The words “We open the story,” the third line of 2019’s ‘people’s choice Carnival anthem’ Savannah Grass, is just that—a story…an alluring narrative capturing from whence Carnival came, through the eyes of its chantwell, Jelani “Pops” Shaw.
Shaw tells Sunday Guardian of the modern-styled cariso (folk music), which took one year to complete: “The story is about Carnival and we begin the story with J’Ouvert and the story of J’Ouvert is the story of canboulay, and that is the story of the enslaved Africans defeating captain Baker (Arthur) on Piccadilly Street in Port-of-Spain.
“We got Carnival because we fought for it, lives were lost, it is not a joke or a just a party, it is a celebration of life for people who were thought to be below the poverty line,” he said.
But telling stories and creating enthralling music, one can say, may come naturally for the 27-year-old songwriter and percussionist, particularly because of whose DNA he carries. Shaw is the son of Pantrinbago’s first female executive, Barbra Crichlow-Shaw and accomplished musician and jazz guitarist Theron Shaw.
From his earlier years, Shaw was always writing poems and short stories. While still completing A' Levels at Fatima College, his love for the arts eventually landed him a role in the play Creole Girl, co-directed by the late Mairoon Ali and Raymond Choo Kong.
So impressive was his acting ability, it earned him an award and the opportunity to attend UWI St Augustine, after Creative and Festival Arts head at the time, Louis McWilliams extended the offer. The offer was also endorsed by playwright and lecturer Rawle Gibbons. Bet your “bottom dollar”, Shaw later graduated from UWI with a bachelors in theatre arts. The experience was “four years well spent”, he said.
Though the Diego Martin native enjoyed theatre arts, the rhythm of his ‘true calling’ would always come knocking. In 2011, his mother would take him to Rama Studios to meet songwriter Kernel Roberts, who happened to be a former member of Slabej, one of the two historic pan ensembles she founded— the other was Sadiki.
Laughing, he says, “When she took me there, it was almost like I did not leave for a few years. I stayed and I learned so intently while attending university.”
With an apparent hunger to become a music producer, Shaw would split his time between school and the studio, at times spending all night into foreday.
During this period of his life, he would meet up with a colleague from his alma mater, Kitwana “Advokit” Israel, the man responsible for many hit soca ‘riddims’ like the popular Kan Kan Riddim which starred several soca artistes, including Benji, King Bubba and Lead and Olatunji Yearwood, to name a few. They subsequently paired up with two more of their former colleagues, Selector Caleb and Shane Stanford—together forming Advokit Productions, mainly to push the musical career of their mutual friend, Nesta “Sekon Sta” Boxill. The amalgamation of their various musical niches churned out several records for diverse soca artistes like K Rich and Terry Lyons, among others.
Shaw would then surprise himself, penning his first song in 2013, titled Drop it Down on the Sando Riddim, produced by Precision Productions and sung by Machel Montano.
His foray into songwriting would come after the success of the Intercol Riddim which was a collaborative effort between Advokit and Precision Productions and featured “big name” artistes like Machel Montano, Bunji Garlin, Nadia Batson, and Kerwin Dubois.
As the percussionist of the group, he realised he wanted to do more in the creation of music rather than just play the drums, so he reached out to producer KC Phillips, sharing with him his interest in songwriting.
Phillips sent him the Sando Riddim and after several attempts at writing, one night Shaw got it right, birthing his first composition, Drop it Down. He sent his demo back to Phillips with a reinfused melody, having added some brass which Phillips immediately loved. Shaw would subsequently receive his first songwriting and production credit for his “first-time phenomenal work”.
A few weeks onwards, he would get an email that would change his teething musical journey forever.
“One day in early November 2013, I got an email back from KC saying “Hey, check this out,” and when I played it I heard Machel’s voice singing. I messaged KC asking how come my voice was sounding so good? That’s when he told me it was Machel and I was in shock for a day or two. I could not believe it,” Shaw says.
Montano did not see him as a “one-hit wonder”. In 2014 the undisputed king of soca requested the writing skills of Shaw on several other records. One, in particular, would be the monster hit and Road March of 2014, Ministry of Road.
The song would open many “firsts’ for Shaw, as that year, it also took home the Soca Monarch title in the power category, a Soul Train Award for Best International Performance, going up against the likes of British-born R&B singer Sam Smith and other world-renowned artistes, and it was also nominated for a Grammy Award.
“That record basically gave me an entirely new vision of what I can do, what’s possible in the world of music, and there was no longer a limitation in my mind,” Shaw says.
With their new-found friendship, Shaw and Montano would continue to work side by side with Precision Productions, releasing soca chart-toppers like Fast Wine and Doh Play Dat, the latter, his only song written for the Carnival season in 2018.
His clientele also grew, attracting the likes of Patrice Roberts, Barbadian female soca songstress Alison Hinds, Nikita Browne also from Barbados, Pternsky, 5 Star Akil, Lyrikal, and Kees Dieffenthaller.
Not only was his name becoming ‘better than gold’, but by far the biggest accomplishment was that Shaw was able to keep the promise he made to his mother six years ago when he entered music.
“I told her I would get her a Road March and Soca Monarch title and a Panorama title. This is the first year a big band has played my record.”
Shaw said he felt honoured that a prolific producer and arranger like Pelham Goddard saw it fit to switch to his song of choice at a critical stage during the Panorama competition. What was more fulfilling for the young lad, was finding out postliminary that Goddard was also his cousin. Needless to say—musical talent runs in his blood.
With the stars seemingly shining for Shaw and his future looking bright as the sun, we asked what would he like his legacy to be.
An ardent fan of authentic calypso and its pioneers, he responds, “It is far beyond T&T, it is not about what I can give to T&T Carnival, rather what I can give to the world. It’s about how best I can represent the genre that was created here. The first pop music of the world in history is calypso. We created that and we don’t keep our heads high about it. So I am here to lift the beacon and shout it from the mountain tops to remind those who have forgotten.”