To Their Own Beats



Although the recent trial of Pussy Riot has brought the role of musicians as social activists back into the limelight, music and musicians have a long history of commenting on political regimes and providing a voice for an oppressed population. Still, when commenting on Pussy Riot, Putin’s government has invoked claims that Western critics do not fully understand their need to protect “millions of Orthodox Christian believers and people adhering to traditional concepts of morality.” With recent protests throughout the Middle East in response to the Innocence of Muslims, people may be more tempted to rethink how much discretion they are willing to give a government like Putin’s. More often than not however, the “clash of civilizations” or cultural integrity argument acts as a justification to maintain control over a group—mainly women.


For Pussy Riot, their punk prayer performed in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savoir was a clear indictment of the politicization of the Church and its extensive ties with the Putin regime, but also of the bastardization of religion as a way to keep the country’s population—in particular its women—oppressed. Arguably it was the band’s alignment and self-association with the traditional image of the “Mother of God,” and conviction that she “rallies with us” rather than their outspoken criticism of the regime that was really revolutionary. There is no telling what will happen to these women—besides prison time—but if we can learn anything from women who have come before Pussy Riot, it is that these oppressive moments are fire starters.


Like Pussy Riot did in Russia, women like Drupatee Ramgoonai in Trinidad and Tobago and Odile “Kiki” Katese in Rwanda used traditional symbols and performances to reclaim their place in the public and bring a new voice to women. Along the way, these women not only redefined what it means to be a woman in these countries—they created images that redefined their entire society.


When Drupatee Ramgoonai emerged as the Queen of Chutney Soca in the late 1980s, she introduced a new vision of Trinidad and Tobago to an international audience. Taking chutney, which is said to have evolved from traditional mathkor1 performances, and combining it with soca, the “soul” of the Afro-Caribbean Calypso, she created a musical style that captured the voice of a generation that rejected Mother Africa and Mother India for Mother Trini. Meanwhile in Rwanda, Odile “Kiki” Katese provided women with a creative outlet to help them with their recovery ten years after the 1994 genocide and to celebrate women’s strength in rebuilding Rwanda. But before they could take on these projects, both Ramgoonai and Katese had to overcome criticisms about the sanctity of their culture and their place within society.



Queen of Chutney Soca

When Drupatee Ramgoonai went public with Chutney Soca in 1987, Trinidad was at the height of a recession that had set the country back from its economic boom in the previous decade. With unemployment holding steady around 20%, the economic disparities between the Indian and African communities of Trinidad reignited old tensions, manifesting in campaigns railing against the “douglarization”2 or creolization of culture. The history of resentment and general mentality of separate but equal was not limited to economic or political elements. The two communities’ lack of interest in sharing a national identity also played out in the island’s music, primarily through the popular calypso songs, which served as a vehicle for the frustrations of Trinidad’s working class Afro-Caribbean communities.


Over the years, calypso declined in popularity; efforts to revive it by linking it with popular soul music failed. Instead, Ras Shorty I (also known as Lord Shorty) took the soul of calypso and infused it with Trinidad’s Indian influences. The result of this initial interaction was “sokah.” Although it is now seen as “soca,” the “soul of calypso,” according to Ras Shorty I, the man credited by some with inventing the style,3 the spelling was originally sokah to acknowledge its Indian musical influences, which were becoming increasingly popular in the region. Unfortunately, as douglarization and creolization were strongly discouraged on both sides, Ras Shorty faced criticisms for “acting Indian4 or trying to “‘Indianize’ the music.”5


At the same time that Shorty was being criticized for introducing Indian influences to calypso music, Sundar Popo was transforming traditional chutney music into something that could be accepted by mainstream audiences. By introducing Western guitars and instruments, Popo took chutney from a music that was associated with traditional Indian ceremonies, and made it more accessible. Before this, chutney’s popularity had primarily been a way of connecting the widespread Indo-Caribbean communities in the region, but now as Popo used it as a vehicle to translate Trinidadian folklore, it became a way of connecting with the national community. Popo’s impact on chutney is undeniable, and his role in introducing this music to the mainstream in Trinidad played a crucial role in setting the stage for Ramgoonai’s chutney soca fusion. Still, while Popo may be the King of Chutney, it was Ramgoonai that solidified its place in Trinidadian pop culture by redefining the style and ultimately bringing it to the national stage during the 1996 Carnival.


Yet, while influential leaders such as Satnarayan Maharaj, the Secretary General of the largest Hindu organization in Trinidad, Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, the acceptance of chutney on a national level was appreciated, but there were still concerns about the obscenity. The lyrics, which were often sung in Hindu and thus could not be understood by a general audience, were criticized for being obscene because they discussed vulgar topics, like women’s sexuality. Many of the themes Ramgoonai incorporated into Chutney Soca, however, mirrored those of its calypso counterpart. The real point of contention was Ramgoonai’s use of the traditional music to address the role and marginalization of women within her community.


