Harry Mahabir is the musical bridge over which Indian rhythms flowed and changed as it connected with the popular culture of Trinidad and Tobago. His interpretation and expression of Indian music helped to make it more accessible to all audiences in Trinidad and Tobago. In this way, Harry Mahabir was critical to the process by which Indo-Trinidadian music entered the mainstream, influencing and being influenced by other musical genres. As musical director of the BWIA National Indian Orchestra of Trinidad and Tobago, backing up hundreds of contestants in the Mastana Bahar competition and performing before weekly audiences of thousands, Harry Mahabir’s impact was decisive and incontrovertible.
His years of working with the popular television Indian talent show capped a lifetime career in music which had begun from the day he was born. His father Roop Mahabir was a well-known violin player of Sangre Grande in east Trinidad. In later years, Harry Mahabir would recall the impact of his father’s violin music on him, saying it was the source of the inspiration that led him to music.
Growing up, he gravitated to other instruments as well, such as the dholak drum and the harmonium. His obvious talent caught the attention of others. Soon, he was being asked to perform at public events. As a teenager, he joined the Naya Zamana Orchestra led by the late Ustad Nazir Mohammed.
In 1965, an incident in London had a decisive influence on Harry Mahabir’s musical path. As part of the Trinidad and Tobago contingent to the Commonwealth Arts Festival in London, he arrived ready to perform a repertoire of popular Indian film songs only to discover that the Indian contingent included the great singers who had recorded the music. Under pressure, he turned to Indo-Trinidadian folk songs, silently vowing to work towards something that was uniquely Trinidadian and not just a carbon copy of India.
That same year, Harry Mahabir went to India on a two-year scholarship to study music. While there he worked intermittently on background music for Indian films, including the popular Ram Aur Shyam. Back home, he continued performing at public events until 1970, when his main commitment became the weekly Mastana Bahar show. Ultimately, this talent competition would become the forum for moving towards the distinctive and original sound that was uniquely Trinbagonian.
In 1972, for his contribution to music, Harry Mahabir was awarded the Hummingbird Medal (Silver) by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago.