Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Terry Gajraj, Guyana's Chutney Pride

Since I met him in 1998, the Saki Boom era, Terry Gajraj has changed very little. Before that initial meeting, I had never heard his name nor any of his songs. Yes, the same singer who has been dubbed Guyana Baboo after his famed Bangali Baboo in 1992. Shame on me, I know, for my lack of knowledge of this Guyanese pride and chutney music idol.

     Granted he'd been singing long before Bangali Baboo, and Saki Boom was following in its fame when Shah Rukh Khan and his entourage performed in Trinidad and he was bowled over by the "Boom Boom," song as he called it, I was in no way connected with the local music scene until I entered the media and became interested in the promotion of Indian culture. By then I was grappling for information about this young boy whom every one else seemed to know. And he wasn't the only one, I would later hear names of singers that I knew little about. Yes, more shame, since they lived in Trinidad, too.

     At that time, Terry, as I was informed, was a newcomer to the local stage and especially, chutney music in Trinidad. I was introduced to him backstage at Skinner Park, San Fernando. As I indicated earlier, it was my first meeting with the singer, but it would not be the last. I would meet him several times again, and at one time in Brooklyn, New York, where he performed at a high school. And again, when he would introduce me to his wife and their delightful son.

     As I approached him that night, I thought he looked shy, reserved, and wondered how he managed on stage. His smile was immediate, broad, and boyish. That has not changed, though his face has become fuller. He was slim, lean. with wide eyes. Dressed in a white three-piece suit, he appeared more conservative than the entertainer. His voice was soft, unlike that of the man who took the stage minutes later and his demeanor was immediately transformed. His  face was animated, his body supple and his voice carried across the park. The Guyana Baboo was singing Bangali Baboo. I must admit, I liked the song. His other performances were delivered with aplomb. The ladies in the audience, yep, young and old, made sure he knew how much they adored him. That, too, hasn't changed. My conclusion, he was indeed a stage performer with appeal.

     Recently, I happened to glimpse Terry in New York. His signature smile was what caught my attention, just before there were shouts of, "Terry, Terry, Terry," coming from every direction. He waved, shook hands, slapped shoulders. I was too far to be noticed, not that he would have recognised me.

      Terry Vivekanand Gajraj was born in Berbice, Guyana, in South America. His singing career started, possibly, before he could string a sentence together. And if his parents and grand-parents were anything like mine, he would have been learning to clap, dance and sing from the moment he could wave his hands. It is an unspoken rule in most Indian homes, babies are taught to appreciate song and music from an early age. Terry's, however, extended to the mandir where he sang bhajans alongside his grand-father, a pundit (Hindu priest). He learned to play the dholak, harmonium, dhantal, guitar and keyboard, from his father and uncles. In a home so rich with Indian culture one would have to be deaf to ignore it. Consequently, Terry lapped up every iota of it and used his passion for singing to establish an enviable position as a top rated singer in his chosen career. While growing up he experimented with different types of songs. Today, he sings Indian film songs, chutney, calypso, reggae, soca, chutney soca and ballads and writes his own compositions and commentaries.

     He graduated from a stage performer to a professional singer 19 years ago. In 2000, he released a 30-song double CD titled X, the roman numeral for the number ten, to mark his tenth year as a recording artiste and professional singer. Included in it were some of his biggest hits of that decade; Balay Roti, Na Na Re, Gimme Chatni, Saki Boom, Gori Mosey, Tun Tun Dance, Lilawattie, Come Leh We Go Sooky, etc. And more recently; Dance the Maticoor, Berbice River, Guyana Guyana, Hot Hot Choka, Richmond Hill, etc.

     Terry was enthralled with the late Sundar Popo's release of Nana and Nani, especially the mixing of Hindi and English lyrics. In an interview he had said that that was what he wanted to do: mix up the lyrics and the music. Since then he has been mixing it up for audiences in America, Holland, Australia, Canada, Spain, Suriname, England, and other countries of the world.

     Although he lives in Connecticut, he is still Guyana's most famous Indian cultural ambassador. He has performed alongside "too young to soca" badboy Machel Montano, calypso legends, Mighty Sparrow and Calypso Rose, soca band, Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, India's top music duo, Babla and Kanchan, chutney hot shots, Sundar Popo, Sonny Mann, Rikki Jai, Ramdeo Chaitoo, Anand Yankaran, among others.

