By Yasmeen Persaud
By day, Richmond Hill’s Kaieteur Restaurant is known just for tasty Guyanese and West Indian food. By night, however, it transforms into a place where some local stars can shine.
Each community has its own entertainers, and Southeast Queens’ Indo-Caribbean community is no different. Local singers steal the spotlight at Kaieteur — just as the Guyana-born Peter Dass has been doing every Sunday night at the restaurant for the past 21 years. Dass has sung Hindi music since the early 1960's, making his mark in both his native country and in India.
His passion for singing started while he was still in high school, and Dass often performed at local programs and concerts.
Dass took inspiration from legendary Indian playback singer Mohammad Rafi. Playback singers pre-recorded songs to be used in films, to be later lip-synced on screen by an actor. Rafi recorded for over a thousand Hindi films, and was one of the most influential singers in India by the time he died in 1980.
“Growing up as a little boy listening to him, I grew up with that inclination of singing and humming,” Dass told the Eagle.
Dass rose to prominence in Guyana by participating in Rafi-styled singing competitions, winning one such contest in 1981. To this day, a wall in Dass’ house features a full-size picture of Rafi, honored with one of Dass’ competition medals.
“I like his sentimental songs because I am very emotional, and when I combine my sentiments and my singing to the crowd, I don't feel like myself because I am so into it,” Dass said.
Dass was never officially taught Hindi. However, his love of Rafi's songs compelled him to break out onto the Hindi music scene.
“I was never taught Hindi. I only learned songs from ear sound,” he said. “I used to sit down and write down the lyrics. I used to walk and go to the pandit and priest who knew Hindi and sit down with them and make changes to it.”
Both Indo-Caribbeans and Indians have been skeptical of Dass’ passion for Hindi music in the past because of this lack of knowledge, but he has found recognition throughout Guyana and in Queens.
In March 2011, Dass went to India to perform. He was fearful that native Hindi speakers would judge him for not being one. “It was like going into a lion’s den," he said. “Because Hindi's their language, and I’m the copycat.” However, when they heard his singing and enjoyed it, Dass felt vindicated.
Dass also credits his wife Mona as an anchor for his lifestyle as a father, husband and singer.
Every Sunday night, he dresses in a sharp suit and travels one hour from his home in Staten Island to perform in Queens. He won’t perform without his wife being by his side.
"She is my feet and eyes," Dass said.