Good Wining: Dancing and Cultural Identity

“She had no timing; she was East Indian.” * 

The truth is good wining is really subjective. One person’s perceived expert daggering is another person’s “leave me alone nah.” I always like to think that I can tell where people are from — by their wining. In Caribbean parties, when a groin stealthily presses against me, fusing its oscillations into mine, sometimes I’ll dance back and afterwards, whirl around to guess triumphantly, “You’re Jamaican, aren’t you?” Sometimes I am wrong, but I am usually correct. I can tell a Trini wine too. Boy, can I tell a Trini wine. We fit like puzzle pieces riding a soca rhythm that we both know intimately. Let me restate that, a good Trini wine.

There are good wines and bad wines and across cultures, we can find different wining styles. Vincentians don’t wine like Trinbagonians or exactly like Bajans. None of this is inherently better or worse. It all depends. I like to lead and set the pace. I hate to be juggling with a dancing partner over leading a wine. Sometimes, our rhythms don’t match up. Sometimes people are off beat. And a hot mess. Sometimes, it’s all Mean Girls-esque like, “You can’t wine with us.”

So, how do we end up deciding what “good” wining looks like? It’s not so much that the video lead can’t wine in Olatunji’s recent “Wining Good” video, but when her wining then gets filtered through the peculiar lens of race and culture, some interesting things start revealing themselves. Judging by youtubers, there is plenty of that occurring with recurring echoes of this Indian girl can’t wine good forming a significant portion of the criticisms of the video. Inside of Trinidad and Tobago, cultural anxieties about race and nationality get well wrung out and tellingly signified inside of soca and calypso. Olatunji himself, is part of a rich lineage of black and Afro-descendant Trinbagonian men singing about wooing, seducing, loving, and or paying homage to a certain East Indian woman.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, wining often symbolizes sexual ownership and alternately or concurrently, sexual agency — the question of whether wining itself, is inherently, primarily, sexual, is another issue altogether. I think it can be whatever you want it to be. The exact same movement can constitute a polite wine you might deliver once then hustle off and extract yourself from it. It can mean nothing. Or it can mean something. The same movement can also be incredibly sensual when both parties want to take it there.

Before Olatunji, there was Mighty Sparrow’s “sexy Marajhin“, Shurwayne’s “East Indian beauty” in “Don’t Stop“; Scrunter’s “Indian gyul beating bass pan coming up in Despers“; Preacher’s “Dulahin“; Moses Charles’ “Indrani“; Machel Montano (with Drupatee) in “Indian Gyul“; and of course, curry songs like Xtatik’s “Tayee Ayee” and Mighty Trini’s classics about “Indian obeah” or the curry and the woman who packed up and left him. I would also classify Second Imij’s enduring “Golo” as firmly within this trope too, where the golo, “this Indian beti living Caroni”, takes a firm hold of poor Uncle’s sensibilities under some questionable means. Or, we could just say that Uncle went quite tootoolbay over his Indian woman.

Conversely, Indian artistes very rarely sing about or employ Afro-descendant amours in soca, chutney or calypso. Black and African descent female soca women sing about Indian men far less than the men sing about Indian women. Denise “Saucy Wow” Belfon’s “Indian Man” and Destra’s “Come Beta” are notable exceptions. Drupatee Ramgoonai burst onto the soca scene significantly claiming her space in a male and Afro descendant space. Drupatee could not  have done so singing about how well a black man wined, I imagine. Absolutely could not. When Rikki Jai enters the soca arena, fittingly, the mango of his eye is a lovely Indian girl named “Sumintra” whose Indianness, in fact, is strongly mitigated by telling Rikki “I am a Trinbagonian” and “hol’ de Lata Mangeshkar, gimme soca.” She exists in song in sharp contrast to widely held local ideas of Indian nationalism.

But before we get into stereotypes of Indians can’t wine, this all warrants some contextualization. What does it mean if Indians supposedly can’t wine but Indian women get praised for doing exactly that (and well!) in song. How are the men singing then upending cultural stereotyping, challenging, negating and further creolising images of Indian female identity? In contrast to what? Most importantly, I wonder how Indian women themselves interpret these assertions? Indian women definitely get fetishized in song. Their looks get exemplified in song in ways that also objectify. Like “spicy” Latinas, Indian women often get approximated to the flavors and tastes of curry and its attendant spices. Sometimes, the food itself is a metaphor for the departed Indian love.

But under the surface, actual racial anxieties and tensions are being explored. The idea that Indians only date/marry other Indians is partially stereotype but rooted in actual observable behavior. If I go to an Indian West Indian party in Florida (yes, they exist) — there are mainly, nearly exclusively Indians inside. But there are no specifically black soca/West Indian parties on the other hand: only parties where you might see more of all types of people. I know and see very few black and Indian couples and Indian women with black men is a far more common pairing. I have also dated an East Indian and it may not have happened at all if I was in Trinidad still, maybe. I can’t say for sure but we definitely felt like a unicorn in primarily Indo-West Indian spaces, so rare was it to see an Indian Trini man with this dark-skinned, kinky haired African descent Trini.

