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El Dorado Awards 2015 Honoree
Singing Ambassador Terry ‘Guyana Baboo’
Gajraj is a ‘Special Person’
By Leonard Gildarie
Kaieteur News, Guyana: Perhaps one of the most famous speeches ever made that drew on what patriotism should be was one by former US President, John F. Kennedy, at his inauguration in Washington on January 20, 1961.
He challenged Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you…ask what you can do for your country.”
The words have been echoed by many and continue to this day to stir the imaginations and tug at the heartstrings of even those who lived outside of the US.
It is believed that almost one million Guyanese live outside of Guyana. Staggering…if taken in context of the fact that Guyana has around 750,000 persons living within its shores.
Many Guyanese have gone on to excel beyond these shores. They include the likes of Norman Beaton, who made his name in the popular British sitcom, ‘Desmond’; singer Eddy Grant who has rubbed shoulders with royalty and drew adoring crowds that singers can only dream of; poet Martin Carter and diplomat Sir Shridath Ramphal. Guyana would also want to claim a little of Bajan-born sensation, Rihanna, whose Guyanese roots are well known.
And then there is another level of standout which includes an individual like Terry Gajraj.
Gajraj, in the 1990s, had Guyana dancing and singing with his popularly infectious “Guyana Baboo” album. One of the songs, titled ‘Guyana Baboo’, became a craze in the Queens, New York community, spreading like wildfire down to Guyana and Trinidad, making the Berbice-born youngster an instant sensation and the song an anthem.
The album was recorded in a little Bronx apartment in one night with frequent stops to cater for the noise from passing trains. It was done on a cassette…there were no CDs back in those days.
It was but small testimony of how the little boy from the village of Fyrish remained determined to follow his dream of singing, regardless of the odds. He would have released two other albums starting in 1990 – ‘Soca Lambada’ and ‘Caribana ‘92’. But it was ‘Guyana Baboo’ that did it for him.
His boyish good looks and impressive physical condition have also helped him to keep performing non-stop every single weekend on the road for the last 15-20 years, not an easy feat for any artiste. And he has outlasted many a one-hit wonder.
First to perform
Gajraj is the first Caribbean singer to perform at the Millennium Bollywood Music Awards… the Indian equivalent of the Grammys. He has been described as the unofficial goodwill ambassador for Guyanese music and culture.
But perhaps one of the biggest attractions of Gajraj is his ability to take seemingly taboo subjects, like the ‘Guyana Baboo’, and make it his own. It was a song chorused by the little ‘ole’ ladies at wedding houses. Not many singers would have dared to put a mix on it. But with his love for all things Guyana, the New York-based lad who was groomed by his Pandit grandfather and uncles, found it a no-brainer.
While others have claimed to have written the song, it was Gajraj’s rendition that made it “immortal”. His ‘Lilawattie’ and ‘Come Le Go Sooky’, and ‘Champa come’, on the same ‘Guyana Baboo’ album, became standard wedding house fixtures.
His contributions to Guyana saw him wearing his Guyana colours and the flags, making him a true representative in every sense of the word. Everything for him was somehow tinged with something Guyana.
He has sung between 300-500 songs, recording almost 30 albums during the last 20 years. These included a compilation of Guyanese folk songs. He has done Maxi Priest and renditions of ‘Roses are Red” and ‘Take the Ribbon’. He has even performed some of Tom Jones’ songs.
Terry has become an automatic invitee for the chutney shows in Guyana and is in constant demand in gigs throughout the region, Canada and the US.
“In everything that I do, Guyana remains first place in my heart. I attempt to inject a flavour of my home country into my songs.” He even has his costumes depicting Guyana’s flag.
Gajraj is not too enthusiastic talking about his age…he is a 30-something or 40-something.
Separated now, he understands it is a demanding calling that involved sacrifices…lots of it.
Gajraj, or Terry as he insists to be called, grew up in Fyrish Road, Corentyne, East Berbice.
His father was a head teacher of the school while his ‘Aja’ (grandfather) was the Pandit at the local mandir.
“So yes, I came from a religious background.”
He was the eldest of three with his two siblings being girls. While the family was not rich, they were by no means starving.
His introduction to music was the radio and at the mandir. At an early age, his uncles taught him the Dholak, Dantal, harmonium and even the guitar.
