A Golden Voice Silenced

Nelson Bacchus

By Sam Sooppersaud

Sad news have been received from Guyana that Nelson Bacchus has passed away. He was two months short of his 79th birthday anniversary. He died on the morning of Wednesday, April 10th. May he rest in God’s eternal peace!

Who was Nelson Bacchus? To the younger generation his name may be unknown. But, within the age group of 30 years and upwards, the name Nelson Bacchus was a household name in the field of Indian Hindi music and songs. He was a very versatile singer, adept in a variety of singing style and type of songs. From filmy songs, to Taan, to Chutney, to Bajans. Whatever style was asked of him by his audience he was able to deliver with ease and in his loud, baritone voice. He could sing songs sung by the great Indian singers, Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh, Manna Dey, Hari Om Sharan, Jagjit Singh, and whichever Indian artistes he could emulate. He was even know to sing a few Lata songs. He could even give you a Jim Reeves classic. Nelo was that versatile as a performer.

I first knew Nelo in the late fifties. Later on we became very good friends. He was originally from Cane Grove, on the East Coast of Demerara. He came to live in Canje, Berbice when still a young teenager. He and my brother, Kumkarran, worked in the Spray Gang at Rose Hall Sugar Estate. On weekends the boys would get together and hang out on at Ramnarace Square. They will have a couple of beverages. I, though much younger, would accompany my brother to their hangout. This is how I got to meet Nelo.
Apart from being a kind young gentleman, Nelo possessed to gift of singing. He loved to entertain his friends with songs. Music ans singing, I suppose, was in his genes. He was from a family lineage of musicians and singers. Two of his more contemporary relatives performers are Queen Yasmin and Prince Wazir.

Where descendants of indenture ship immersed themselves in medicine, and law and the trades, Nelo excelled equally in being a performer: in song and music. His name and or voice was familiar throughout British Guiana then Guyana. He was a frequent guest singing at Radio Demerara, on the Sunday Indian Hour program hosted by the then Radio Broadcaster, Ayube Mohammed. Nelo’s golden voice was heard at Fairs, Melas, Fund Raisers, wakes. The Late Guyana President, L.F.S Burnham, even once requested and had Nelson Bacchus performed before him at a State formal function. A few years ago, shortly after President Granger was installed as president, Nelo performed for him, at the president’s request, at a Fair the president attended at Rose Hall Welfare Center in Canje, Berbice. Nelo once served for a while as a teacher of Indian singing at the Guyana Cultural Center in Georgetown.

He sang alongside the very best in the field of Indian Hindi music, in Guyana, British Guiana: names such as Mohan Nandu, Gobin Ram, Devindra Pooran, Peter Das, Baal Nain, Wilfred, to name a few. The late, great Trinidadian Chutney singer, Sundar Popo, whenever he had a show in British Guiana, made sure that Nelson Bacchus was one of his main performers. Nelo’s son, Rasheed Bacchus, is my son-in-law. At the end of one of my trips to Guyana, Nelo accompanied my party to Timehri Airport in Guyana. We reached very early at the airport so we decided to hang out in the car park. To kill some time I asked Nelo to sing a song. He readily accommodated my request. He sang the all time classic, SOHANI RAAT. Apart from his booming, but sonorous voice, you could hear a pin drop. It looked like the entire car park had crowded around us listening to Nelo. At the end of the song several people, total strangers, requested encores. Of course, Nelo was quick to oblige them. His words afterwards were, “Me glad you all enjoy the song”.

Nelson Bacchus was a practicing Muslim. He attended his Mosque as often as there were services. However, he did not use his Islamic beliefs to make light of or condemn the teachings of other religions. As he used to say,” all religion is good for our soul. None better than the other”. He was a man who practiced what he preached. He attended all the religious functions to which he was invited, be it be Christianity, Islamic, Hindi, Aryan. He was part of a Kirtan group which sang at various functions; in Hindu temples, at wakes, and whatever appropriate functions required the group’s participation. One striking thing about him is that he refused to accept any form payment for his participation. He would not accept a cent!

He was a man of unshakeable faith. He believed in destiny. He would say that “ what is for a man will happen and he must take it all. The good and the bad”. This faith was tested to exhaustion during his lifetime. A son, Zameer, was killed in a road accident, while still in his teens. Later, his wife passed away. Three years ago, his son, Jameer, his nick name was Jar, passed away. Six months later his son, Bashir, known as Cheese, died suddenly in New York. Of his once large family, only he, his son Rasheed, and his daughter Hassina were here. Four members of his family were gone. Imagine the grief of anyone having to endure these tragedies! This was enough to drive a normal human being insane. But, Nelo did not fall apart. He held on to this belief that all what had happened in his life so far was “in his destiny”. He braced himself and accepted his fate. His saying was this: “wah me go do, it’s God’s work”. He insisted that “life must go on”. He did his best to cope with and live a relatively stress free life. A man of strong will and faith! He was an avid reader and read every piece of writing that he could get his hands on. He loved History.

Nelson Bacchus loved to say funny things: to give a laugh. He told this story. He and One Prem Persaud grew up in Cane Grove and were school friends. He moved to Canje and worked in the estate.. Prem Persaud became a lawyer then later a magistrate. He held court at the Reliance Court House. Nelo’s house was within earshot of the courthouse. One Wednesday after court was adjourned Magistrate Prem Persaud paid Nelo a visit. This is the gist of their conversation. Prem told him: “man, you gonna get me in trouble”. Nelo’s answer: ”how me go get you in trouble, you a de magistrate”.

Prem’s reply was that: “you gotta stop singing on court day, because when you are singing I listen to you, and I can give the wrong judgment”. They had a big laugh! Nelo would tell so many stories when you visited him that you will laugh until tears come to your eyes.

As I have mentioned before, Nelo’s youngest son, Rasheed is my son-in-law who now has also acquired some fame. He lives in New York with his family: son Amir, and wife Vani. He has done shows in New York, Minnesota, Florida and Toronto, Canada. Nelo visited the United States twice: in 2017 and 2018.

In his first visit Rasheed and family took him on a trip to North Carolina. He was astound with the “beauty of this great country” as he put it. He said he will have to tell people in Guyana how great this country is and how beautiful. There is so much to do and to eat.

At his wake and funeral in Reliance, Berbice, Guyana, hundreds of villagers came to pay their last respects to Nelo. What most of them remembered is that he “was a good man”. They tell stories of passersby calling out to Nelo who would sit in his hammock. Nelo would invite them in for a chat and always shared with them whatever he had to eat or drink. Like one of the well wishers said: “he will be missed”.

There are plans to petition the authorities to name that part of Reliance “The Nelson Bacchus Square” in his honor.

Nelo, rest in God’s Holy Peace.