Terry Gajraj: “I miss Guyana so much”

Guyanese chutney star Terry Gajraj on promoting his country from afar — as told to Erline Andrews

Terry Gajraj. Photograph by Marilyn Kean

Being on the stage is what I love the most. I love being in the studio as well, but to see how the fans react to the music, that means more to me.

I was born into the music. My uncles were musicians. My grandfather was a priest in a mandir. Every Sunday morning he’d be singing, chanting. I got into it very naturally, very unconsciously. My uncles taught me a little guitar, a little keyboard. When I was a teenager I felt like I really wanted to perform, because I had an uncle who was in a band called the Dil Bahar Orchestra. He would take me to rehearsals. When I saw what they did, the music they sang, and how the crowd responded, I’m like, “Oh my God, this is so good!”

Then [Trinidadian chutney star] Sundar Popo came out with his “Nani and Nana” song. I felt he was singing something that related to me. He was singing English, but it was an Indian melody, and it was such a beautiful mix. From that time, I knew that was something that I wanted to do.

When I started performing, my parents didn’t even know. I was so damn shy I didn’t want anyone I knew to be around when I sang. A band from Georgetown came to our village. I asked to sing a song and they said, yeah. My parents were at a prayer, one of those long seven-night prayers that Hindus do. I did one song and the crowd loved it, and they asked me to sing another song. I sang Wendy Alleyne’s “I Have a Thing About You”. Then the next song I sang was “Umbayayo” by [Trinidadian calypsonian] Merchant. It was a mixed crowd. They got a kick from watching an Indian guy singing this song. Later I started my own little group. Then I did everything I wanted to do, which was to mix the music from India and calypso.

In Guyana, there’s no other prominent chutney singer doing what I’m doing. In Trinidad you have Rikki Jai and a bunch of other guys doing it. In Guyana it’s not that many. I had a passion, a hunger for it. I so wanted to do this thing and represent Guyana.

In Guyana you find a lot of [Indian] singers that are more pro-Hindi. They will go sing the songs that are from India, a Mukesh, a Rafi, or whatever. But I don’t believe that’s what being a Guyanese is about. Being Guyanese is about, yes, our foreparents came from India, but I’m also a Caribbean person. I feel I have to represent both: I’m a Caribbean man and an Indian man at the same time. I did a song called “Indo-Caribbean Man”. It’s about being an Indo-Caribbean man and not forgetting your culture.

In Guyana, when you came out of high school and you did well, they would offer you a job as a teacher. And my dad was a school teacher. [Being a teacher] gave me the opportunity to play my guitar and sing for the kids. I taught fourth and fifth form literature, English language, and history. I helped organise concerts for Christmas, Easter, Phagwa. I was into all the cultures. I would play my guitar and sing for the Lutheran Church when they had their crusades. I had no biases. I’d play for everybody. So I was very much in demand by all the religions.

I didn’t teach for very long, just for about two or three years. Then I migrated [to the US]. I migrated because of the economic conditions in Guyana. It was the thing to do. Everyone was leaving.

My very first job here was as a mail clerk at American Home Products in Manhattan. I worked my way up and I became a legal clerk. I would use the weekends to perform all over the place and see where the culture is, and how I can get into the music. I love to write. I’ve stopped counting the number of songs I’ve written.

While working at American Home Products, some friends encouraged me to move to Connecticut to start a little group there. They said, “The living is better, and you’d have a better job.” I took the opportunity and I went. I stayed by a very nice family. Eventually I got my own little place. Then my mom, dad, and the rest of the family came over.

“Baboo” means native: Guyana baboo, India baboo, Trinidad baboo. When you first leave and you come [to the US], it’s so hard. I had no family or anything, so it was very, very hard. I had so many verses for that song, because I missed Guyana so much, and it was about the love for Guyana and how much I missed it and wanted to go back.

I have a daughter, Shreeya, ten, and a son, Akshay, six. I gave him my great-grandfather’s middle name, Algu. He came from India. [After indentureship] he did rice farming, and that was passed on to my grandfather.

I’m divorced. My singing and travelling meant I was never home. We tried to compromise, but it never quite worked out. She felt I should have stayed in Connecticut. It would have meant giving up the singing. I don’t want to give it up.

Currently it’s all I do, but it’s hard. It’s only the top five per cent of performers who really make the money. I make ends meet. I basically perform every single week. I don’t like performing, say, in Queens, just because it’s convenient. I love to take it out[side], because Guyanese and Trinidadians are everywhere.

I want [my audience] to have fun, but every single CD that I’ve done, there’s always a few meaningful songs, and I always try for the dialect, the phrases, the words of Guyana. I try to put it in songs so it’ll be there for future generations. I did a song, “Granny Nah Run Granny Nah Ketch”. It’s about the proverbs and all those old sayings in Guyana. “Indo-Caribbean Man” I did tremendous research for, so I could get my facts correct.

One of the very first songs I wrote was “Guyana Nice But It Ugly”. I took a lot of criticism for that. People were, like, “How can you talk bad about your country?” I believe in leaving it in song so it’s there for history, your kids, grandkids, generations to come.

I do feel disconnected [from Guyana] sometimes, but thank God for online. I’m always thinking about returning, but I think I can do Guyana more justice by being out here and promoting Guyana from here.