked brazenly through the door that Sundar Popo had unlatched, and through which Drupatee had glided.
Because of the nerve it struck, Sumintra immediately divided the Indian community.
“I got a good bashing from certain segments of the Indian community, including the Maha Sabha. I wasn’t afraid of Sat Maharaj (Secretary General of the Maha Sabha). I was prepared. I have a lot of respect for him but in terms of what I wanted to do, he had nothing to do with me. I thought Sat’s philosophy wasn’t well-suited to all Indians in T&T. In any case, I don’t think they were listening to what I was saying in the song….My thing with this song was to present myself as a Trinidadian, first and foremost, and to shed that mindset of how Indians sing calypso.”
He clearly succeeded. To this day, Rikki Jai is tickled by the fact that so many people could not recognize the voice on “Sumintra” as that of an Indian Trinidadian.
“A lot of people thought it was Baron or Crazy- they even ran a quiz on radio.”
On his side, though, were members of the Indo-Trinidadian community who felt Rikki Jai had claimed a space for them as Trinidadians with a right to the Calypso artform. At the head of his support line was his family.

******
As he prepared to debut Sumintra at the Martineaus’ Spektakula Forum on Henry Street, Port of Spain, Rikki Jai was a bundle of nerves. How would this seasoned calypso crowd respond to this Indian singing calypso?
“I was frightened on my first night at Spektakula but to my surprise I got two encores.”
Still, while tent patrons warmed to him, calypso fete lovers weren’t quite sure what to do with him and his music:
“In hard core fetes, I would get ‘the stand up and stare’. Then they would go back to partying after me”.
Over the next five years, Rikki Jai moved from novelty to fixture on the Soca circuit with a string of party hits including “Keep it Pumping” (1990); Bolo (’91); Show Me Yuh Motion (92); Wine on a Bumsee (’93); Tun Yuh Waist.
By 1995, with Trinidad and Tobago preparing to vote in its first Prime Minister of East Indian descent, the chutney ripple that had begun with Sundar Popo’s “Nana, Nani” in 1969/70 was becoming a flood of tidal proportions. The bridge that Sundar Popo had built by integrating East Indian folk music and Trinidadian lyrics- and which had carried Drupatee into Soca- now came to join the bridge that Rikki Jai was building from Soca to Chutney. By occupying the spotlight on the Soca stage, Rikki Jai became a point of access for Soca fans to chutney music.
Across that bridge now came a flood of artistes, many of whom had, until then, enjoyed almost no exposure to a non-Indian audience, their music confined to Indian radio programmes and stations. In 1995/96, no one would have been more surprised that Sonny Mann, a singer whose entire career had been devoted to Indian classical singing of the Trinidadian variety, when his “Lotay La” became the first fete anthem of the Panday-era.
For Rikki jai, the signals were clear. It had taken 25 years, but the socio-cultural forces let loose in 1970 by Sunday Popo and Moean and Sham Mohammed of “Indian Talent on Parade” (Radio) and “Mastana Bahar” (TV) fame were about to combine with the socio-political forces that were bringing Panday to office.
The gathering forces of Chutney got a huge impetus from George Singh’s introduction of the Chutney Soca Competition. As Indo-Trinidad’s highest profile entertainer, Rikki Jai was wooed by Singh. With Soca moving to embrace Chutney, Rikki Jai knew the time had come to get on the Chutney wagon. He agreed to enter the competition with “Sumintra”- which he still insists is Indian Soca, not Chutney. Sonny Mann beat him with Lotay La. Over the years, since then, Rikki Jai has won the Chutney Soca title five times, drawing heavily from the music of his mother that he had left behind in the quest to become a calypsonian.
In doing so, however, he also changed the music.

Until he turned to Chutney, Rikki Jai’s hits had all been written by others. His own first attempt at writing Calypso, he admits, had been “disastrous”. But Chutney changed all that, his mastery of both message and medium, born of long familiarity, served to liberate his creativity. Add to that the talents of his writing partner: his mother.
“Somewhere along the line my mother must’ve dreamed of being an entertainer. She’s a brilliant writer. She could sit here and write a Chutney song in two minutes.”
In their collaborations, he says he first “walks” her through “the English” of what he wants.
“She comes back to me the next day and says ‘listen to this’, and she would sing something that she has made up for herself. “ He then suggests whatever changes he wants. Today, he is writing more music than he can record, and, remembering Bally’s past generosity to him, happily writes for anyone who seeks his help, including Allison Hinds and Daddy Chinee, among others this year.
In Rikki Jai’s hands, the traditional became fused with the modern as he took the Chutney folksongs of his childhood from the confines of ritual, and carried them to the dance floors of a younger generation. Not everyone has welcomed the change, but there is no doubt that Rikki Jai’s version of old Chutney classics such as Mor Tor, Jai Kangan Choraweh, Dahaiya Moreh Laylo and Boleh Murugwah among others have gained them new life and new currency with a younger generation and carried them across ethnic lines. The videos that have accompanied them have also captured associated rituals and images and taken them to mass audiences.
But as his star rose on the Chutney horizon, Rikki Jai was about to be whiplashed by Soca.

