Singer Shahida Nurullah doesn’t remember what happened that morning nearly 12 years ago. She remembers some of the day before. It was her first day of training for a job as manager of Gayle’s Chocolates in Royal Oak. That day she learned how to use the cappuccino and espresso machines and the cash register. She doesn’t remember anything of that evening, although it may have involved packing her belongings because she was in the middle of moving to a west side home she’d just bought.
Shahida surmises that she was walking to the bus stop to return to Gayle’s and got as far as the corner of Van Dyke and Kercheval. All she really remembers is becoming aware she was in a hospital bed some two and a half weeks later:
“At first I thought I was dreaming. And then I realized that I wasn’t dreaming, that I was in the hospital, and I did not have a clue as to what had happened. …
“I looked at my leg and I could tell that my leg was broken. My leg was in traction. And I looked at my arm and it was misshapen, so I knew something was very wrong with it also. But once I realized that that was what was happening, the very first thing that I did was, with my right arm I grabbed my throat. I thought to myself, my pipes, are my pipes OK?
“I said to myself, ‘OK, my throat’s OK. ’Cause I don’t care what else is wrong, I just want my throat to be OK.’”
Later she would be told that a car hit her. That she flew into the air and landed on her head. That she stopped breathing and her heart stopped beating. That a stranger administered CPR before the ambulance arrived — and probably saved her life.
She would be told of how friends became worried when she didn’t show up for work. How her brother Hassan Nurullah went to the old house. No luck. Broke into the new house. No luck. How he started to call hospitals and found her at Detroit Receiving.
And she would be told of how friends stood by as she muttered and hollered. Though she was conscious some of the time, she remembers nothing of the 10 days in intensive care, nothing for two and a half weeks. Amnesia, the experts say, can be a way of dealing with pain.
After the two and a half week void, she remembers her first words:
“What I said was, ‘Oh shit, I’m not dreaming! I am in the hospital, and I’m fucked-up.’”
Such language is not the way the soft-spoken, jovial Shahida prefers to present herself. Her beautiful, melodious voice is more often used to bring pleasure to others. But with her left leg, knee, arm and shoulder broken, and with a closed-head brain injury, Shahida Nurullah was indeed fucked-up.
Her aunt Ruth Smith and friend Kim Knoch were at her bedside.
“We were there all the time,” says Smith. “Well, she was an altogether different person. When she was in that stage she screamed all the time, and she was in pain.”
“It was scary,” says Hassan. “Particularly when she was first coming out of it. Her speech was slurred. I was thinking I would have to take care of her the rest of her life.”
In the early days, Shahida didn’t realize the extent and consequences of her injury, especially the brain trauma, which is not well understood by anyone.
“She had traumatic brain injury and multiple orthopedic injuries,” says Dr. Mary Ann Guidice, who has been treating Shahida since the spring of 1990, about a year and a half after the accident. “She had post-traumatic amnesia (PTA) for more than 10 days. That puts her in one of the more severe ranges of post-traumatic amnesia.”
Her PTA and other injuries affect her to this day.
“Her brain injury was in the frontal and temporal lobes,” says Guidice. “Reasoning and executive functions are frontal lobe and recent memory is located in the temporal lobes. The cognitive deficits are in the higher-level executive functions. Concentration, attention, judgment, reasoning, problem-solving, organizational skills, the things considered more cerebral. …”
Crushed and broken, battered and brain-injured, Shahida faced a daunting rehabilitation. It meant marshaling her soul and courage and accepting the largesse of many members of Detroit’s jazz community. But when she takes the stage these days, as she will Monday evening at the Ford Detroit International Jazz Festival, it’s they who are surprised by how far she has come. In the end, it’s Shahida’s unrelenting optimism in the face of long odds that is the lesson of her story.
Facing tough times was an old song for Shahida. Her mother died from a medication administered by a dentist when Shahida was 13 years old. Her father, Shahid Nurullah, fell ill a few years later.
He had worked at a number of jobs over the years — postman, drug counselor, cabbie. But to his friends and family, Nurullah was first and foremost a jazz singer.
“He was one of a number of quite significant singers in town back in the early ’50s along with Pancho Hagood and Austin Cromer and was very much respected for his baritone voice,” says Detroit pianist Kenn Cox.
But he suffered from pulmonary disorders — asthma, bronchitis, tuberculosis and acute emphysema. Not long after her mother’s death, Shahida became a caretaker as his health began declining. Still Shahida managed to work on a singing career.
