Cookin’ with Chutney

By Gaiutra Bahadur

UNDER THE elevated tracks of the J train – in a squat warehouse across from a Queens branch of the U.S. Post Office – midnight means the swish of hips against hips, feet pounding the floor and hands writhing in mock Bharata Natyam, an Indian classical dance form.

The doors open at 9:30 p.m. at Calypsocity, a 4-year-old nightclub set amid a sprawl of working-class houses in Richmond Hill. But until the neighborhood sleeps, bouncer Anand Goswami stands by the door, brawny arms hanging idly at his sides, ready to begin the business of frisking for weapons. In August, the city raided Calypsocity and issued summonses for overcrowding and disorderly conduct. It’s not quite the image of intrigue that Peter Gatien, the don of Manhattan’s night scene indicted on drug conspiracy charges last year, brought to his clubs, the Tunnel and Limelight.

But the club’s location on Jamaica Avenue, in an otherwise sedate patch of frame houses and sycamore trees, has made it necessary for Goswami to keep a vigilant edge. Calypsocity has raised the ire of some neighbors, who say it brings unwelcome rowdiness to the area. Mary Ann Carey, district manager for Community Board 9, even tried – unsuccessfully – to get its liquor license revoked.

Mohan Jaikaran, the Trinidad-born owner of Calypsocity, sees the complaints as an inevitable reaction to changes in the demographics of Richmond Hill, once a German and Irish stronghold and now adamantly Caribbean. For him, as for his gatekeeper Goswami, running a regulation nightclub has become a matter of cultural pride.

Inside, the amplifiers pump out song after song, switching from hip-hop to soca (a hybrid of soul music and calypso) as if to lure patrons with the insistent beat. And, sure enough, as the first two hours wane, the patrons come. They come in staggered fashion: couples, posses of young men with slicked-back hair and silver rings in their pierced lobes, groups of women wearing DKNY fashions, brown spice lipstick and high heels. They fill the hundred or so gray formica tables and stand on the sidelines of the dance floor, against the blue-black of the walls, striking poses.

“Wherever you go, there are always eyes following you,” says Mala, a regular who didn’t want her last name used. Like all clubs, Calypsocity is a place set aside for being publicly sexy. When they move their bodies, one hand twisting high over their heads and one hand on their swinging hips, the dancers know they’re on display.

At Calypsocity, the dance floor becomes an ethnic stage every weekend. For a generation of immigrants in New York City, it becomes a tight and sweaty space to flaunt the fact that they are cultural hybrids.

A little past midnight the DJ spins music that has a complicated pedigree. Its hot-hot-hot rhythms show the influence of hip-hop on a Caribbean art form with roots in India. The music is the perfect pulsing symbol for a group of New York’s newest arrivals, who have their own complicated pedigree. In the 1990s, the third-largest group of immigrants to New York City came from Guyana, a former British colony at the northern tip of South America. About 100,000 Guyanese – equivalent to about 10 percent of Guyana’s population – live in Queens, in the neighborhoods of Ozone Park, Jamaica, Corona, Queens Village, Far Rockaway and especially Richmond Hill.

In the past decade and a half, the main thoroughfare in Richmond Hill – Liberty Avenue – has become a feast of the foreign. As immigrants from Guyana and from Trinidad – its cousin in the Caribbean – bought modest houses in the neighborhood, tiny replicas of their West Indian past started to spring up along the avenue.

In 1977, a year after leaving her town of Port Mourant in Guyana, Joyce Jarbandan and her sister opened the first West Indian grocery in New York City at 124-02 Liberty Ave. “This was a lonely area,” she says. “There was nobody around but us.”

Now, more than a dozen West Indian shops line Liberty Avenue, their shelves stocked with Sanatogen Tonic Wine, Ovaltine, Seven Seas Cod Liver Oil and Birds Custard Powder – all British brand-name goods coveted as signs of prosperity in the poor villages of Guyana. Tall rods of sugarcane rest against freezers filled with fish from the Caribbean: hassah, gilbacka, bangamary and salt fish. There is a mosque and a Hindu temple in Richmond Hill. The neighborhood is that hidden nook of America, where an employee of McDonald’s may say, “Wan arda a fries to go,” when taking an order in the inflections of Berbice, a region in Guyana. Walking along, it is possible to imagine being in another country – that the plane flights that brought these Indo-Caribbeans to Queens in the past two decades were only flights of fancy.

“They come from Bombay. They come from Bihar,” sings Sharlene Boodram, above the steady beat of Indian drums. “They take up de bundle and boarded de ship. One hundred and fifty years ago was de trip.” Boodram’s recorded teenage voice fills Calypsocity as she belts out a song that touches on the ancestry of almost every patron in the club.

Boodram describes their passage to the former British colonies of Guyana and Trinidad as indentured laborers: “No room for our comfort, so little to eat. Sickness take them, some die in defeat. The rights for their freedom, they lose on de ship.”

On their arrival in the West Indies, the great-great-grandparents of the Calypsocity clubgoers survived floggings, wretched quarters and vagrancy laws that tied them to plantations. They were, as emissaries from Abolition societies in England saw it, virtual slaves.

In Guyana today, about 50 percent of the population traces its history back to India, mainly the northern region of Bihar, where the Hindi dialect Bhojpuri is spoken. About 45 percent of the population is African. After being freed in 1833, black Guyanese fled the rural sugarcane estates for the town and never returned, while the Indians still remain in villages in large numbers.

For 26 years after independence, the Indian political party languished underground, after the CIA engineered the ouster of its socialist leader, Cheddi Jagan, and installed Forbes Burnham, head of the black political party, as president. Through the continued fiasco of rigged elections, he maintained a rule that systematically discriminated against the Indians in the civil service, armed forces and higher education. This and the terrible poverty the country slipped into during his regime led to a mass migration of Indo-Guyanese to the United States, starting in the early 1980s.

“They struggle for respect. They struggle for rights,” continues the Sharlene Boodram song, the first on her Indian Arrival cassette, distributed by Jamaican Me Crazy (JMC) records in Richmond Hill.

“One hundred and fifty years ago. Remember the fight. They salvaged a language, a culture alive. Through the voice of our ancestors cry out, Chalo” – “let’s go” in Hindi.

Boodram lives in Trinidad, and her pop-history tune tells the story of the first departure of Indians to her island nation in the Caribbean. The indentured servants brought with them a body of Bhojpuri folk songs: bawdy wedding songs, seasonal and birth songs and devotional hymns. As the Indo-Caribbeans lost their Hindi dialect over the decades, these songs became bastardized, with slurred and surmised pronunciations. They also became faster, as traditional Indian instruments (the harmonium, the tassa, dholak and tabla drums and the dandtal, a metal rod struck by a U-shaped clapper) blended with African-inspired bongos and congas. The music became known as chutney, after the hot relish used to spice up food.

In the past decade or two, chutney has co-opted the electric guitars and synthesizers of Caribbean soca to become a new hyphenated musical style. Chutney-soca blends the Creole dialect Indo-Caribbeans adopted from their African countrymen with bits and pieces of Bhojpuri Hindi, and it blends the musical instruments of Africa, India and the West.

“Chalo, Chalo,” Boodram gives the dance floor at Calypsocity a chant. In its rhythms, chutney contains the jolt of both Chalos in the Indo-Caribbean past – in one century, to the West Indies on ships curving around the Cape in Africa from ports in India, and in the next, to the United States on Boeings headed to Kennedy Airport from tarmacs in Guyana and Trinidad.
It’s the music of a double diaspora.