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With the Grand Finals of the 2014 edition of the Lotto Plus Chutney Soca Monarch competition looming in the horizon, it’s about time – finally – to briefly recap the semi-final round, highlight some controversies that emerged in the aftermath of the semis, and make some predictions for tomorrow’s highly anticipated event. It was a heatedly contested semi-final round on the night of February 1 at Rienzi Complex, Couva, where most contenders brought their ‘A games,’ which required them to perform their songs as if it was the final round, complete with the works (dancers, costumes, pyrotechnics, etc.) Because there have been quite a number of very good chutney soca tunes this season, there was little choice in the matter. Unfortunately, some artists chose to ‘play it safe’ and this ruined their chances of advancing to the finals. There was a record number of soca artists in the semis this year, as well as a mix of more ‘traditional’-sounding chutney soca (chatak matak) and the popular groovy chutney soca. Several chutney soca artists recorded duets with soca artists and most of them appeared on stage, an unprecedented move for a semi-final round. It was almost certain that heavyweights like Hunter, KI, Ravi B, Rick Ramoutar and Rikki Jai would have made it through semis, so no surprises there. We have five ladies in the finals, four of whom are performing the hi-energy, chatak matak-style chutney soca: Hemlatha Dindial, Nadia Madoo, Kavita Maharajh and Reshma Ramlal. Interestingly, Hema and Kavita stirred some bacchanal when it was purported that: 1) Hema’s tune, "Ho Gaye," was actually a bhajan. While it was, indeed, based on a poem by the ancient 13th century mystic and Indian saint, Kabir, it has been reinvented in song, over time, by many Indian musicians, sometimes in the style of a bhajan. In fact, Hema's father, Basdeo 'Lappo' Dindial, sung it in the local Indian classical singing tradition (which itself was based on many religious themes and tales) that once thrived in Trinidad. Sat Maharaj, General Secretary of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, the orthodox Hindu organization of Trinidad, made the claim and, apparently, if the organization objects to a particular song, the artist in question is prohibited from performing it. Chutney soca has never bowed to the pressures or the whims of the Maha Sabha, so this development is unparalleled in Chutney Soca Monarch history. Maharaj has claimed that performing the song on the public chutney stage is ‘disrespectful,’ and it ‘prostitutes’ and ‘denigrates’ holy Hindu texts, even though the poem have never been universally-accepted as prescribed scripture. It was announced that Hema would perform her power chutney song, “Boatride,” for the Finals to avoid disqualification. 2) While in agreement with Sat Maharaj, Rishi Mahato, a chutney soca producer and rival of the other top producer in the industry, Big Rich, announced that Kavita Maharajh "performed a song which was performed by local chutney singer Sam Boodram" but, upon investigation, George Singh (promoter of the competition) has stated that "she owns the rights to that song and it will be allowed". The tune in question, "Bowjiya," is a traditional folk melody. In fact, Rakesh Yankaran's popular hit song, "Mousie (Rasoiye Halwa)," uses it. Mahato's comments are extremely surprising, since his productions can be said to be ‘chutney soca versions’ of folk melodies originally brought from the Bhojpuri-speaking regions of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in India. It really is no surprise that Maharajh's song might sound similar to one performed by Boodram, or even Yankaran, because its melody is drawn from the same musical sources from which chutney and chutney soca derived. Interestingly, it is very ironic that Mahato is raising objections against two artists who did not record with him but Big Rich... To round off the ladies is Sally Sagram, who hopes that her groovy “Handy Man” will make her the first female Chutney Soca Monarch but the real treat might actually be the number of (first-time) soca artists in the finals: Blaxx, Crazy, Olatunji and Snakey of Mayaro The Band. They bring an excitement to the competition and it will be interesting to see how they place. Raymond Ramnarine, the defending Monarch, announced that he would not seek to retain the title, given his prize money troubles. He has been reassured that the outstanding amount will be rewarded but his decision has been final. That means that we’ll be crowning a new Monarch come Sunday morning! Ravi B performs first, a tough spot for any contestant in Trinidad Carnival competitions. Given the immense popularity of “Bread,” though, it is possible that he can regain the throne he won in 2010. Rikki Jai, who has tended to perform towards the end of the competition, is fourth this year, so that may or may not work to his advantage. We’ll see if he gets the crowd to ‘clap their hands’. The competition heats up toward the end where we have several chatak matak tunes amongst the groovy chutney soca. It will be interesting to see what Nadia Madoo and Hema do, followed by a showdown between the “Bull (Kenneth Supersad) and the wife who “Runaway” (KI). Kavita, performing last, might just have the upper hand to give her – and chatak matak chutney soca – a strong placing. Text voting is going to matter and it’s definitely a popularity contest when it comes to the Chutney Soca Monarch. Lines open before Ravi B even hits the stage, so we’ll expect to see the heavyweights place well, despite any mediocre performances. As we wait to see what the night holds, including a special tribute to the late Rajin Dhanraj – a young chutney soca artist who sadly passed away late last year – have a listen to some of the semi-final performances to get a taste of what to expect (and more) later tonight.