“I’ve always known that that was what I was going to do since I was a child. … I knew that I was going to be a singer. I went to Cass (Technical High School). I was a music major in Cass and continued to study after that. I did not go as far as I wanted to as far as school went.”
“She’s a remarkable young woman,” Cox says. “She went to Cass Tech, and in that respect she’s formally trained in music. But even beyond the music, she’s one of the most remarkable young women that I’ve ever known. … She assumed the responsibility of taking care of her father and her brother. For a young girl not even out of high school, she had to have a tremendous amount of stamina, a very big heart and broad shoulders.”
As her father’s health failed, friends from the jazz community looked in more and more often.
“Musicians would come by there and play for him while he was sick,” recalls Hassan.
When her father died, Shahida was 19. She immediately filed for and attained guardianship of the then-12-year-old Hassan.
“I remember looking at him one day and said, ‘Well, it’s just you and me, kid.’”
First she attempted to make it with music. A friend asked her to sit in with a group at a downtown club called the Salt Mine. The owner was in the house and hired her. It was the beginning of years singing pop music in clubs while her love of Brazilian music and jazz developed as a sidelight. But club work also led to a day job that kept body and soul together.
“I was working out at Mingles, and the waitress walked up to me and she gave me a glass of orange juice and $5, and she said, that man over there wants to talk to you about working for him. I said, ‘Yeah, right.’ So I went over there and I spoke with him, and he offered me a job. … And I said, ‘Well, I don’t really know how to do anything other than what you see me doing,’ because honesty has always been the best policy for me, you know. And he said, ‘That’s OK, as long as you’re willing to learn you can work.’”
She became a secretary at the now-defunct Construction Coordinators Inc., owned by Carl Tropf. Eventually, she learned how to bid jobs and expanded her duties. Amazingly, her boss allowed her time off to pursue her music.
Later the business dried up, and Construction Coordinators closed. At a staff party on the last day of work, Shahida remembers asking Mrs. Tropf why her husband had hired a singer: “And the response that his wife gave was, ‘If you did one thing well, you could do something else well.’”
Her experience with Tropf led to a position with the Detroit Edison Energy Conservation Program, which she kept for more than seven years starting in 1981. Again, her schedule was flexible enough to allow her pursuit of music.
“I worked in dinner clubs, and so I did a lot of R&B,” she says. “I had to do Donna Summer music and Michael Jackson and the Weather Girls. I don’t know how many times I sang ‘I Will Survive.’”
Shahida was working four to six nights a week at various clubs. She endured the hours, the smoke, the noise from indifferent patrons, even being constantly surrounded by alcohol though she didn’t drink. And finally in the mid-’80s she knew she had to break free.
“I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do, and then finally one day I told my friend Cortland Hill, who was working with me at that time, ‘I cannot do this another day. When this gig is up, I am never in life working in another one of these places.’ … I just wanted to concentrate on the Brazilian music and jazz and trying to grow, because I definitely wasn’t growing doing that.”
Europe and back
The singer had always maintained contact with the jazz world; musicians around town had become her surrogate family, keeping an eye on her and Hassan. They were people such as Kenn and Barbara Cox, George and Naima Shambourger, Donald and Marsha Walden, and Beans Bowles, the former Motown talent scout she credits with helping develop her stage manner.
“Beans helped me raising my brother,” says Shahida. “He talked me through every aspect of my life … about show business, music, what to do onstage.”
Shahida began putting together her own groups and working with established groups such as Donald Walden’s Detroit Jazz Orchestra, Teddy Harris’ Detroit Voices and Kenn Cox’s Guerilla Jam Band. The Guerilla band particularly focused on the Latin sound she loved.
Then one day she got a phone call from pianist Geri Allen. A former classmate from Cass, Allen was in New York, creating a buzz by playing and recording with top avant-garde leaders. She’d even released two albums of her own. In 1986, Allen decided to put together a band heavy with Detroiters to record her compositions.
In the studio, Open On All Sides included Shahida on vocals, drummer Tani Tabbal, bassist Jaribu Shahid, saxophonist Dave McMurray, trumpeters Marcus Belgrave and Rayse Biggs, and tap dancer Lloyd Storey — all Detroiters. It also included New Yorkers Steve Coleman on sax, Robin Eubanks on trombone and Mino Cinelu on percussion.
The album In the Middle was released in early 1987 and won praise for being both adventurous and accessible. A three-week European tour with a stripped-down band followed. Coleman didn’t tour and Shahida stepped in to sing the alto sax parts.
