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Sapna - The dream of Carnival
If, as DJs have said, Carnival 2013 was regaled by some 4,000 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 as sung by Gerelle Forbes, was composed by Ray Holman and Fazad “Joe” Shageer.
The lyrics are as plain and productive as the rural lifestyle of Shageer—a Muslim lyricist from Cunupia, married with four grown children—and deliver a deepening wisdom about sharing. The storyline could very well meet the demands of a Bollywood flick. Or, closer to home, be stylised 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 aside songs about abuse and misuse, watched as the beginnings of Sapna unfolded 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.
“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.
Unexpectedly, at the end of the first chorus, a call comes in. An unknown voice on the other end 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.”
“The call sent the song where it had to go,” Shageer says now. “By him saying ‘dreaming,’ it started to look impossible. And I started to look at what people would think.”
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, unspooling pants length and shirt cloth so the saga boys could preen 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 believes 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 colours of music but also the understated bigotry of politics and the looseness of tolerance. Of old-fashioned neighbourliness.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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. His 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.”
Holman’s first public collaboration with Shageer showcased his band, Ray Holman and Company, featuring seven instrumentalists and two singers, at a concert in Port-of-Spain.
“It was there we realised 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.”
From such cross-pollination, a dynamic friendship was forged. In the interim, Holman played a concert in Austin, Texas, and included the first verse and chorus of Sapna the Dream. 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.
At the time, though the piece was hailed as a tour de force, Holman had been advised by an Ohio doctor who had treated him for hypertension to retire from Panorama.
But, following the 2012 festival, Junia Regrello, manager of Skiffle, pressed him to reconsider.
“Ray used the instruments to create the East Indian flavour 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 harmonisation. You hear the melody throughout the song. It’s a beautiful piece for him to mark his 50th year in the Panorama.”
The work leaves a mark on ten-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.
“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 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 ent dreaming.”
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