Hibiscus Nights

May 2015


Crystal was about to get off her shift for the night. The twenty-something waitress usually served the Guyanese-style Chinese food The Hibiscus was popular for, but tonight she was filling in at the bar. There were about thirty people in the cozy space.  Outside, the streets of Queens were blanketed in a light frost. A group of Afro-Caribbean men from Trinidad were standing in a group near the door, laughing over something. A few women, Indo-Caribbean, who looked to be in their late forties were seated with cocktails at the other end.

The bar, all blond wood, was decorated with red and green fairy lights hung from the ceiling. At the end of the rows of liquor bottles was a small television playing reruns of cricket matches. DJ Shammie, a native Trinidadian, dressed in yellow cargo pants with whites sneakers, a white button down with a heavy gold medallion and a backwards red pea cap was bent over his laptop going through the list of music. Shammie was set up in the center of the room, beside a big black speaker mounted on the wall. Behind him was a poster with two bottles of beers inside an ice bucket against a backdrop of mountains — the caption underneath read: Join us for Karaoke party Thursday thru Sunday starts 8pm until ???

A catchy song from the 90s was playing. I bobbed my head in rhythm to the beat. Crystal motioned to me that she was done and heading outside.  I put on my jacket and followed.  The faint music from the bars along 101st avenue rose in thin strains, nearly drowned out by the animated smokers gathered out on the pavement. A neon sign illuminated the front window of The Hibiscus. Green letters flanked by outlines of the island bloom in red. The Hibiscus is a flower of the Goddess Kali. It also represents the struggles of the peasants. For the indentured laborers brought in to the Caribbean by the colonial powers, the flower represented their religious beliefs, their personal hopes and collective struggles.

A couple of men walked over. Crystal seemed to know them. “I like your glasses,” one of them said to me. “I like your eye lashes,” Crystal told him, then turned to me. “Doesn’t he have the kind of lashes a girl will drop a stack for at the salon?”  We shared a laugh.  One of the men was a member of a group called Caribbean Angels. They were both Trinidadian. Crystal was Guyanese. The musician noticed the glass in my hand. “I can’t believe you walked out with your drink,” he said. “It’s just cranberry juice,” I replied. “Yeah, tell that to the cop when he comes to harass you,” he said.

Across the avenue, a group of cab drivers dressed in leather jackets, plaid shirts and pageboys were out for a smoke.  Standing a near the entrance to The Hibiscus was Sheroze Qureshi, a Pakistani in his late 20’s who often sang at The Hibiscus. “You would not have believed it, had you come here yesterday,” he said. “These people were crying and holding my hands after every song I sang. They do not speak Hindi, but they have the same feelings. Their blood is Indian.”   Early on in the conversation, Sheroze had switched to Urdu. He was from Lahore, he told me, where he’d lived with his family until his father’s death in a politically motivated attack, after which they’d all packed up and moved to the US.

Settling down in Long Island City, just across the river from Manhattan, Sheroze joined the local mosque to find a sense of community. The Imam of the mosque taught Sheroze how to call the azaan, and for the next six years Sheroze served as the moazzin, calling for prayer in a voice his peers admired. But he could not help the growing sense of loneliness he felt, even amongst those who he called brothers.

“It’s a long story” he said when I asked him what led him to leave the mosque. Sheroze was feeling adrift when his friend, a fellow Pakistani, brought him one night to the neighborhood of Little Guyana, where the legends of Hindi film music still lived in the voices of the karaoke singers.  The Urdu-speaking man from Lahore found a little piece of home, here, amongst the Guyanese who did not speak his language, but who shared his deep appreciation of Hindi film music.

Back in Lahore, Sheroze remembered their television would catch reception of an Indian channel from across the border that played classic Indian songs. Sheroze’s father would tune in to listen to his favorite music.  Lata, Rafi, Mukesh, Kishore and Asha’s songs filled his childhood memories. Sitting by his father’s side, Sheroze memorized the words to each song.

Now, years later, Sheroze found himself frequenting Little Guyana week after week in search of a new community. He would stand near the stage and listen to the singers, at times singing along with them. There was a bouncer guarding the stage at all times, he explained, and no one could take the mic unless the management had vetted them for talent. This wasn’t your average karaoke scene, where people went up randomly.  They took their singing very seriously in Little Guyana.