“I am not ashamed to say where I came from. I have known persons from my homeland who have migrated and have travelled for vacations all over the world but never returned home.”
It would not have been unusual for Terry to go ‘ketch” fish and he still remembers his mother’s kitchen garden. Terry remembers all too vividly the effects of the restrictions on the importation of certain food items, like flour, by the government back then.
His idol was Trinidad’s Sundar Popo, regarded as the King of Chutney Music in those days. “I listened to him and he was singing about me.”
Even at a tender age, Terry was clear in his mind that music was in his blood and that it was something that he would be doing for the rest of his life.
Between life at the mandir and school, he was busy following his uncles to sing bhajans at the religious functions at home and weekend shows. He became a pest to his uncles, insisting that he get a part in a band, ‘Dil Bahar’ that was doing gigs in the East Berbice area.
Terry’s “big break” in his work with bands eventually came. Laughing, he said it was as a helper holding a microphone to the bongo drum that was being played. But he persevered, dreaming big.
He did well at the CXC exams and even became a “pupil teacher” for a while, tutoring some of his classmates.
In the late 1980s Terry and his family migrated to New York. He was still determined to pursue his music dream, but the reality of making a living was all too real. He worked as mail clerk for a while, before joining the insurance industry.
But he was still making his rounds in the show business circuit.
“I knew I wanted this badly and I even ended up singing for free on many occasions.”
Soon, with his lively, interactive style of getting the crowd riled, waving their hands and “giving a shout out” Terry started to become popular. Managers were demanding him as part of their shows.
He has credited the current “shout out” style as something that he started to keep the crowd alive. He was not satisfied with the “standing up and sing style”.
“All the DJs are now using it. Things like telling the crowd to raise your hands…wine yuh waist…screw de light bulb…I am proud to say I started that. Everybody picked up on it.”
It was around 1992 that Terry and couple of friends started earnestly working on an album…and that was how ‘Guyana Baboo’ was born.
Using a small, makeshift studio in a Bronx apartment, Terry and another singer, David Ramoutar, recorded eight songs in one night. It was more than a year before the songs started catching on. And strangely enough, before it hit Guyana, it was Trinidad that Terry’s name was beginning to sink in as an artiste to be reckoned with.
The songs were all written with the mandatory Guyana theme, an aspect that he has continued to insist on playing over the years.
It was the soca-mad Trinidad that he did his first big show in the region before his grand homecoming to Guyana.
In 1994, the National Park was packed to its fullest and Gajraj wooed the crowds and tantalized them with his music. But it was his show at Albion, East Berbice, not far from where he grew up, that saw the crowds overflowing the grounds. It was beginning of many more such visits.
“Yes, the ‘90s was the record decade for me.”
But while Terry is happy that his music has remained part of a Guyanese culture over the years, he is unhappy that local artistes are just not given the needed exposure.
“We see Trinidad and Jamaica and Barbados bigging up their music with the radios playing them all the time. There was a time Trinidad was playing music that was not their own. Then they realized that that was all wrong. It is hypocritical to wake up and hear the radios playing songs predominantly not local. We have good singers, good lyrics.”
Last year, Terry participated in the lucrative TT$1M chutney competition, promising to donate all the proceeds to charity if he won. While he did not win, the Berbice boy is nevertheless is pushing his charity, ‘saveabee.org’. He has sponsored an ongoing computer programme in Cotton Tree, Berbice.
Terry is also making it a habit to do one free show every month, donating the proceeds to charity.
“Growing up in a mandir and I still do go regularly with my family, I do believe I have to give back.”
The Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) is now set to honour Terry for his contributions. He is said to be one of Guyana’s most touring solo singers, performing in Suriname, Holland, Spain, England (notably at the prestigious Wembley Stadium in London) and at all the major carnivals. He has also performed with top names in the soca/calypso arena including the Mighty Sparrow, “Hot Hot” Arrow, Machel Montano, Calypso Rose and Byron Lee, Sundar Popo, Sonny Mann, Ramdeo Chaitoe, Kries Ramkhelawan, Rikki Jai and celebrated Indian performers Babla and Kanchan.
For his contributions to music and his work in showcasing Guyana in the region and around the world, Terry Gajraj is unquestionably a “Special Person”.
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