Theron Shaw: the art of the matter

A brush with death showed guitarist Theron Shaw what was really important in life. In his latest recordings and performances, he’s changed focus...

Theron Shaw. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

One night, as Trinidadian musician Theron Shaw was returning home from a rehearsal, a speeding car rammed into him on the dark highway. Fortunately, he was driving a rock-steady car, and escaped serious injury. As the car stopped spinning, he remembers one thought pushing everything else aside: in this life, nothing really matters.

He looked for his guitars, which had been in the car trunk, and wondered vaguely how they could have been stolen so quickly. Then he looked up and saw them about 50 metres away, lying on the roadway. They were both unscathed.

Those moments profoundly altered his life, recalibrating it so that things shifted dramatically along the scale of priority. Nothing really matters, especially not the fripperies which take up the most time; far better to immerse yourself in things that are of substantive value to your life.

His new urgency expresses itself in the title of his latest CD – Right Here, Right Now – which he began working on in earnest after the accident. Death’s proximity must be a catalyst for Shaw, because it was after his younger sister died that he threw himself fully into his first CD, The Sojourn, which was released in 2003. The debut CD was reflective and mellow, as if on a quest for meaning. Right Here, Right Now is more mature, confident and complex, with an assurance that is conveyed in the range of styles and rhythms that individualise the pieces.

Five of the 12 tracks are his compositions – “Mauvais Langue”, “Emancipate”, “Kaiso Time”, “Now and Then”, and “Not this Time” – and they vary from the frenetic and discordant introductory passages of “Mauvais Langue”, which call to mind the excitement of a Boogsie Sharpe steelpan arrangement, to the melancholic yearning of  “Now and Then”.

On the other tracks, he has paid tribute to masters of melody like Lord Kitchener (“Pan in Harmony”) and Andre Tanker (“Morena Osha”), and one of the truly melodic compositions of Sparrow, “Rose”. The classic Explainer song of divided love, “Lorraine”, is included, as well two folksy pieces, “Après Carnival” and the carol “Oh Belem”.

He has arranged all the music himself, even the resurrection of “Can You Love Me”, a hit by the Trinidad and Tobago band Kalyan, whose heyday was in the seventies (they once made the Billboard 100). Shaw deliberately added this to the collection as a reminder that local acts had been doing big things internationally, apart from calypso. His choice of material was part of a wider project he has taken on. For the CD, despite his fealty to jazz, he wanted to use only local material.

“I firmly believe that you have to exist from where you are and draw from whatever experience you have,” he says. “I am living in the tropics and I am hearing certain things and I am moving at a certain rate in terms of the whole vibrations, so I have to express that.”

This desire to play the music of his environment is linked to his belief that: “We have enough recorded material to explore. It’s there already, it’s been done. But we have not really examined that material.”

Here, Shaw’s music takes on a particular philosophical slant that is quite distinct from his musical forte or stylistic preferences. He has deliberately set out to contribute to the Caribbean musical archives by reprising old songs, and interpreting them with different translators.

“I believe all the good music was made already. You need to learn from it. But you don’t want to repeat what is there… We could do different things, but there are some things you just cannot improve. They are too sacred.”

He looks at it from a jazzman’s perspective, seeing it as taking music from its original context, transporting it to another, and making it popular within the new realm.

“Its innate quality remains no matter what you do with it,” he says. “I’ve heard people from other backgrounds reinterpreting what we have; which is what keeps it alive, because if you record something and it just stays there, then it just stays there. But if you keep working it, then the music becomes alive. That’s how jazz stays alive.”

Caribbean music is still a young music, he thinks, but if it “just stays in one cubicle, then the music becomes archaic.”

For Shaw, the journey towards musicianship began early, with a plastic four-stringed guitar that told him in no uncertain terms he had to be a guitarist. He took lessons (studying with Frankie Francis) and he bought music books, teaching himself and doing music exams all on his own speed.

He is a perfectionist, and it must have been difficult for him to continue what could only have been a hobby while he tried to earn a living and raise a young family. He finally took off for Howard University to do jazz studies. A conversation with a trumpeter friend led him to switch majors and graduate instead with a degree in music therapy cum laude in 1995. Something about the idea of what music can do to the human spirit had touched him. Music therapy had been extensively used at hospitals to soothe emotionally and physically traumatised soldiers.

When he returned to Trinidad he began to think more seriously of how he could make a career of music and teaching. The day after his accident, he enrolled for a postgraduate diploma in education at the University of the West Indies. He had already been teaching music at a secondary school, and while he marvelled at the opportunities the children now had, he couldn’t help feel there was much more out there.

“You hear music from all over the world and you realise how little you know and how much more there is. You can always learn something new if you keep your receptors open,” he says, rubbing his forearms as if he is feeling the music through his skin.

The action is slightly at odds with the reserved aura that surrounds Shaw. He has the fastidious and strict air of an old-world schoolteacher, and there is something so utterly stable in his composure that it is hard to imagine him jamming in a set.

But music has its therapeutic ways of releasing spirits; and a gig where the musicians are really in tune with each other invokes all manner of vibratory sensations. Intimacy can be transient, aroused by a moment’s sensuality, but nonetheless potent in its capacity to lift the spirit. This was an intimately transcendent moment.

The place is Martin’s, the most convivial of jazz joints in Trinidad, and onstage with Shaw are Sean Thomas, Ming, and Douglas Redon. They get into one of Shaw’s compositions, “Mauvais Langue”, and it is electrifying. Driven by a crackling stageside chemistry, the place erupted with energy. Shaw, eyes closed, contorted over his guitar, is beaming in pure exhilaration. No reservations here: this is the guitar man.