If, as DJs have circulated, Carnival 2013 was regaled by some 4,000 festival songs, then the dream of the whole lot has been Sapna, a bit of cross-genre music in which our culture is courted by a love story and treated with lavish respect and due regard. It is a mashup that evolved from many minds.
Subtitled the Dream, the chutney soca ballad, sung by Gerelle Forbes, and composed by Ray Holman and Fazad “Joe” Shageer, awakens the senses with a dose of reality. It alludes to a progressive shift in the political and cultural sensibility while digging out retro indifference or attitude to the realism of our times.
Shageer, a Muslim lyricist from Cunupia, married with four grown children, isn’t concerned with all that. The point being that his song doesn’t necessarily have an obligation to spew a moral, social, or political advice. The lyrics, as plain and productive as his rural lifestyle, deliver a deepening wisdom about sharing. There is nary a revelation. Shageer is more uptight with the clogging of our values in the underpinnings of the culture than possessed by a vision.
The storyline could very well meet the demands of a Bollywood flick. Or, closer to home, be stylized as a movie about intolerance, a nation’s unhappy fame.
A man leaves Penal with a dholak and dhantal for the capital, but on the way home gets lost and winds up in Laventille, where the people implore him to stay and join them in rhythm, in a sharing of their cultures.
In 2009, Shageer, who became a chutney writer so he could shunt songs about abuse and misuse aside, watched as the beginnings of Sapna unfolded as a four-letter alphabet in a schoolyard metaphor. Love is all we need, he thought, while a scene was playing out during recess at Brazil RC primary school, where he was visiting the principal, a longtime friend, following his hospital stay for a heart attack.
An Indian boy chewing on a bar of chocolate asks a Black girl for a sip of her soft drink. She proposes a trade instead. The heart failure that redirected Shageer’s outlook on life and values, flashes by.
“That moment played on my mind for a while,” Shageer recalled. “I saw there and then that if we share what we like, we become happier people.”
Two weeks later, Shageer has a dream. It is 2 am, but its power drives him to the computer, a vault for 900 or so song lyrics that he’s penned over the years. The boy and the girl join him at the keypad. They bring with them the sharing and the love. He revels in their delight and transforms the boy into the man from Penal.
The first lines would be about a man who got lost so a nation could find itself. Shageer’s Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) is controlled by disparate cultures, each locked into its own corner. With music as common ground, he’ll cut a path that could make a striking statement. It would be the journey.
Unexpectedly, at the end of the first chorus, a call comes in. An unknown voice on the other end, of a man referred by a friend in the business, needs some lyrics right away.
“I can’t. I’m busy doing a song,” Shageer says.
“So what you writing?” the doubtful voice shoots back.
Shageer reels off the gist of his story.
“Not in your wildest dream. You mad? You have to be dreaming.”
As the voice cuts away, Shageer continues on, the words bursting out as if from a fire hose.
“The call sent the song where it had to go,” he’s saying now in his downstairs garage, the surrounding bucolic countryside a showcase of natural beauty and the simplicity of the small farmer’s life. “By him saying ‘dreaming’ it started to look as impossible. And I started to look at what people would think.
De man leave Penal
Wit ah dolaq and dantal
Passing through central
On he way to de capital
On he way back down
He gets lost in town
Start to climb up de hill
And ended up in laventille
Nobody was expecting him
Dey just love the music he bring
Dey love de dantal and dolaq
Dey doh wah de man go back
The rhythm dey join together
Created ah marriage of culture
The music ready to explo
Spreading love through Trinbago
In Despers pan yard
Dem fellas really glad
Dey was just practicing
Say de man is ah blessing
Playing ah instrumental
Adding dolaq and dantal
And when dey turn around
If you see people getting down
He get ah hero welcome
When dey hear way he come from
Dey say de man is boss
Dey so glad he get lost
De people heart he filled
He felt loved in laventille
It show us how music great
With all the love that it create
When time to go home
He didn’t go alone
Ah rhythm section
He took to the southland
And when dey start to play
All the people breakaway
The music sounding sweet
Had them dancing on the street
Fazad “Joe” Shageer
click to listen to studio audio
But Shageer pressed on and walked the Laventille hill with the Penal man, chit-chatting about how he and his wife Savitri back in the day would climb this very staircase to haberdashery heaven, unspooling pants length and shirt cloth so the saga boys could preen and gallery their pride on weekends. How Savi picked up the slack when his heart slowed, Laventillians keeping an eye on her car as she trudged through the district in search of an honest dollar.