Rather than using chutney as a way of educating younger generations—in particular young girls—on what was to be expected of them, Ramgoonai used it to address very real issues within society and as a way of liberating herself from the idealized image of an obedient Hindu woman that conservative groups were fighting to maintain. Further frustrating conservative groups within the Hindu community was the issue of the scantily clad chutney dancers. In general, the participation of women in chutney festivals “indicate[d] some ‘loss of self-control;’”6 the women who participated were regarded as lower class. In particular, Ramgoonai was deemed “immoral and disgusting” and considered a “thorn in the side of the East-Indian community.”7


To distance themselves from Ramgoonai and the transformed chutney music, some conservative groups within the Hindu community began to attack the genre itself. Although Trinidadian audiences began to accept chutney as “authentic Indian classical music,” some within the Indian community dismissed it as “merely Indian folk music” that “required no skill.”8 The implication being that it was not truly representative of the Hindu community and therefore was not indicative of any decline in the morals or values of the community. Essentially, it was a contrast to the truly feminine and classical mathkor, with which chutney is often associated.


Comparing chutney and mathkor and focusing on the relative “obscenity” of the former were ultimately just a way of redefining the lines of “us versus them.” The rise of chutney in the mid-Nineties also coincided with the “acceptance of Indian-Trinidadian political leadership”9 and undoubtedly, conservative groups wanted to identify what it meant to be “Indian” in Trinidad to capitalize on these political gains. By using Ramgoonai as an example of the immorality and decay of communal life that would occur if the douglarization of the communities continued, these groups could reinforce their influence over the Hindu community and maintain their base of support.



The Drummer

For Odile “Kiki” Katese, the politics of traditional gender roles also came into play as she attempted to provide women with a creative outlet that would help them through their recovery and celebrate their strength in rebuilding Rwanda ten years after the 1994 genocide. According to Katese, she chose drumming because it was something women had never done before and she wanted to prove to women that they could continue to take on these challenges, and show women in a new light to rest of society. Drumming was the perfect medium, since it had traditional been limited to men, and women were excluded based on the assumption that they were “not strong enough” to handle the instrument. Yet, even with the government support, which let the women “go ahead with their crazy thing,” Katese heard complaints that she was “perverting Rwandan culture.”


When Katese proposed the idea of an all female drumming troupe, Ingoma Nshya (“New Drum”), in 2004 there was little—if anything—in Rwanda that had not been “perverted” by the genocide. Although a decade had passed, the country was very much in the process of recovering. Social structures and relationships had been destroyed; even religious institutions had been implicated in the violence. Essentially, any sense of “normalcy” had been erased. The lack of context for what was “normal” even extended into familial structures, where many women found themselves taking on the responsibilities of their husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons. Out of necessity, gender roles were becoming obsolete, allowing women to act as the head of the household, making sure that family businesses continued to run and keeping the family together.


The new roles and responsibilities that women acquired during the genocide were a stark contrast to the traditional roles that were being emphasized and exaggerated in the lead-up to the conflict.10 But while women’s willingness and ability to take on these additional burdens helped ensure that there was something to return to after the fighting, the appreciation for their actions varied.


On one hand, the nature of the conflict and the division along ethnic lines implied the “defeat” and marginalization of a group of men that returned home to find their roles already filled by women. Reclaiming a sense of masculinity required the rejection of women’s prominence within society and women’s participation in traditionally male activities. On the other hand, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) government was faced with the task of reintegrating two competing groups within society and the additional burden of trying to balance its support for women’s equality, to ensure that all Rwandans played a part in the reconstruction, which had been a relatively consistent part of its pre-genocidal program.


The treatment of women was not just influenced by their performance of appropriate gender roles; instead, it was also influenced by the way in which these activities were consistent with the goals of the patriarchal structures of state and society. Eventually, with the establishment of the Gacaca courts, the government found a way of compromising these two goals: they were able to create a space for women to participate in the reconciliation process in a way that emphasized women’s roles in preventing conflict.11 Although the presence of women on the traditional grassroots courts was viewed as a significant gain in the transitional process, and a first in Rwandan history, it simultaneously projected stereotypical images of women as comforting, forgiving, and maternal.12 Putting women on the courts allowed the government to show support for women—a group they needed to include in the rebuilding of the country—while also creating a sense of a restorative judicial process, rather than one based on retribution or revenge.


As a result, while the comforting presence of women in the transitional justice process was conducive to the goals of reconciliation and recovery, many women continued to face abuse and discrimination. Even more troubling, for the advancements that were being made politically, many women failed to enjoy any of the benefits or any sense of empowerment. In fact, even six years after the genocide, 46 percent of uneducated women in Rwanda still “found it appropriate to be physically punished for venturing outside without telling the husband…[and] 36 percent of women with primary education [found abuse acceptable].”13 When Katese created Ingoma Nshya a few years later, these were the obstacles she was trying to overcome by promoting and celebrating the independence and strength of Rwandan women.


