Radio microphone and Distant Voices Near book cover

Connecting Over the Airwaves

For Shaheed Nick Mohammed, doing research for his latest book was “like diving into an old movie.”
By: Therese Boyd

It’s not often someone can say doing research is “like diving into an old movie.” But that’s what Shaheed Nick Mohammed experienced while writing his latest book, Distant Voices Near: Historical Globalization and Indian Radio in Trinidad and Tobago (University of the West Indies Press, 2017). “You sort of get lost in the story,” he says. In this instance, it’s the story of the development of Indian radio on the island of Trinidad.

From the last quarter of the nineteenth century through the beginning of World War I, over 100,000 Indians immigrated to Trinidad and other Caribbean islands. Some came as workers, others as indentured servants. While present residents are removed from the original immigrants, those descendants still identify to some extent as Indian. Mohammed describes them as having “an imagination of being Indian. They don’t speak the language, they don’t follow the traditions. They’ve been separated from it for 200 years.” But they still feel a connection to India.

In the early 1990s that connection found a place in local radio with the creation of the first station to cater specifically to Indo-Trinidadians. “These radio stations very successfully play into that,” says Mohammed. As he says in the book, “The music played on these stations may be wrapped in a chimera of Indianness with a beat borrowed from Bollywood but with a rap or reggae refrain. Even when Bollywood songs are played in standard Hindi, there are few in the audience who can understand a word of it. Thus these stations represent not India or being Indian, but a particular construction of being Indo Trinidadian, a set of imaginaries that, collectively, represent an identity.”

Since its inception the advent of radio across the globe has been about creating stations, finding an audience, filling a public need. By the early 1920s US stations were broadcasting news, live musical performances, and even college football. Of course, profit was—and is—always a driving factor. When discussing the island radio stations, Mohammed says, “We talk ‘culture,’ but this is a lucrative business venture.”

This story is one Mohammed has wanted to write for years—he grew up in Trinidad—but the usual career-track obstacles stood in his way: “After I had published all my peer review research and been tenured, I could do this project.” In fact, with the passage of time, he says, “it became necessary for me to do it” while he still had the opportunity to interview the pioneers. But he had to figure out how to tell the story he wanted to tell: “How do I make this about more than a bunch of quirky radio stations?”

That’s where he found himself “diving into an old movie.” On trips to Guyana and Trinidad, supported with travel and other grant funds from Penn State, Mohammed searched archives, talked to locals, and worked in primary sources: “You sort of get lost in the story how someone is setting up this radio station in 1947. I leafed through dusty copies of 90-year-old newspapers and boxes of old letters in archives and libraries in the region, reconstructing a history. I have not done a lot of this before. It was enjoyable but also transformative. I was lost in where I was and forgetting where I was.”

The research experience, in this case, expanded his own teaching. “I’m teaching a media history course and charging them to do this kind of history.” To get his students to look at primary sources he is sending them to the Altoona Library. Research also led Mohammed to realize the wealth of materials in the Penn State Archives, which he says are “amazing. This was the kind of stuff beyond what I could have dreamed of as a child. It really changes the game in terms of what you can produce and how quickly you can produce it.”

According to the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, as of May 2016 there were 39 radio stations on the islands, nine of which with either an Indian or Hindu format. Thanks to the Internet, anyone in the world can listen to Aakash Vani 106.5 FM, or Sangeet 106.1 FM, or Radio Jaagriti or any of the other stations broadcasting from Trinidad and Tobago, and as Mohammed says, bring those “distant voices near.”