     To date, he has recorded hundreds of songs in 29 albums and is working on his latest. Among his albums are: Terry Goes Bollywood, Blazing Chutney Dance Mix, Berbice River, Boom, Raga-Ding-A-Ling, Guyana Baboo, Voice of Guyana, Baita Gana, Soca Lambada, Terry Gajraj 2009, I Really Want a Larki.

     As of this writing, Terry was filming a new music video in Queens, New York. On Saturday October 3, he will begin recording his 2010 CD for release in November. The following day he will shoot a new video with Supertones Music Band for their latest DVD. Each performance in every country he visits earns Guyana props for producing such a talented and dynamic son. He is truly Guyana's chutney pride.

     The photographs included in this blog were taken from Terry Gajraj's website. Hopefully, he does mind me borrowing them. The first is of the singer performing solo and the second is with him and Calypso Rose. They performed at the Music Awards at Club Tobago, Queens, New York, recently. For more photos check out: http://www.terrygajraj.com

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bhojpuri and Chutney Music

Long ago, in traditional India society, women groups sang erotic songs at wedding and "sohars," special songs at childbirth. These bhojpuri folk songs were lewd and suggestive and provided a way to hand down traditions and customs to later generations.
Chutney music is a bhojpuri offspring. It was brought from the bhojpuri region in North India to Trinidad by indentured labourers. Arguably, chutney music's origin dates back to1845 when the first batch of indentured labourers, east Indians, from various regions of India landed on Trinidad soil. Their lives were centered around the sugar cane field. And many evenings were filled with drinking rum and singing nostalgic bhojpuri songs, folk songs indeginous to India, late into the night. As time went by the lyrics gradually changed to reflect the development of their new lifestyle.
As history dictates, chutney songs, were sang by women, and only at childbirth and  traditional Hindu weddings for "maticoor," Friday night,  and the "cooking" also known as the "farewell,"  Saturday night, before the wedding. Because of the erotic nature of the lyrics, which centered around what the married couple would do on the wedding night, men were not allowed. The women gathered with the dholak, dhantal and harmonium and performed raunchy songs about the couple. Sometimes they enacted skits and dressed up in costumes and stuffed cloth under their dresses as if pregnant.
The song and the music continued to evolve; rhythm and melody changed and by the late 1960s the traditional song had undergone a complete change, a new genre was taking shape. A blend of Hindi and English with a new melody, chutney music was cooking. It took on greater influence when the late Sundar Popo released his Nana and Nani local composition. From then it became revolutionary. Song after song was released by local artistes and by the mid 1970s chutney music was widely accepted as a new form of Indian music in Trinidad. Following in its wake was a new breed of dancers, chutney dancers. Songs were laced with eroticism and dances were equally as wild. Chutney culture was firmly entrenched in society. No longer a wedding and childbirth act, chutney music was on the airwaves and artistes were competing on stage for large sums of money in annual competitions. More...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Defining Chutney Music

An article, or rather, two articles in About.com, by Megan Romer has prompted me to clarify chutney music and soca. No offense to the writer, but I have read many articles that carry a misconception of what exactly is chutney music, and in this instance, the same goes for soca. Research usually clarifies such dubiousness. Chutney music must not be confused with chutney soca, nor should soca be confused with calypso and classical Indian music. These are completely different genres and researchers must invest time to know the difference.

Chutney music is a combination of traditional Indian music, soca and calypso …” states Romer in an article titled Chutney Music 101 (About.com). It is nothing of the sort. Authentic chutney music is a fast-paced rhythm produced by the dholak, dhantal and the harmonium, three traditional Indian music instruments. It's a beat of a different hand, like they say in tassa, and incorporates neither soca nor calypso, although some articles purport to that. In the early days the umuree was used, but not any more. As I explained in my welcome above, one has to experience chutney music to truly appreciate it.
Similarly, soca is a blend of calypso and Indian rhythms, indigenous to Trinidad and Tobago and not classical Indian music as stated in the Soca 101 article: "Soca is a blend of traditional calypso and classial Indian Music." There is a difference between classical Indian music and Indian rhythms in Trinidad. Classical Indian music originated in India as a religious artform to such dances as bharatnatyam, khatak and other similar dances. Trinidad has its own Indian rhythms composed by local music bands. And that combined with the calypso produces an infectious, party music called soca. With respect to chutney soca, it is a combination of soca and chutney music.
How do I know this? I was born in chutney country, my deceased grand-father having sang the same daily sitting on a phall spread on the freshly leepayed ground under the house, and me, a toddler trying to stick my fingers into the folds of the harmonium while he played and sang with his eyes closed. And of course, his companions gathered around him, one of them beating the dhantal, a straight steel rod  with another piece of steel shaped like a U, and yet another on the dholak, the oval-shaped instrument clamped beneath one knee, his finger, eight of them, slapping the goat skin covers to produce a sharp basslike sound. He too, at one time, had performed on Mastana Bahar, as a soloist, not placing but winning admiration from friends. And such is my connection with chutney, as well as chutney soca, calypso, soca, steel pan and everything cultural that originated in Trinidad.
Hopefully, many will read this excerpt and chutney music will be defined appropriately.