“The band was totally different. We felt like jazz renegades,” says McMurray. “We’d be waiting for a train, and I’d look over and go, ‘Whoa.’ We weren’t pretending to be out there. We were doing it. The gigs went great, and the band proved to be kind of ahead of its time. I listen to the record now and it still excites me. Shahida definitely had her work cut out for her. It was a stretch. The melodies were written for horns, and she would sing these melodies along with the group. It was kind of difficult for us even as horn players, so she was definitely challenged. She is not an avant-garde singer. Her approach to melody was great. She has like a pure voice. A great singing voice.”
It was in Amsterdam during that tour that Shahida met percussionist Mahindi Masai, a Detroiter who would become a dear friend. Masai was based in Europe and touring with various bands, mostly out of Germany. But during a break from working he got a surprise. He stopped by “one of Holland’s most famous jazz clubs, looked at the billing and saw all of my Detroit friends — Geri, Tani, etc., but I
didn’t know Shahida,” says Masai.
“Shahida really enchanted me with her voice. They were doing some modern jazz stuff. The style was typically Detroit. Half of Geri’s band was former Griot Galaxy players. Geri doesn’t sound like Griot, but her music is very modern, some interesting arrangements. The cats could pull it off real smooth, and Shahida fit right in.
“Rhythmically, you can tell she listens to a lot of Brazilian stuff. And when I later got to know her and listened to her record collection, I was right on the money. She listened to a lot of salsa, sambas and bossa novas. It gives her a unique style.”
The tour was an exciting experience for all. Shahida took time off from Edison and returned to her job after the tour. The band was invited back to Germany in the summer of 1988 for the Möers Jazz Festival.
But after returning from that trip, she found herself unemployed: Her job was eliminated as part of cutbacks at Edison. Music was her life, but Shahida still needed a day job; for one thing, she was buying a house. Eventually, she landed work at Gayle’s Chocolates. At the end of December she turned 32, and the future looked bright.
Then she got hit by the car.
Kindness of friends
Geri Allen has become a jazz superstar in the ensuing years. Dave McMurray has released two albums on major labels. Shahid and Tabbal have relocated to New York where they record and play with top groups.
Shahida Nurullah had to learn how to walk again. And to sing.
“I remember asking Dr. Ronald Little when I was going to be able to go out on the road again,” says Shahida. “And he said, ‘Oh, maybe about 18 months.’ And I thought to myself, surely he must be kidding. I said, these people are all crazy here. That’s a year and a half. So I had no way at that time of conceptualizing how serious what had happened to me was, and that I would still be dealing with it even now. … I didn’t know that I was going to be different, that different.”
Doctors put two metal plates in her arm and a metal rod in her leg.
“Dr. Little is my hero because he put me back together, literally,” says Shahida.
From Receiving, she was transferred to the Rehabilitation Institute for therapy. She learned exercises to regain her strength. She learned how to get out of bed and into a wheelchair, how to get on a toilet.
After two months in the hospital and the Rehabilitation Institute, things could easily have fallen apart for Shahida. That’s when Detroit’s storied jazz community came through.
While she was still in the hospital, musicians pulled together and performed a benefit for her. Shahida remembers spending two hours on the telephone talking to people at the benefit — which lifted her spirits. The money raised helped her keep up payments on the modest house she had purchased.
When she came out of the hospital unable to take care of herself, George and Naima Shambourger opened up their home. They transformed their living room into a space for Shahida to rest and heal.
“She’s family,” says Naima Shambourger, who met Shahida when the younger woman was 13 years old and singing with Shambourger’s nephew. “So we were always close to her. My husband would help her with (Hassan), him being a boy. We were Shahida’s family. Gatherings, holidays, summers we’d go to the beach, those kinds of things. …
“We didn’t think she was going to make it. When she pulled through I said, ‘You’re coming home with us when you get out of here.’
“They brought the medical things that she would need to have, and she stayed on the first floor of the house. At that time, I was teaching school and my husband was here. He was home every day. We cooked, made sure she had her meals and took care of her. Really nurtured her.
“That was really a very traumatic thing to happen to anybody. She had to learn how to read, she lost her memory, she had to learn mathematics, just everyday things all over again, how to negotiate physically.”
At first Shahida depended on others to move her around. She was particularly fearful that she would fall and injure herself again. Then one day George Shambourger, who had been an orthopedic technician, decided it was time for her to start doing for herself.
“She wanted to come into the kitchen, and I just left her at the bottom of the stairwell,” says George. “It took about 20 minutes for her to mentally get herself together, and she started trying and she succeeded. She gained confidence in herself and started moving.”
That was a turning point. After that she became a model patient who faithfully did her therapy and made doctors appointments. She was in a wheelchair for a while. Then, she had a platform walker with a surface to strap her arm cast onto; to get around with the contraption, she would hop on her good leg.
Getting back on both feet was a struggle, but Masai, who had returned to Detroit, took it upon himself to get her over that hump.
“I made sure that woman was gonna walk,” says Masai. “I just somehow knew that it was possible, and it was gonna happen. It was one step at a time. I’d help her up. She’d take that one step or two steps until the pain got too much or whatever. The next day, maybe three steps or just the two that she did before, but the next day there would definitely be more. …
“If we had to walk that day she would prepare herself. She had some other rehabilitation equipment. She would always warm up before we walked down the street, stretched. Everything the PT (physical therapist) told her. That made her recovery quicker than normal.”
After a month with the Shambourgers, Shahida moved in with her aunt Ruth and uncle Bill Smith. She stayed there almost six months before moving into her own house, where Masai practically moved in for another five months.
There were challenges everywhere. She could no longer rotate her left forearm to turn a doorknob, or use a broom or mop. Once she reached under the driver’s seat of her car to retrieve her keys — and was unable to pull her hand out. Friends eventually had to use a crowbar to free her.
Just doing laundry is a complicated series of tasks. She puts her clothes in a sack, then drags it on the floor out to her back porch. She then backs her car up to the porch, opens the trunk and drags the sack into the car.
“Necessity is the mother of invention, and just figuring out how to do things,” she says. “I do some cleaning, but the heavy stuff I can’t do. … But you never really adjust — how can I put this? You never really get totally used to not being able to use a part of your body like you did before. You never get used to it.”
After the first year, dealing with the effects of her brain injury came to the forefront. She talks about having to learn to read again, particularly books or anything of length because of her problems with concentration. It was five or six years before she was able to read a book from cover to cover. She started with Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal.
“I love espionage,” Nurullah says. “And I just had such a good time, and I was just into that book and it was so wonderful. I said, ‘Wow, I’m reading a book!’ … When I read now, I have to be very well rested, and that’s all that I can do is just read that day.”
Not only does she now read books, but she collects rare books, especially editions of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. She collected those before the accident, but her first collection was stolen while she was convalescing. And this year she is president of the Book Club of Detroit, a group of bibliophiles who meet for monthly programs. It’s not a reading club. Members are collectors and have an interest in design and production.
Shahida buys a lot of books, books she can’t get around to reading. Shelves around her house are packed. But she seems to take the stacks of tomes as a challenge.
“You know, that really bothered me that I couldn’t read,” she says.
For all the progress, however, a mysterious fatigue seemed to dog her. Everything seemed to take too long and take too much out of her. It’s due to the brain injury, although there is little understanding of how it happens. Dr. Guidice says the tiredness is probably made worse by the bodily injuries and the difficulty of even simple tasks. The bottom line is she is limited to one major activity per day. If she is going to perform that evening she must rest during the day.
Returning to performing was one of Shahida’s biggest concerns. She recalls sitting at home waiting for a vocational rehabilitation specialist who was going to discuss training. Shahida was worried that she would be taught to do some mindless task and was ready to argue about it.
“And she came in and she said, ‘Well now, I was looking through your case, and it seems to me like what you need is some voice lessons.’ And I was like, wow. I said, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I need.’ And I was like, God, thank you, thank you so much.
“She fought for me, and she made sure that I got everything that I needed. … She was a very good friend. She was very supportive. She and her husband would come and see me when I would perform. I wasn’t performing a lot then but some. They even gave me money. ... They said every year that they would give money to charities, but they figured they’d just give it to me, that I would be the charity that year.”
Shahida studied singing with Sterling Glen Sangoma for more than two years — twice a week for the first 18 months. She was able to perform about a year after the accident, although even today she can’t take on a busy schedule.
In the meantime there were all kinds of doctors: A physiatrist, a speech pathologist, an orthopedic doctor, a urologist, a neuropsychologist, a neurologist, and an opthamologist And lots and lots of therapists.
Shahida likes to recount an incident from a few years ago. She was singing at Gayle’s Chocolates. She announced that she was taking a break and mentioned her first name. An emergency room doctor recognized it and came over to ask if she was Shahida Nurullah. He remembered the name and knew his patient had been a singer. When he saw her cane he figured she was the one. He came over to her and spoke, amazed at her recovery. “Wow, we never get to see the people afterwards,” he said. “You were in really bad shape. You look great and you sound great.”
That doctor is the only person from the period that Shahida didn’t remember having thanked. It was very special to her to be able to thank him.
