• 24 Jun, 2024

Trinidad Governments have silenced biraha extempo singing

Trinidad Governments have silenced biraha extempo singing

Trinidad and Tobago’s extempo and biraha are two distinct but comparable styles of songs that have their roots in African and Indian traditions, respectively. In Trinidad, the African extempo is recognized and funded annually by whichever Government is in power, while Indian biraha is nothing more than a memory. Governments of TT are to blame, the UNC, but more so the current ruling PNM. They will finance one, not the other.  A classic case of institutional ethnic discrimination resulting in ethnocide.

Extempo is competitive picong, a teasing or satirical banter or duel in song. Participants are given a topic, and, on the spot have to deliver a song on said topic without any preparation. They are judged on their ability to think quickly and deliver a coherent and compelling narrative in rhyme, in minutes. Extempto often focuses on politics and contemporary scandalous events. Last year, an estimated US$.25 million in prize money was given to the top three winners of the National Freestyle, National Extempo and National Calypso Monarch competitions. Government supports these exclusively Afro artistes. Carnival as a whole got US$12 million in government funding.  

Meanwhile, biraha, a traditional form of folk poetry, popular in parts of India, is little known in Trinidad. It has been marginalized, suppressed and silenced by all Governments, past and present. Biraha involves the recitation of verses in a call-and-response format, with a lead singer and a chorus. Typically, sung or spoken in a melodious and rhythmic style, it is accompanied by musical instruments such as the dholak drum, harmonium or dhantal percussion rods. It expresses emotions like love, longing, and separation, and is sometimes performed at weddings, festivals or other cultural events.  Another genre of folk songs which have suffered the same fate as biraha is the gari, sexually suggestive songs with double entendre. SEE video: attached. 

According to the Indo-Caribbean Cultural Centre’s (ICC’s) website: “A centrepiece of Carnival is extempore songs. Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname have biraha, which, like extempore, is music composed on the spot. But unlike extempore, biraha has never been given recognition, support and promotion by the Government and the media. Biraha is a folk, grass-roots, working-class genre of music. It originated from the Bhojpuri-speaking areas of Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar, in India, from where our grandparents came. Biraha is of the religious and secular type, including commentaries on historical, current and political issues. Like the extempore, it has a fixed form and structure. The song rises and falls in pitch, often sung in a group, led by a lead singer, and is accompanied by nagara drumming and dancing.” SEE ICC webinar on biraha: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1171170430006163