One night, at another bar called Kaiteur, he got his chance.  A singer overheard him as he followed along in the crowd and pulled him onstage.  With mic in hand, Sheroze showed what he was capable of and established his reputation as a karaoke singer, one of the few Pakistanis on the scene.  Soon after he became a regular at The Hibiscus, and the newcomer found a strong bond with the other singers – especially DJ Shammie.  After four months, he had become a favorite of the patrons, specializing in older songs from an earlier generation.  “The songs that my father loved are the ones I sing here,” he explained.

Dave Deonarine, the owner of The Hibiscus, often hung out by the corner of the bar, and I watched him now smiling and singing along as Sheroze took the mic.  Dressed in a colorful button down shirt and neatly pressed slacks, he was a middle-aged man with thick black hair combed to one side. After the song ended, he walked up to Sheroze and asked him the meaning of the lyrics.

“Indian musicis like the soul of Guyanese people,” he later told me.  “We’ve been watching Indian movies and listening to Indian music ever since we were born.”

Deonarine moved to New York twenty-five years ago. The Hibiscus was the kind of place he remembered frequenting in Guyana, he explained. The menu included Caribbean, Indian and Chinese influences, from pork curry, daal and roti, to fried chicken and Chinese fried rice.  Most of the crowd were in their 30’s and 40’s, and they came for the food, the rum and most of all, the music.  As the night went on, more and more of them got up to mix on the small dance floor nestled between the bar and the restaurant.


“You know, each restaurant— Kaiteiur, The Nest— they each have their own scene, and they have different people singing.  But it’s basically the same kind of sound, classic Indian songs with a blend of Chutney and Soca-Chutney.”

Chutney music was created by the descendants of Indian indentured servants who were brought to Trinidad, Tobago and Guyana to replace plantation laborers after the end of slavery in the Caribbean.  They brought their owns rhythms, and instruments like the dholak and harmonium.  Traditionally the lyrics of Chutney music are religious, but since its beginnings in the 1940’s, when it was mostly played in temples and at wedding parties, the genre has evolved into a full blown industry and mixed with other Caribbean sounds.  Soca-Chutney, for example, combines Soca – or soul of Calypso, itself a fusion of Calypso and more modern funk influences – and Chutney, to create a popular subgenre that seemed to dominate DJ Shammie’s playlist in between karaoke sets.

In the 90’s in Pakistan, we had “Jhankaar beats”— old Indian songs, remixed with a heavy synth sound, that were similar in some ways to the Soca-Chutney that I was hearing at The Hibiscus.  It brought back memories of late night living room dance parties in Karachi.  But Chutney and Soca-Chutney represented a genuinely homegrown, original sound that belonged to a different, older Indian pedigree and its marriage with local Caribbean influences.

In preparation for another singer, DJ Shammie was playing a remix of a song from the 90s: Saat Samundar paar mein tere peechay peechay aagayi, Seven seas I crossed to be with you.  He told me that he made $250 a night, for singing, playing music and hosting the karaoke nights. None of the singers who frequented The Hibiscus got paid, but Shammie said, “there is such love for the music that they come to sing.”

Mala, a forty-eight year old from Guyana, had been singing with Shammie for the past six years. She was dressed simply in a dark blouse and pants, no makeup on her face and her black hair, mixed with strands of gray, tumbled down below her shoulders in unkempt curls.  When she smiled her slightly shy, warm smile, it revealed a gap where her two front teeth had been.  Shammie handed her the microphone as the first notes of Yeh Meraa Dil, from the 1978 Indian film Don, began to play.

Yeh mera dil pyaar ka deewana.

Deewana deewana. Pyaar ka parwaana.

Aata hai mujh ko pyaa mein jal jaana

This heart of mine is mad for love. Mad for love.

It is a moth to the flame of love. I know how to burn in love.

*                                                              *                                                              *


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Mala was named after the actress of 1950s, Vijyantimala.  Her phonetic pronunciation of the Hindi lyrics she was singing was almost perfect.  It would come as a surprise to any Hindi speaker to discover that she could not speak the language— except for the lyrics of her favorite songs.

When she sang, her demeanor changed.  Her voice was girlish but powerful, and where she had seemed slightly awkward and hesitant standing at the bar, she now carried herself with confidence.  The words came easily to her and the people in the room were immediately pulled in.

Lit by a bright, filmi full moon, a radiant young actress by the name of Vijyantimala made her debut with the 1951 film Bahaar. A fifteen-year old boy in a Guyanese village by the name of Rehman Khan skipped school to see the film twenty times. Rehman’s father was the local imam, and the people of the village came to him for the healing power of his prayers. Films, music and cricket were forbidden in Rehman’s house, and being the eldest son the onus was on him to follow in his father’s footsteps.  But Rehman would steal away any chance he could get to play cricket with his friends and see his beloved films.

