Wednesday, March 12, 1997

Jazzy Tunes from the Rebel Poet of Dhaka

Maqsoodul Haque of Feedback combines socio-political activism with a new funky beat in his first solo album. The man calls it the 'sound from the underground', and Sabir Mustafa finds out why

When Prapto Boyoshker Nishiddho (Banned for Adults), Maqsoodul Haque's first solo album, hit the music shop late last month, a large chunk of the rock fraternity were ready for it. Maqsood is no stranger to the tens of thousands of teenagers (in age or pretension, real or played up) who regularly throng the open air rock concerts that have been become a regular feature in the alternate cultural scene in Dhaka in recent years.'

The outspoken singer/songwriter of Feedback has always been known for his no-nonsense lyrics that lambaste every perceived evil under the sun -- from bearded mullahs hawking hate to corrupt politicians preaching democracy. A rebel to the bones (and a poet of some venom) - Maqsood has over the years fashioned a unique Bengalee version of protest chants. But Nishiddho takes his music to a different level, from chanting and rapping to an anthem that seeks to speak for a generation lost in the quagmire of bad politics married to bad economics.

With ten songs in Prapto Boyoshker Nishiddho, adding the crispy sound of jazz to his more familiar funk/rap/reggae repertoire. But the result is a far more listenable, cheery sound that contrast sharply with the rebellious lyrics. He has also thrown a challenge in various directions, with songs like Parwardigar (or creator in Arabic) which castigates religious fundamentalism for their campaign of hate ("They have slaughtered the dove of peace and learnt to nurture the vultures instead" he cries) or the musical speech Mrityudondo (Death sentence) in which he demand the death for the entire political establishment ("200,000 Bengalee women are raped every day in Pakistani prisons by the off-springs of war criminals of 1971, while we worry about Pakistan cricket teams fate" he observes scathingly, before demanding his own death sentence, presumably for being an accomplice to the existing socio-political order).

The anger and rage of Prapto Boyoshker Nishiddho opens a new chapter in Maqsood's long career which has taken him from the polished floor of the erstwhile Intercontinental Hotel, now the Dhaka Sheraton, to the tumultuous atmosphere of Dhaka's open air spots.

When Maqsood began his musical career back in 1976, there was little indication of the rebel poet struggling to break out. Fronting a little know band Feedback and playing dance-floor numbers to an upper-crust audience, his music was tailored to match the mood of the moment.

A great deal of water has since flowed down the Ganges. Feedback has emerged as the front-ranking pop/rock band of the country, spearheading the explosive advance of a popular sound that combine the melody of Bengal with the thumping western pop, rock and reggae. The rough edged guitar sound accompanying the sometimes barely audible screaming gave way to rap like chanting and a sound that was imminently danceable.

The first Feedback album in which Maqsood - by then known simply as 'Mac' - took the part of lead vocal. Titled Ullash ( Euphoria) the album was released in 1987. Over the next 10 years, the bands music evolved, moving from raunchy reggae rhythm and lyrics that celebrated youthful exuberance to delving deep into the folk roots of the national musical heritage with Bauliana in October of 1996. In between, the 1990 album Mela (carnival) was a chartbuster. In 1994 Feedback's Bangabdo 1400 (Bengalee era 1400) was ostensibly a music imprint commemorating the Bengalee era 1400. The album is a musical milestone and a product of Mac's genius. The band won the Jai Jai Din (the Bangladesh equivalent of the Grammy) award for music in 1995.

Maqsood's vision saw a compilation of ten of Feedback's popular song released in a cassette titled JOAR in 1992, by the prestigious international label HMV/EMI in Calcutta, India which has seen a great fan following in West Bengal for the singer.

Danceabilty remains Mac's choice, but the message in the music has taken the unmistakable character of protest. A street-wise poet who sounds increasingly disillusioned with the way the world is structured, Mac does not have to far to go back to look for inspiration. The rebel in him may evoke the memory of a Dylan or Mac's musical mentor the American radical blues singer Gil Scott Heron for some, but Mac's spirit comes straight out of the history book of this dear land.

