Arts & Entertainment

 

Our Grand Ole Nesbit Chhangur

Bernard Heydorn

Nesbit Chhangur, Guyana’s singing cowboy was born in Fyrish Road, sunny Corentyne, about 11 miles from New Amsterdam. He was educated at primary schools in the area and at Corentyne High School. I first saw and heard Nesbit singing in the Town Hall in New Amsterdam in the 1950’s, when I lived in that town. He was the rage at my tender age.

At that time, other Berbician musical artists that I remember included Vincent Moonsammy and Lloyd Mungul (who Nesbit instructed on the guitar), and the Khans – Maxi, a watch-repairer and B.G. volunteer who lived across King Street from us, his brother Georgie, and another younger brother. Maxi played the guitar that he borrowed from my eldest brother, Georgie played the Regulation Band harmonica (mouth organ), and the younger brother played the maracas.

The Khans and some of the others performed around New Amsterdam – hotels (Aster) and boarding houses on the Strand (Nurse Jack), and house brams, rousing the sleepy town from its insistent slumber with South American rhythms, "Choo-la-la, Choo-la-la…", bolero, country songs and calypsos. Sometimes, when British soldiers were in town, fights would break out at the Town Hall or hotel, and the musicians had to run, taking shelter under their instruments!

At that time in New Amsterdam, D.M. Fernandes store on the Strand used to have a Saturday night amateur talent show which Nesbit used to help set up. He also sang at the show. People could walk in off the road and show off their talent or make a fool of themselves. Winners would receive a cash prize, like my eldest brother, who put food on our table by answering a difficult quiz question - where D.M. Fernandes in Georgetown was located?

The story of Nesbit goes back to before World War Two. He came from a musical family in which his father sang and played the sitar. Nesbit first heard the guitar, when as a child, he was walking past the home of Buddy Hector, an elderly man in his village. Nesbit asked Buddy what he was playing. Buddy then invited him in and gave him his first lesson on the guitar.

Nesbit was hooked. He got his own guitar a year or two after, and taught himself to play by the age of 12. He started writing songs at that time and has continued to do so to this day. As a child, he sang at school and church concerts. In Standard One, at the age of 8, he sang TheRose of Tralee, accompanied by his brother on the accordion.

The birth of Nesbit the country singer, came about almost by accident. Fascinated by the records of America’s original yodeling cowboy, Jimmy Rogers, which his father had acquired from an Englishman, Nesbit tried to yodel, his first efforts coming out as a croak. By the time he came to record for Ace Records in Georgetown in the early 50’s, Nesbit had perfected his yodeling, demonstrated in songs like the beautifully nostalgic Sunny Corentyne.

In the late 1940’s, Nesbit took to the airwaves, and won the first prize on the Gong Show at ZFY radio station in Georgetown. Not long after that, he was singing on radio on the Olga Lopes Seales radio shows, Olga Sings, and Berbice Calling, both programs aired from New Amsterdam, originally from Menezes’ residence on Pope and Main Streets, and later from the Town Hall. Alva Lewis provided the piano accompaniment. Porter played the musical saw as a guest artiste.

Nesbit also remembers going on stage with Sam Chase and Ted Roy, legends of vaudeville, in the 1940’s, and Sam clowning in the background, totally distracting the audience.

In the 40’s and early 50’s, country records were not readily available in British Guiana. To become familiar with current country songs and build up his repertoire, Nesbit used to tune in to WSM 650 in Nashville and listen to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights; also WWVA 1170 Wheeling West Virginia, and other stations in Ohio and Kentucky. Nesbit and Greta (his wife) listened in and while Greta was copying the words in shorthand, Nesbit tried to memorize the melody - Webb Pierce’s Wondering Wondering and Back Street Affair come to mind. Remember, these

were the days before tape recorders.

Incidentally, my brothers and I also listened to these far-flung U.S. stations in the 50’s, picking up weak signals late at night. We ended up buying a mail order guitar instruction book from Doc Williams, WWVA, Wheeling West Virginia. I had the pleasure of meeting Doc Williams and his wife Chickie at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto in 1969, and ‘took a bow’, when he introduced my brother and I to the audience.

             Guyana’s singing cowboy on his guitar

 

Guitar strings were in short supply in those days in British Guiana and Nesbit tells the story of singing to American sailors who came off bauxite boats docked at Everton by Providence in the Berbice River. The sailors were surprised and delighted to hear "cowboy" songs from their homeland, deep "in the bush" of Guyana. To show their appreciation, they brought guitar strings and a country music song book on their next trip and gave them to Nesbit.

Nesbit was truly Guyana’s singing cowboy. There were a few imitators but none like him. His first recordings (78 r.p.m.) at Ace Records (Vivian Lee production) in Georgetown in the mid ‘50’s, included his compositions, songs such as Sunny Corentyne, There’s No Room in My Heart for Another, Bring Back My Daddy, Mother, the Queen of My Heart, Starry Waltz, and I’m so Helpless, I could cry. At those sessions, Nesbit played the guitar, Ernest Alstrom played the Hawaiian Steel Guitar and there was also backing by a stand up bass (mama violin). Later, the versatile Nesbit recorded Santa Samba, and Rock Around the Moon on 45 r.p.m. discs made in Trinidad.