“Generally, people have love in their heart, and they appreciated her,” says Shageer, who believe his wife is a gift from God. “She’s the reason why tomorrow is important. She allows me to be me.”
And now Shageer hopes the song will serve as a useful reality check. That it’ll give back to the well, consummating a fusion of the dholak and the dhantal and the steelband, bridging cultures with schoolyard charm; the hybrids typifying the transition between not only the colors of music but also the understated bigotry of politics and the looseness of tolerance. Old-fashioned neighborliness.
Shageer’s belief that our collective emotional needs have been unfulfilled appears to contribute to the convincing nature of his dream - the details from his life and circumstances. Even though he had no ambition and laboured in the field, Shageer, who attended Couva Government Secondary, might have stood on the highest rung of humanity’s scale.
“I came from a poor family that was rich in love,” he says of life in St. Thomas village, Chaguanas, where he was born. “I always liked writing, especially rhyming. Not reading, though. It’d influence my head and confuse me. Everybody saying something different about the same thing.”
When Shageer was 18, he and a friend, Eddie Cumberbatch, did a “fast hustle” in a celery and lettuce garden that had a brisk turnover. Small talk, one of the great ideals in life, lightened the day and helped shaped the harmony of Shageer’s emerging talent.
Later, working at Ibrahim’s, an uncle’s record store on Prince Street, he met professionals like his idol Shadow, Mr. Simplicity himself.
Shageer’s career lifted off after he hooked up with Anthony Buckmire, a member of chutney band, Mellobugs, who was fishing for a writer.
In 2010, Buckmire introduced Holman to Shageer. “Bucky didn’t know about the song back then,” Shageer recalls.
“He and his wife invited me to their home,” Holman said. “She’s one of the nicest human beings you could hope to meet. After dinner, he gave me the Dream lyrics and said, ‘I hope I’m not burdening you, but I want you to write the melody.”
The lyrics arrived with a lot of opportunities for inventiveness in Pan City.
Shageer had a confession, though. Proper english doesn’t fit the chutney accent, meaning that Holman needed to follow the meter and intonation of Shageer’s culture.
“The man who plant the peas doesn’t eat all the peas,” he says oddly.
As unusual as it is to write music to lyrics, Holman sat in a chair in his kitchen, watching the sun come up through the window, a sapodilla tree looking in to his right, a pair of double seconds against a wall hoping for a play, “and right now I’m in Central.”
His composition doesn’t take into account the pan, and yet he must make it “musically interesting” to do the lyrics justice. After a week of tinkering on a guitar and the double seconds, Holman discerns the pattern of the journey through the lesson of the Dream, and invites Shageer and his wife to measure the work at his Woodbrook home.
“Oh, gosh, oh gosh,” Savitri gushed.
“I love the tune, I love the tune,” Shageer exclaimed.
Holman’s music allowed the lyrics to find a vehicle to find its destiny, is how Shageer would fully appraise it two years later. “I wanted to see T&T, not Laventille, Caroni, Scarborough, east, west, north and south, and that vision worked in his music.”
Thereafter, Holman’s first public collaboration with Shageer showcased his band, Ray Holman and Company, featuring seven instrumentalists and two singers, at a NAPA (National Academy for the Performing Arts) concert in Port of Spain. Holman surprisingly introduced him to the audience in a setup for the group’s performance of a Shageer song, One Chance, about HIV-AIDS.
“It was there [that] we realized how far his writing had come, with the love and recognition of the crowd,” Savitri said.
“It healed my heart,” Shageer said, “and it was nice, me having come from the chutney arena.”
“Nowhere in the song is there any mention of [the disease],” Holman said. “He crafted it that beautifully.”