The burden placed on women to represent the face of forgiveness not only reinforced a sense of passive femininity though, it also brushed aside the pain and abuse that these women had experienced and their own need for a sense of comfort, security, and closure. According to Katese, when she looked around, she saw roads and schools being rebuilt, but the people were just walking corpses. The purpose of Ingoma Nshya, then, was also to begin the process of “rebuilding a human being.” And by inviting women from both sides of the war to come together in the drumming troupe, Kiki offered Rwandan women “the opportunity to re-learn the art of living together and facilitates the healing process… [as the] drums help the women reconcile with themselves.”


Despite the initial obstacles, Katese gained the support of the government and moved forward with Ingoma Nshya. Six years later, at a panel discussion at the Atlantic Council, the Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Louise Mushikiwabo used the fact that young women were becoming drummers as a sign of the progress the country had made since the genocide. According to Minister Mushikiwabo, girls were becoming more confident and performing better in school, women were talking openly about what they could bring to society, and were even “bragging” about what they could do for their communities. Even more striking though, was the “wave of inspiration… a level of excitement and creativity,” exhibited by the younger generations that had been missing since the generation.


Women, like those in Ingoma Nshya, were becoming role models in Rwanda. The success of the drumming troupe not only demonstrated women’s independence, it provided a new view of women’s ability to lead the reconciliation process in an empowering way. Ultimately, Ingoma Nshya carried these messages of empowerment and the ability of women to redefine themselves through the arts to neighboring Burundi, as well as to South Africa. Further, the troupe has performed on stages around the world, showing that their culture could become a tool of empowerment, rather than an excuse to contain them.



The Stage is Set

That women could create their own narrative and help pave the way for their communities was the message that Ramgoonai was trying to distribute when she introduced Chutney Soca. As she explained in an interview, the fusion of Chutney with Soca was also in part because of the popularity of calypso—she saw the opportunity to introduce Trinidadian culture to an international audience by bringing together these two styles. Despite the criticisms, her success and ability to bring Chutney Soca to the point where it was accepted on the national stage during the 1996 Carnival ultimately symbolized the “harmonization” Trinidad needed between its two largest communities.


For both Ramgoonai and Katese, their efforts challenged the control that cultural and religious groups and leaders had exercised over their communities and validated the presence of an entire population that struggled to find their place. Today, Chutney Soca is celebrated in its own annual festival, and Ramgoonai still reigns as its queen, while Ingoma Nshya has participated in festivals around the world and has worked to empower women around Africa. And while Pussy Riot has just filed an appeal to their two-year sentence, Prime Minister Medvedev’s call for their release and the Orthodox Church’s urging for leniency, suggests that their impact is already being felt—even by Putin, whose emotional response to their sentencing belies the confidence of a man past his prime.






1. Mathkor is an “important ritual” performed by women during ceremonies, such as weddings, and is considered to be part of the “preservation and continuity of tradition from the Indian ancestral land,” and was primarily performed by the followers of the Sanatan Dharm. For more see: Tina K. Ramnarine. Creating Their Own Space: The Development of an Indian-Caribbean Musical Tradition (Barbados: University of the West Indies Press, 2001): 101.

2. Douglarization derives from “dougla” which is a term for “someone of mixed Indian and African heritage, and apparently derives from the Hindi word for ‘bastard.’” Belinda Edmondson. “Public Spectacles: Caribbean Women and the Politics of Public Performance,” Small Axe (March 2003): 1-16.

3. The origins of soca are actually a fairly contested narrative, from the individual to the time frame. For a good description see: Gordon Rohlehr. “Calypso Reinvents Itself,” in Carnival: Culture in Action: The Trinidad Experience, ed. Milla Cozart Riggio (New York: Routledge, 2004).

4. From interview in “Chutney in Yuh Soca.”

5. Louis Regis. The Political Calypso: True Opposition in Trinidad and Tobago, 1962-1987 (Barbados, West Indies: University of the West Indies, 1999): 121.

6. Ramnarine, 117.

7. Shalini Puri. “Race, Rape & Representation: Indo-Caribbean Women and Cultural Nationalism,” Cultural Critique (Spring 1997): 119-163.

8. Ramnarine, 116.

9. Ibid.

10. Militarization of gender in anticipation of conflict perpetuates idealized gender roles, M. Caprioli, “Primed for Violence: the Role of Gender Inequality in Predicting Internal Conflict,” International Studies Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 2 (2005): 161-178.

11.  Peace Uwineza and Elizabeth Pearson. Sustaining Gains in Rwanda: The Influence of Indigenous Culture and Post-Genocide Politics (Hunt Alternatives Fund, 2009): 15.

12. Ibid.

13. United Nations. The World’s Women 2010: Trends and Statistics (United Nations Press, 2010): 137.



Caribbean, Gender, Pussy Riot, Rwanda, Women's Rights