The party queen
Shahida’s most familiar territory is her two-story, brick-and-cedar shingle home on Detroit’s west side. A wide porch spans its front. A lot on one side is all greenery — trees, bushes, flowers. One tree has a feeder, and birds frequent her yard year-round. She’s counted 20 species. And to the wonderment of visitors, she can hold out a palm full of seed and invite chickadees to land on her fingers and dine.
Shahida shrugs it off. “That’s just a characteristic of chickadees,” she says. “Chickadees are fearless.”
Inside the neat and sparsely furnished house one is enveloped by the personal warmth and friendliness that friends say has always been Shahida’s way. One is also enveloped by art. Photos, paintings, drawings and posters of musicians adorn the place. One wall is dedicated to drawings by her brother Hassan. Her breakfast nook is dedicated to Josephine Baker. She collects Roseville pottery and a form of woodcarving known as tramp art that was created by itinerant laborers in Europe and the United States during the late 1800s and was most prevalent during the Great Depression.
There are little treasures everywhere. An urn holds her collection of canes, some with beautifully carved heads. There’s a framed certificate signed by Admiral Byrd commemorating the fact that Shahida’s father was one of the sailors on the ship that made the historic trip to Antarctica in 1947.
She loves to have people over.
“She’s a worldly person,” says Masai. “She’s very cool no matter where you come from. For example, she lives in a predominately African-American neighborhood but she’s got friends from around the planet. You might go in and find Japanese people or someone from Sweden making waffles or something.”
And her parties are legendary.
“My sister has these really tremendous birthday parties,” says Hassan, reciting a list of musicians who have performed there. “It’s sublime. It’s incredible. You could never capture it.”
She throws a big party for her Dec. 30 birthday every year. She used to get it all together herself but now counts more and more on others, negotiating with one for pies and another to bring dishes. She starts cooking three or four days before to feed as many as 100 people. The best part though, is the music. Musicians come out and play for each other in ways public audiences never hear.
“She’s like the party queen,” says Masai reminiscing about one gathering. “There she was. She had her friends over, the best drummers in the city were there playing rumbas until 4 in the morning. She also had some classical musicians there. The night was just a night of music. If we weren’t drumming, the guitar was going on, or singing a cappella. She was there and she was blowing.”
It’s indicative of the gusto Shahida brings to life. Her sunny personality is one of the things that seems to have survived the accident intact. And she even looks at herself with a bit of humor. How else could one of her favorite songs to sing be Willie Dixon’s blues “Built for Comfort”? “I’m built for comfort, I ain’t built for speed,” goes the refrain.
“The people who do the best are the people who take a licking and keep on ticking,” says Dr. Guidice. “You can either be happy and live your life or live your life and be miserable because it’s something that won’t change.”
But things probably won’t get any easier as Shahida ages. A bulging disc in her back causes daily pain. Recently she suffered headaches and neck discomfort after another vehicle bumped her car from behind. In the spring she had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome and an inflamed ulnar nerve in her left arm; she faces similar surgery on her right arm. She has day-to-day memory problems and writes notes to keep track of things. Dr. Guidice warns there may be more complications ahead. But Shahida smiles and forges on, rarely complaining.
In fact, she talks about having a charmed life. That God is watching over her. She refers to the people around her as “angels” who have watched over her even before her injuries. She seems to talk with everybody often and at all hours. Kenn Cox says it’s not unusual for the phone to ring in the middle of the night with Shahida calling to ask about a song. Her Aunt Ruth says they speak at least every other day. Shahida keeps up with her brother’s family, particularly his three children. If Shahida can’t get to you, she’ll call.
And most friends are just full of wonderment at how well she has done. She recalls a conversation with one friend named Igbo.
“He said one day, ‘If what happened to you happened to me, Shahida, I’d cry every day.’ I said, ‘No you wouldn’t. You’d learn how to adjust to it and just deal with it.’ But for the most part, I am a happy person, I’m glad to be alive.”
That happiness was evident recently at a sidewalk concert she gave in front of Gayle’s Chocolates in Royal Oak, which she does from time to time, accompanied by guitarist Steve Carryer. She sang in Portuguese. Cajoled passersby to stop in. But she seemed most joyous when she used pal Froggy the Jazz Puppet, to get the kids near her.
There she was, frog in hand, surrounded by children, singing, “Down by the bay, where the watermelons grow.”
It wasn’t fancy, it wasn’t jazz, but it was fun. Shahida Nurullah doesn’t ask a lot more out of life.Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former Metro Times editor. Send comments to [email protected]