A few years later, when he first caught sight of a Hindu girl named Sita Sahadio, her doe eyes and long hair immediately reminded him of Vijayantimala. Rehman, employed as a taxi driver at the time, followed Sita as she walked home from school every day.  It was a courtship right out of Bollywood, with the lovesick, persistent underdog Rehman finally wooing the lovely maiden.  She was 16, he was 20.

When Mala was born, her maternal grandparents came to see her from another village. Her grandmother walked the whole way barefoot, with thick silver bangles around each ankle. Her refusal to wear sandals would embarrass Mala as she grew older. Only much later did she begin to understand and embrace her Indian roots.  It was common enough for her generation, but her name foreshadowed the way in which she would finally reconnect with her heritage as an adult.

Sita shared her husband’s love of films, and wanted to name their daughter Vyjayanthimala.  Giving in to familial pressure, however, Rehman went with Sharifa Khan instead.  Sita was upset.  As a compromise, Rehman and Sita called her Mala at home.  The name stuck, and few knew her as anything else.

Mala’s mother learned Hindi from films and songs.  At the time, only the boys were allowed to attend Hindi classes. The first time Sita took Mala to the theater was when she was just two days old. “I was the quietest baby ever,” she told me.  But Mala, who grew up speaking English, never picked up much Hindi herself.

When she was nine, Mala was enrolled in a Kathak dancing school. She excelled, and was offered a scholarship at the age of seventeen to study in India.  But instead, Mala left everything to marry a man she’d met at the dancing school, and the couple moved to Trinidad. ”I regret it so much.  But you don’t think about these things when you are in love.”

After the marriage broke up, Mala moved to New York with her two children.  She had little time outside work and the home for herself.  No longer dancing, she looked to music again for inspiration.  But it took her time to be able to express herself.   “You know how all the songs have beautiful meanings?” she asked me.  “I could not sing them, because it would make me feel as if they were about my own life and I would cry every time I tried to sing.”

Finally, in 2007, Mala entered a local singing competition. The annual Indo-Caribbean Alliance gala was held at the Ozone Park, in Queens. There were about thirty contestants, and Mala was one of the fifteen chosen to make it to the semi-finals. Among the judges were famous playback singers of Guyana. One of them, Divendra Puran, was impressed by her.  Although she didn’t win, Puran encouraged her to continue singing.

Mala had been rehearsing for a year by then.  “A group of us would get together at each other’s home and practice every week after work.”  But Puran’s kind encouragement helped keep her going. The next year, Mala entered the competition again.  While she didn’t win this time either, she did meet Shammie, who invited her to come sing with him at The Hibiscus.  Singing became a consistent part of her life and a creative outlet that had been missing for years.

“Shammie is such a sweetheart,” Mala said.  “When nobody would give me the mic, he did willingly even when there were other female singers who he knew from before.  We have a connection like a brother and sister.”

*                                                              *                                                              *

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After finishing up her set, Mala offered me the microphone for one song.  I chose Chura Liya, from the 1973 film Yaadon Ki Baaraat starring Zeenat Aman.  DJ Shammie cued it up; but without a prompter to help with the lyrics, I had a harder time than I expected.  I was coming in too late, stumbling and missing lines altogether.  I saw people swivel in their barstools and stare as my performance grew progressively worse.

Finally, another singer who had been waiting in the wings came and took the mic from me, an older Trinidadian man who was a regular at the bar and occasional singer.  He signaled to Shammie, who, after throwing me a sheepish grin, switched the track.  The man’s voice thundered in with the first lines Rafi’s Aane Se Usake, Aaye Bahaar.  If I’d had any illusions that this was my language, or my music, it was dispelled with the man’s soaring rendition of the sixties classic.  I wandered back to the bar, to the friendly smiles of the other patrons – supportive, but clearly happy to have me off the mic.

Aane Se Usake Aaye Bahaar, Jaane Se Usake Jaaye Bahaar

Barii Mastaanii Hai Merii Mahabuubaa

Merii Zindagaanii Hai Merii Mahabuubaa

When She Comes, Comes Springtime, When She Leaves, Springtime Leaves

She Is So Mischievous, Is My Beloved

She Is My Life, Is My Beloved

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