From such cross-pollination, a dynamic friendship was forged, and it would take two years to heat to a malleable temperature. In the interim, Holman played a concert in Austin, Texas, and included the first verse and chorus of ‘Sapna (The Dream)’ in the playlist. The audience, comprising Americans and Trinidadians, gave its stamp of approval. A song so simple yet so deep, it said. At a clinic the next day, Trinis suggested doing a Panorama version.
From left - Peter Hackshaw, Fazad “Joe” Shageer, Junia Regrello and Ray Holman - photo by Judith Topping
At the time, though the piece was hailed as a tour de force, Holman had been advised by a Ohio doctor who had treated him for hypertension to retire from Panorama. But, following the 2012 festival, Junia Regrello, manager of Skiffle, the steelband renowned for its Coffee Street hit at the 1999 Panorama, pressed him to reconsider. He promised to slacken the tension of the panyard grind to appease Holman, who contacted former Starlift player Peter Hackshaw about transcribing the music in his computer. This nifty strategy would alleviate the nightly trek to San Fernando to spoon-feed the arrangement to players.
“Ray used the instruments to create the East Indian flavor and notations,” Regrello said on Panorama Friday night. “It is the most unique composition in the festival due to his approach and arranging style - the way he intertwines the chord structure and harmonization. You hear the melody throughout the song. It’s a beautiful piece for him to mark his 50th year in the Panorama.”
Skiffle on stage for Panorama
The work leaves a mark on 10-year-old Brittney Cato, too. An American, who relocated with her family when her Trinidadian father, Joseph, retired a few months ago, she plays tenor bass, dancing to and through the performance. “I like the runs,” she says. Brother Jordon, 12, plays the tenor and reads music.
“So many kids in the band, they make me feel so young,” Holman says. “It’s an extremely difficult piece, the phrasing, the harmonies, but they pull it off and the audience is moved.”
The song affects listeners in so many ways. Pan lover Kathleen Perott Topping lived in New York for 40 years. She suffers from a heart problem. During the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center she could barely move. A stranger, Paul Carris, helped her down a million flights of stairs, 71 floors in all. The rescue took 90 minutes. Carris is white.
Skiffle on stage
“It didn’t matter,” she’s saying now in the panyard, where her nieces are players. “We need each other, and that’s what Joe (Shageer) is communicating through Sapna (The Dream). I can’t believe I’m alive and able to enjoy this music.”
It’s the graveyard hour at Panorama finals. The results come in and anticipation is palpable. A day earlier, pan enthusiast Martin Daly had said that the Dream “might be too high for the judges.”
In the end, they voted Skiffle the fifth best steelband in the world, trumping high-echelon bands like Desperadoes, Invaders, Silver Stars and Fonclaire.
“People come up and say ‘This is surprising. This is Ray Holman?’ And I say ‘the new edition - the best is yet to come.”
Savitri: “I watched Joe go through the grind, and to see something like this is heartwarming.”
“Joe” Shageer: “I always wanted to have my song played on the big stage of T&T. I felt like I was dreaming.”
Seven-bass player Frederick Constantine: “Joe’s song will live on in the national consciousness. For real. I ain’t dreaming.”
Ray Holman probably never worked challenging harmonies like those he weaved in Sapna (The Dream), and his efficiency in stringing particular chords was borne out in the execution of the performance. If, as pan enthusiast Martin Daly suggests - that 40 points should be credited to a truly innovative piece played in a separate category of the competition - I’d have dismissed the second half of that statement entirely and pushed them higher up the ladder. Sure, Trinidad All Stars played a chutney calypso, Curry Tabanca, in the 1987 Panorama, but Sapna is a different song with all the colors of Phagwa and steel, a hybridization of multiple races and strains thereof. To wit, the flag. The nation, then.
Read Dalton Narine’s complete article on Panorama 2013
Click for more on Dalton Narine
Dalton Narine is a Miami writer and filmmaker, whose worldwide award-winning film Mas Man - The Complete Work, about Peter Minshall, the Trinidad Carnival artist and Olympic Games Opening Ceremonies legend, is available on home video as a three-disc set at masmanthemovie.com
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