Cultural anxieties about and between East Indians and Afro-descendant Trinidadians certainly exist and have existed historically. It’s true: “The cultural divide was deep” [1] and “there is a long history of mutual suspicion and conflict between Trinidad’s two most numerous ethnic groups” [1].

Additionally:

Even before its inception, therefore, built in the very conceptualization of indentured immigration was a constructed antagonism between the African-derived and Indian populations. Munasinghe points out: “[W]hen East Indians entered Trinidad, a discourse deriding the moral, mental, and physical attributes of the Negro was already in place for Indians to learn, and later to use, for their own ends” (2001, 64). The new Indian labour force had effectively dismantled the existing labour force’s bargaining power. The atmosphere was ripe with mutual distrust, condemnation, and antagonism, but it was further exacerbated by the financing provisions laid down by the colonial government. In Trinidad, almost two-thirds of the cost of East Indian immigration was paid from export duties on products and commodities produced by existing labour populations, and the remaining portion was covered by public revenue.

And so it was:

In the final days of slavery in the British Empire, seeds of future dissensions between the “Indian” and the “African” were sown in the shape of mutually derogatory stereotypes. Myths of the lazy African and the hardworking “coolie” circulated freely; on one hand, they were deployed to safeguard against worker solidarity and, on the other, created conditions that would justify importing foreign labourers in large numbers. In the 19th century, thus were created two abiding categories–the East Indian and the creole–culturally mediated and diametrically opposed to each other. [2]

Sexually, similar anxieties clearly held firm, informed by all these pre and post colonial prejudices. Obviously, if you were someone who was prone to linking wining to sexual prowess, then you said, a certain someone in particular couldn’t wine, you obviously shot perceptions of his or hers sexual performance straight to hell. Likewise, if you deemed wining a national pastime and connected it to performative representations of Trinidadian nationality, then a stereotype about a people not wining, and not being able to, further leaves them on the fringes of that identity. Or rather, it can serve that purpose in some ways, on a systemic level. Hetero, cismen (and others) of all races often employ and display ideas of ethnic/racial and cultural ownership of women. Rooted in patriarchy, constructs of masculinity and domination, some men obsessively lay claim to women they feel should belong to their race and only their men.

That’s why some black men get mad at black women who date interracially and  some Indian men are tripping the hell off online about this video. (But the men can always do whatever they want it seems.) Stereotypes about black sexuality and Indian sexuality are also up in the mix. Black men who sing about Indian women ply on the fears, stereotypes and mores of a society steeped in the after effects of colonialism and indentureship. I was once told by a black Jamaican young man studying at UWI, St. Augustine that a sexual rite of passage for all Jamaican men involved sleeping with an Indian woman in Trinidad. When I dug deeper into why, he gave answers touching on racial and sexual hierarchies of attractiveness and perceived (in)access, coupled with some kinds of (alleged) perceptions of unfettered sexual exploration.

Indian women grapple with sexual stereotyping too. Dating and or marrying black men completely refuted what Munasinghe calls “a discourse of purity” that became tightly woven into Indian identity in Trinidad thus, “the articulated differences between the “coolie” and the “creole,” the East Indian and the African, created through the machinations of colonial discourses throughout the 19th century, resulted in reified categories so different that it was inconceivable for them to mix. A discourse of hierarchy deployed by a global imperial ideology translated into a discourse of purity in the plantation context. Thus to be Indians in the colonial plantation context was to be “pure” unadulterated Indians, reservoirs of an unchanging cultural memory.”

We can cling to the familiar, eh? Black men singing about Indian women assert that they can do so — possibly or actually attain an Indian lover; they do so for themselves, problematically and otherwise, to boast that they have, to impress with ideas of sexual prowess, to complicate ideas of black Trini cultural hegemony and for every dougla who is the product of such a union. Underpinnings of the Black Brute can definitely rear up too when you hear someone going off about Indian and African interracial dating, even in Trinidad. This is in sharp contrast to constructs of Indian man masculinity (even if that construct is not accurate, it is there). In colonial Trinidad and today, this served a role in further driving wedges between the two groups.

But about that girl in the video though. She could wine. She wines like a Trini. A Trini Indian.

References and very informative further reading

[1] Quote is from Callaloo or Tossed Salad?: East Indians and the Cultural Politics of Identity in Trinidad by Viranjini Munasinghe

[2] “Exploring an “old verbal ambiguity”: East Indian ethnicity and identity in Trinidad and the British Caribbean,” Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, by Amitava Chowdhury

* See African and Indian in love

Photo credit: IzaTrini on Flickr

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