Activism through art is not a new phenomenon in Bangladesh. All the landmark political movement of the country -- the Language Movement of 1952, the Six Point Movements of 1966-69 and the Liberation War of 1971 -- all had significant contribution from various media of the arts. Even in Independent Bangladesh, major movements to restore and consolidate democracy, notably in 1990 and 1996, saw artist take to the streets and use their unique vehicles to propagate popular causes.

However apart from the water-shed years of 1971, when music and musicians played a catalytic role in mobilizing public opinion, the leading part of the political struggle has always been played by poets, thespians and painters. During the movement of 1992-94 against war criminals of 1971 and religious fundamentalism, again it was poets and theater artist at the forefront. Poetry and theater against fundamentalism, in fact is a recurring phenomenon, because the threat is anything but a passing phase.

The radical tradition has been with the Bengalee cultural scene for centuries, from since before the advent of the poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, the daring of Begum Rokeya or Lalan Shah's search for spiritual fulfillment through union with the God of all humanity. It is a militantly secular tradition that is being kept alive in the realm of patriotic music, poetry and theater, but the coming of the spirit to the pop scene is a relatively new phenomenon. With missionary zeal characteristic of pioneers of any particular genre of art, Mac has also gone for a no-hold-barred approach.

He identifies Gonotontro (Democracy) as the signature tune of Prapto Boyoshker Nishiddho. He terms it a musical march (Giti Micheel), a procession of the dispossessed and the marginalised youth. The chanting is accompanied by thumping bass and percussion, bringing the song to life. "Democracy has become some sort of institutionalized thug-o-cracy", Mac sings. Again in Abar Juddhey Jatay Hobay (Got to go to the war again) is a ballad of youth. The song he says is all about the struggle to establish freedom of speech and expression. But the feeling of alienation is expressed powerfully. "Either give us peace, jobs and a chance to live, or let us find our own illegal ways", sings the poet.

The controversy that such lyrics could create was not unexpected, but it was a little surprising when Soundtek, the major music production company of the country, pulled the rug out from under Mac's feet at the last minute. The void was filled by Geetanjali which hopes to market in excess of 100,000 copies of the digitally recorded cassette and bring out a CD version in early 1998. All of course fits in with Mac's idea of dHAKA, or sound from the underground, a music that is shunned by the establishment but rejoiced by the youth.

It was sometimes in 1994 that Mac hit upon the idea of dhaka. The word may sound like the name of the capital city, but the singer-songwriter chose it for its literal meaning -- covered. The music Mac wanted to pursue, he felt, had to be of the underground variety, a sound that the alienated youth could immediately relate to. In fact, the music was to be Mac's vehicle to give vent to his feelings and allow him to raise political awareness of the youth.

"The establishment has become totally and completely divorced from the realities of the youth", he says, terming the post 1971 generation as the "non-aligned" because no socio-political force or institution is there to back them. " I have aligned myself with the non-aligned, because I fully believe in the aspiration of the youth".

The alignment with the non-aligned started long before the idea of dhaka cropped up, but the idea assumed its full shape as Feedback released its seventh album last year. The end result of the tinkering with the thought came with the confederation of musicians that's too loose to be called a band but close-knit enough to work as one unit. The concept of dhaka, Mac says, allows room for any number of musician's joining in recording or gigs, which sounds rather like an institutionalized form of jamming.

" The concept of dhaka is rather like an anti-thesis to bands. While bands are structured, dhaka is based on chemistry", says Mac. The basis of that chemistry is ofcourse the philosophy provided by Mac's lyrics and music, while the experiment works so long as various talents fuse together.

The new direction has certainly given Mac a renewal of inspiration. This comes at a time when he is finally free of the shackles of a 'regular job'. He currently works in an advisory capacity with a travel agency, after spending fifteen years in the business as an executive. The new freedom not only allows him more time to devote to music, there are other fringe benefits as well. "I can grow my hair long again and I don't have to wear a suit or a tie", he says.

THE FINANCIAL EXPRESS Sunday, October 12 1997