One of the country's leading entertainers once decided to quit the calypso arena because of unfair targeting of Indo-Trinidadians by some of the bards. Samraj Jaimungal, 50, known in the entertainment industry as Rikki Jai, said those calypsonians doing so were seeking political gains not realising they were shooting themselves in the foot. He strongly believes that they should not seek to alienate a section of the national community with that level of disrespect.
In spite of feeling personally saddened by these attacks, he has resolved never to give up the on the calypso art form, and he intends to work harder to win the National Calypso Monarch title.
Mr Jaimungal, the list of the many hats you wear in the entertainment field is a lengthy one–calypsonian, chutney champion (six times), composer, reggae singer. How do you manage to successfully combine all those in one lifetime?
(Seated in the front seat of a car in the parking lot of a Tunapuna commercial bank on Thursday morning) Well, I grew up in Trinidad and Tobago which is one of the few countries in the world where cultural strains are fused and closely knitted together and as a boy growing up, my father and mother exposed me to the various cultural aspects in our beautiful country.
Q: You were one of the early exponents of soca chutney?
A: Yes. But Drupatee was the one who had broken down the door completely and when I saw her opening up that door, I literally ran in behind her (Indicating with his hands a sprinting gesture).
While growing up, I learned a lot of Baron's songs while going to Naparima College, all David Rudder songs, all Sparrow songs...I knew a few of Kitchener's songs, but Baron was the ultimate person I would look to and learnt every song.
I even practiced to sing like Baron, so much so that when I released my first song there was a competition on the radio station asking listeners to identify the singer, and every caller said it was Baron. I sat down (hands folded resting on his chest) and felt good because my mission was accomplished (smiles)...well, temporarily.
Did you ever regret leaving your day job to become a professional artiste?
Well before I get to that, once I went to Triveni that's where I got exposed to the big fetes in Port-of-Spain and worked with the big bands around that time...Charlie's Roots, Fire Flight, Kalyan, Sound Rev, Chandelier, Charlie's Roots...the heavy rollers.
Were you feeling out of place being the only Indo-Trini in that environment?
Nah! I was feeling good because as the only East Indian frontline singer at that time among performers like Ronnie Mac Intosh, KV Charles, Colin Lucas, David Rudder, Christopher (Tambu) Herbert, all those artistes, it was great. I was getting to grace the stage and that was a big thing for me. I was feeling very, very happy just to be in that glorified environment.
The turning point for me to become a recording artiste was at the Airports Authority with Triveni, Byron Lee, Taxi, and Drupatee made a guest appearance and when I saw her on that stage mashing up the place with Roll up De Tassa, I knew this was something I needed to do.So I decided to do some "detective work" like who wrote her song, where she recorded it, and I followed the same route. Yeah, Kenny Phillips was the one. GB wrote Sumintra and so the ball started rolling.
How about any regrets?
No. I don't regret leaving my job at Customs Division where I was the administrative officer and at 4 pm in October 1996, I submitted my resignation without looking back, and it was one ofthe lowest points in my career. I had no hit song, no job on the table, and I resigned a paying job (slightly smiling). But I decided there and then, I am not serving two masters at the same time because I realised that culture was the way I wanted to go.
The day job would not be able to provide me with what I wanted in life–one, freedom of expression; two, freedom to do what I wanted; and three, do what I love to do and live off it, and that is what I am doing from 1996.
Rikki Jai, you have not yet won the National Calypso Monarch title. Does it mean you have given up winning that prestigious title in the Big Yard?
Not at all. I made the finals up there in 2001 and that same year, I entered six competitions, made the finals of all six, and won four. Historically nobody else has done that, and I am the only Indo-Trinbagonian to ever make it to the Big Yard finals.
I have not given up on winning that title, it just happened that chutney soca began taking up a larger part of my life, a bigger part of my career.
People were calling for me in that aspect of our culture and when they hear Rikki Jai, they automatically think chutney. I love calypso music, it is dear to me, and look out for Rikki Jai to return to that Big Yard very soon.
Mr Jaimungal, the traditional calypso tents have been taking a financial beating within recent years through aggrieved Indo-Trini patrons boycotting those tents because of a handful of calypsonians who have been accused of performing distasteful and disrespectful calypsoes against them. Are those people right to do so...staying away from the tents?
I see nothing wrong with that, and I would certainly feel awkward if I were an Indo-Trinidadian paying my money to hear somebody disrespect me. It is like you telling me to pay and come to hear somebody insult me...I would be condoning that very unacceptable behaviour.
Don't calypsonians have some kind of poetic licence to...
I agree that calypsonians have a moral licence to sing about everything in the country, but it went a bit overboard so much so that calypsonains did not see that they were shooting themselves in the foot.
Once the East Indians started to stay away from the tents, the Syrians and others, the tents were unable to support themselves.
You ask Machel Montano and he would tell you that you need a cross section of the people to come to his shows because his fan base is wide and varied. So too in days gone by, there were a lot of of people who would come to the tent just to hear David Rudder, and that speaks volume for what people like in this country regardless of their race, creed or colour.
How do you feel personally when those fellows would come on stage and sing songs which people felt were derogatory to one section of our population?
I never liked it and being in the tent at the time, there were sometimes when I said to myself "You know you need to come out of it as well."
Because by being in it somehow you were condoning that kind of disrespectful behaviour.
I always like to look at things in a holistic manner without doing anything to offend anybody in the society as I want to attract everybody, I do not want to attract Indians alone. And I can safely say that when Rikki Jai walks down Frederick, George, Charlotte streets the amount of people who hail me out... Not only Indians. All the vendors know me and that is something I worked hard for, and all artistes should follow that road and not alienate one section of the population for political reasons.
Mr Jaimungal, why you have never delved into the hardcore political arena in your calypso repertoire?
I have stayed out because Trinidad and Tobago is a small country and everybody blood is near to their skin. I have worked to develop my name here and I think, I might be wrong, I am well liked by one and all, and we as a society are not yet that mature for artistes to openly support political parties as it is done in other parts of the world.
When this is done here, they brand you one time. You run the chance of going to Skinner's Park and getting "lick down" or somewhere else getting booed, because the maturity in our thinking is not just there.
I keep my political allegiance to myself and I give the people of Trinidad and Tobago, Rikki Jai, the entertainer.