******
In 1998, his Chutney career in full flight, Rikki Jai, then the reigning Chutney Soca Monarch, was invited to make a guest appearance at the finals of the high-powered Soca Monarch competition. And, in the full glare on international spotlight, his world turned upside down.
“What happened?” Keith Smith wanted to know, his eyes opening wide with the mystery that, clearly, still haunted him.
“I can’t explain what happened,” replied a still bemused Rikki Jai.
Twelve years later, the memory still seems to burn. Rikki Jai recalls the experience as seven minutes of concentrated torture, of him standing before a hostile crowd as he delivered “Doolahin”. He describes it as the closest he has come to knowing what a soldier in Iraq must feel like.
“I was terribly hurt but I didn’t hold it against them.”
His soca brethren were as shocked as he was.
“Tony Prescott came and put his arm around me and told me not to worry about this.”
Keith Smith remembers the famously uttered words of the stunned calypsonian to the media that night: “But this is my people!”
It didn’t occur to him then, as it had to me, that the crowd reaction that night was the backlash from an increasingly angry Port of Spain, gone sour on the politics of Basdeo Panday’s UNC government after the romance of Jahaaji Bhai in 1996.
Rikki Jai has been back to the Soca Monarch stage without incident several times since that night. In 2001, he brought the Soca Monarch house down with “When I Jump On”. That was the triumphant year in which he won four of the six competitions he entered (Chutney Soca, Young Kings (tied with Bunji Garlin), South Calypso Monarch and National Unattached Monarch) and made it to the finals of the Calypso Monarch, placing seventh. Last year Carnival, he became the first Chutney singer to take honours in the Groovy Soca category of the competition when he placed third with “Barman”, a song as comfortable on a Soca stage as it is on a Chutney stage.
‘Barman” was Rikki Jai’s concession to the growing popularity of Chutney songs based on Bollywood melodies. He didn’t want to join the crowd, he says, but after his 2009 compositions flew over everyone’s head, he decided to give the people what they want. Barman’s refrain comes from a 1961 Bollywood hit, Dil Mera Ek Aas Ka Panchi, although the rest of the song is original. Rikki Jai says he plays by the copyright rules and has filed the relevant information with COTT.
This year, as he continues his 20th anniversary celebration as a recording artiste, Rikki Jai remains in relentless pursuit of the sound of Trinidad through the blended musical artform. Perhaps, it is his attempt of making sense of himself as a Trinidadian.
His “High, High”, is a classic social commentary presented to the rhythms of Rapso and Chutney with a touch of Bollywood.

When I sit down in the bar and I taking mih drink
And I sit down in the bar and I start to think
I thinking bout the things that going on
The things in the country that gone so wrong
When I think about where all the money gone
Big buildings, the Lara Stadium
HCU, the Clico situation
Harry and Duprey fool the whole town
Hart take all the money and he leave and gone
for the poor man is a case of never-ending sufferation
All I could do is hope this drink will ease my frustration
Everybody get high, high….

Exploring the music, engaging the other, connecting the dots. Since 1996 when he gave up the public service job and turned to music full-time, Rikki Jai has been walking the tightrope of tradition and change. For a short period, he even gave up the music to do a programme in Computer Science at Queen’s College New York. A family tragedy aborted that mission and brought him back home into the arms of the music he loves.
In two decades, he has achieved much, but knows that much more could have been done with serious policy backed by investment. India for one thing. On two tours there (1997, 2004) he saw first-hand, India’s joyful reception for a lost music that had returned with a Caribbean panache. He was encouraged to stay but gave up his chance to return home. Today, as he imagines what might have been, he feels certain there is an opening in India for some adventurous soldiers flying the flag of Trinidad’s Chutney Soca.
In the meantime, as he has done for every one of the last 20 years, Rikki Jai gets ready for another Trinidad Carnival, fountainhead of a global Carnival economy that runs on the rhythm tracks of Soca and Chutney. With “High, High” and “Text Yuh Tonight”, he is already running on both, even as he continues to harbour the dream of being crowned Calypso Monarch of the world. Could this be the year? The people will have their say over the coming weeks.

Leave a Reply