Nesbit is perhaps best known for his 1964 BGBS recordings A Guianese Lament and Call to Guiana, made in the studios of Radio Demerara at Broadcasting House in Georgetown. Both are poignant tributes to Guyana’s tragic racial history, and a call to healing, as relevant then as it is today. The money raised from the aforementioned Guianese Lament was donated to the Red Cross.

Chhangur’s achievements have won him a number of awards including the Wordsworth McAndrew Award – Guyana Folk Festival 2002, New York. Last November, in Toronto, he received an award from the Berbice Educational Institute where he was a teacher and Vice-Principal.

Nesbit remembers performing at the New Amsterdam Town Hall with names like Moses Telford (pianist), Herbert Spence (classical singer), Vincent Moonsammy (country singer), and Alva Lewis (pianist). On Guyana radio, he remembers names like Weatherspoon (tenor), Aubrey Burke (singer in the Sinatra vein), Vernon Williams (singer), Claudette Murray (pop and standards singer), and Olga Lopes Seales (singer and radio announcer).

In 1966, Nesbit was in Nashville singing where an attorney signed him to a 2-year contract to sing and play in Nashville. Nesbit signed under the condition that he had to return home to take care of his affairs. Unfortunately when Nesbit returned to Nashville, the contract had run out and the lawyer had sold his interest in the music business.

Over the years in Guyana, he was involved in many charitable functions such as writing and singing A JubileeSong for the Catholic Standard Diamond Jubilee in 1965. This was aired on radio on April 4, 1965 on the Catholic Broadcast program, with the popular Combo 7 providing the musical accompaniment. He also sang at the Miss Guyana Competition, hosted by Sarah Lou Carter.

He has organized and raised money for the Georgetown YMCA annual concert which featured bands like the Ramblers, the Rhythmaires, the Telstars, the Combo 7 and performers like Habib Khan (comedian), Evelyn John (soprano), Joshia (musical saw), and other notable Guyanese performers. When Dr. Jagan was elected as Prime Minister in 1961, he invited Nesbit to sing at his inauguration at Queen’s College.

In Guyana, Nesbit was a Primary and High School teacher (Vice-Principal) at the Berbice Educational Institute (originally at Pilot and Main Streets) in New Amsterdam. He was also the General Secretary of the Georgetown YMCA. He has served on several national committees including the visiting committee to prisons, Oxfam, the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, the National Youth Association, the Badminton Association, and the Swimming Association.

Since Nesbit moved to Canada in the mid 60’s, he has been singing for senior citizens and the sick, in hospitals, nursing homes, and other institutions, free of charge, as a way of giving back to Canada and Canadians. As a tribute to Canada, he wrote and recorded on CD a song entitled, Canadians We Will Always Be.

Incidentally, our paths crossed again around 1967 at the International House in Ottawa. My brother and I were then students at the University of Ottawa, and on Saturday nights, we often went to the International House on Somerset Street. There we bounced up with Nesbit on stage one night, and sang some rousing Guyanese folk songs like Satira Girl and Sancho Lick he Lovah.

In 1967, Nesbit entered a CJOH (Ottawa) TV talent show called "Take a Bow", and sang his song which won first prize. On December 7, 1987, the CBC TV aired a series called "It’s About Time" about individuals who had a hobby or dream and never gave up. Nesbit was chosen as one such person.

Throughout the years, Nesbit has been ably assisted and encouraged by his wife Greta, consultant, critic, co-writer and financier. His sons Rohan, Brian, Anthony and Sean have followed in their father’s musical footsteps with Rohan and his band Traction and Brian forming bands of their own. Nesbit’s two daughters are also musically inclined.

Sean is a jazz and funk piano player, performing for many years with big bands on cruise ships and on stage. Presently he teaches vocals and piano. One of his songs, You Are My Life, was recorded in the USA by the legendary Chuck Jackson.

Nesbit continues to play, on his own, with his sons, and in bands around Ottawa where he lives. He has been teaching guitar at Continuing Education with the Ottawa Board of Education for over 24 years and is known as "Nez, the guitar teacher". He is a retired Civil Servant from the Federal Government in Ottawa. He is also a qualified guitar service technician and has a home recording studio.

At present, an independent filmmaker in Ottawa is using his song Tropical Haven in a film called Buscando. In the 1950’s, one of Nesbit’s early recordings There’s No Room in my Heart for Another,

was used in a Scottish BBC documentary on Guyana called, Roraima, The Lost World.

Nesbit released an album called Joanne in 1980. You can get his current CD You’ll Always be There (2000), a variety showpiece of 16 of Nesbit’s compositions, and his latest CD Tropical Haven (2002) – a tribute to Guyana, from Ivor Lynch at EPLRECORDS@aol.com in New York, Ron Lammy at RHLammy@aol.com in Boston, and from Gretnes Productions at nezchhang@hotmail.com in Ottawa. They are worthy collections for Guyanese and others to acquire.

Nesbit is a living legend – broadcaster, songwriter, singer, bandleader, youth leader, family man, teacher, and community worker, a citizen extraordinaire who never gives up. He’s still writing songs and recording, hoping one day his songs and music will make the big times. On April 14, 2002, he and Greta celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. His is an example of a life well lived.

Nesbit with his big heart has made his mark in our hearts. Listen to his CD’s and hear where this son of Guyana is coming from. If the sun still shines and the creeks don’t rise, I’ll be talking to you. 

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