Nisha, Beenie Man and Chutney Dancehall

 As I have ascertained, Chutney Music is an evolving artform, and will continue to be as long as there are innovative artistes and fresh talent entering the industry. Not to mention hefty cash winnings at annual competitions. Take Nisha Bissambhar of Karma Music Band fame, she’s a versatile singer who dabbles in different aspects of music; chutney, chutney soca, calypso, reggae, Indian film song remixes with a chutney melody and lately another twist: dancehall chutney. Her 1999 release The Scorpion, a chutney song that gained popularity with every spin on the airwaves boosted her singing career. It was one of her best songs at the time. And she took it beyond cultural boundaries with Jamaican artiste, Beenie Man. They remade the song into a peppy dancehall chutney ditty. And that too rose to new heights. Not that they were the first to mix up the music, when you think of Sonny Mann and Denise Belfon with the Lotayla remakeMarchel Montano and Drupatie's Aap Jaisa Koi Mere and Real Unity (club mix), it's really the same concept, they all have dancehall rhythm and are still chutney soca songs.

Admittedly, Nisha has come full circle as a local singer. She has graduated from a shy little girl performing Indian film songs on Children of Mastana and then on Mastana Bahar to a carefree stage performer. Gone are the days when she stood on the spot and swayed slightly until the song was completed. She has learned to embrace the stage and the crowds that come with it. In fact, she is very much at ease rolling her hips and gyrating her body and making bold eye contact with her fans. As a lead singer with the family band, she has performed in America, Canada, Guyana and other countries of the world. It’s clear she will not stop there and will one day visit India and appease her desire. More on Nisha and Karma in future posts.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Nana and Nani: A Life in Song

It did not begin with Nana and Nani as some believe. The song being neither chutney nor chutney soca, but a local composition with an appealing combination of Trini dialect and Hindi by the late singing legend Sundar Popo, about how indentured labourers spent their free time on the sugar cane estates. After a hard day's work in the cane fields, they knocked drinks, "white one," as explained in the song, and sang, until their eyes glazed, speech slurred and they staggered. The song would become the defining factor in a new genre in the evolution of music in contemporary Trinidad.
     The year was 1971, he, a round-faced young man, 27, debuted on the weekly television talent programme, Mastana Bahar, with his actors, Nana wearing a dhoti (loin cloth) and riding an old bicycle with a shiny bell and Nani with orhni on her head. They portrayed every stanza of the song while he sang to music by Harry Mahabir and the BWIA Indian Orchestra.

     It's incredible how certain memories have a way of embedding themselves deep inside the brain. Sundar Popo's appearance on TTT Channel 2 that day was one that got stuck in mine. I remember nothing else of the show, except the hilarious skit portrayed on stage, and of course, the lyrics since everyone, after that, sang what they could recall of it, daily. Moreso, because Mastana Bahar was a programme the whole family gathered to watch and lapped up every second like they were culture depraved, given that that and Indian Variety, with Pat Mathura and Moen Mohammed alternating weekly, were the only east Indian shows on television at the time. My grand-parents, aunts and uncles, it was a large extended family, laughed, some gripped their bellies, during the performance. That's what drew me to focus on the television screen, curious about what had big people laughing like crazed monkeys. Twenty-years ahead, the memory would be revived, when I meet the singer for the first time. The name had eluded me but the melody had lingered in the recesses of my mind. His grasp was relaxed when we shook hands. He was aloof. He replied to questions with few words, cordial. I was ashamed, I had not heard any of his other songs besides Nana and Nani. I needed to catch up, fast.  
     The moment the song left his lips it had created an awareness among local artistes, who had noted the public's appreciation for the local composition and Sundar's immediate popularity after that. It prompted an experiment with a combination of the two genres, the melody of chutney music and the rhythem of soca, the result: an infectious uptempo rhythm that swept across the local music industry like a storm racing inward. While Sundar refined his local compositions with a fast paced chutney melody other artistes composed chutney soca songs.
To be cont'd.