Monday, February 19, 2001

Bangladesh 2001: The Myth of Bengalee Culture - Part 8

32. Subversive or Counter Culture - Bangladesh Rock turns Thirty

The concert for Bangladesh at the Madison Square Garden in New York to raise funds for the refugees in 1971 was the penultimate moment of triumph for the recognition of our Liberation struggle against Pakistan. The publicity generated by the rock establishment of the seventies for the first time saw the American people rise in protest against their own Government that was an ally of Pakistan - against the aspiration of freedom of the people of the then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Although the majority of the participants were British rockers - the effort transcended all cultural divide and made music an important weapon for the promotion of human rights - a phenomenon unknown in the seventies.

Unknown to the world was the effect it was having on the young of Bangladesh still fighting its war of Liberation. Bengalee rock music's birth was in the Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army) camp at Melaghar in India, where Azam Khan who would later distinguish himself as a ferocious guerrilla commander, teamed up a group of young men to sing songs and inspire his force to battle. Lyrics and tunes were composed by him - and while guitars and amplification were not available in the camps, he made do with whatever 'instruments' he could lay his hand on - they could be bayonets and machine-gun bullets magazines for percussion, tables for rhythm thumping accompaniment and the harmonium as a keyboard.

From those humble roots rock began in the liberated zones of Bangladesh, and immediately after the war Azam Khan tuned an iconoclast with the young, singing about the frustration and the let down the new Bangladesh has brought them. The revolt against the establishment that was compromising the future of the young was ever so powerfully evoked by his message and saw a great spectre of protest through music - a Western form of music in the Bengalee language, with guitars, bass, drums and keyboards and loud - very loud amplification, which the Bengalee had not witnessed ever in its cultural history and was in for a rude shock.

Shunned by the mainstream media and the establishment of the day as a passing phase and no effort at its promotion made other than use at student political rallies and concert auditoriums, rock steadily progressed to become an alternative force - a new phenomenon to be reckoned upon. It was Sheikh Kamal the rocker son of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman the Bengalee revolutionary leader and the first Prime Minister of independent Bangladesh, who pleaded with his father to import equipment's and instruments that saw the first real effort for rock to spread its wings, and in a round about way receive the patronage to carry the movement forward.

However those were the days when audio cassettes were unheard of, and recordings were limited to a few 45 rpm records that not everyone could afford. Bengalee Rock therefore was a LIVE phenomenon and wherever the early rockers like Feroze Sai, Ferdous Wahid, Fakir Alamgir and Azam Khan went,, they were received with incredulous fan adulation - almost like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones in the UK.

By 1974-75, the Government controlled Bangladesh Television, started to include rock bands in many of its program to circumvent the lacklustre Rabindra sangeet that the traditionalist were trying to promote - without luck and boring the young to death! However it was in one such LIVE program that Azam Khan caught an unsuspecting nation by surprise by singing his famous song, Bangladesh - a protest tune that the establishment of the day could not swallow and resulted in a huge outcry and suspension of some television producers. This episode saw the end of rock bands performance on television and clearly rock music was set for a decline by the time Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his entire family - except for two daughters - were assassinated in a military coup on the 15th of August 1975.

33. 1975 to 1985 - The Lost Years of Bengalee Rock

The subsequent military dictatorship that ruled Bangladesh, decided to take the 'fire' off rock music by promoting local pop artist as an alternate form of music that was considered 'civilised' entertainment - the television its only medium of promotion. The advent of 'Bangladeshi nationalism' was yet another spoke to rock as the dictatorship let loose oppression on the rock community and its fan following by a systematic campaign of cutting long hair in public and brutal punishments. Rockers were tagged as 'drug addicts', hijackers and the display of attitude was considered subversive.

From 1985 onward the first big shot in the arm for rock was a audio cassette production company called Sargam, whose owner was a Bengalee expatriate from West Germany. He chose to promote Bengalee rock bands and pop artist only, and within a year a great change had made its appearance in the Bangladesh cultural scenario. By 1987 Bengalee rock had a renaissance of sort and this turned out to be a big business and multi track recording studios started popping up all over Dhaka. Most successful albums saw sales of over hundred thousand in weeks and the demands were sometimes overwhelming. The Indian dominated 'adhunik Bangla gaan' or modern Bengalee music from West Bengal saw a steady decline and eventually disappeared - such was the strength of Bengalee rock!

The first band with an audio album was Shocking Blues from Dhaka, followed close on heel by Souls from Chittagong. By 1987 bands like Feedback brought in newer elements in Bengalee rock by fusing rock, reggae, funk and fusion to its repertoire and a vast change was also noticed in the way Bengalee songs were rendered with Western intonations. A new language of expression had evolved through rock that was unheard of in Bengalee culture in its known history - again indicators of the power of adaptability of the Bengalee and a new wave of thinking started evolving among the young - such was the strength of the new lyrics by the intelligent and inspired to rock.

The media still had not woken up to the power of rock, although jingles in television advertisement saw a fresh new approach by using the talents of rockers like Foad Nasser Babu of Feedback and Ayub Baccchu then in Souls. The great artistry that the theatre personality Azfal Hossain advanced in telefilms making for consumer brand advertisements, was catered to the taste of the new young referred to as 'aajker projonmo' or 'today's new generation', complete with all the necessary package of fashion, consumerism, get up and move on attitude - that announced the arrival of liberated young Bengalee's serious in their efforts to right the wrongs done to a generation for years - to kick ass hard - in the rockers lingo. The young had begun to assert and like Dylan had sung in the seventies 'times they are a changing'. Tee shirt, jeans, sneakers and the base ball cap - quickly spread in our culture - but more was to come.

34. 1987 to 1990 the Formative Years - Rock becomes a national phenomenon
The devastating flood of 1987 was another shot in the arm for rock in Bangladesh. The three day long Flood Aid Concert at the Sheraton Hotel for the first time since the mid seventies saw a festival of rock bands with hundreds of screaming young and enthusiastic audience willing to pay a price for entrance to watch the show. More than eleven bands participated, showing the immense power of rock to deal with ravage - yet not a word was written in the local press.

Organised by Rebecca Hossain an expatriate Bengalee who had come in from London on vacation at the time- it showed that an organised platform was all that is required to make that one great move for rock to move - FORWARD. Rebecca not only organised the concert she also convinced the management of the Hotel Sheraton to donate its ballroom free for the concert. As if that was not enough, she also made arrangements for the rockers to hand over a cheque to the President of Bangladesh for Flood Relief an amount of close to Takas three hundred thousand.

It was first time that rockers came forward to help its own citizens in a calamity - and that ensured two things - assurance that concerts can bring in money if organized correctly as also one of the best avenues for rockers to showcase their unique talent.

By end of 1987 rockers formed the Bangladesh Musical Bands association (BAMBA) - a loosely organized platform were rockers pledged to perform free for any noble cause - to advance the purpose of the 'movement' - the new coinage. Between 1987 and 1999 - many more concerts were organized and to the urban Dhaka young, rock and BAMBA became synonymous for a good time and great music.

In 1990 after the fall of the dictator Hossain Mohammed Ershad following a bloody students uprising - rock exploded on to the national stage. On the 16th of December 1990, BAMBA organised for the first time in the history of Bangladesh an open-air concert in the Dhaka University - that was free for the general public. Starting at dawn and ending after dusk more than a dozen bands performed to a capacity and peaceful audience of over fifty thousand.

The stage was set for stadium rock to begin. Clearly the auditoriums and halls could not accommodate the new breed of Bangladesh young - hooked to rock. Rock had to move to bigger venues - there being non that could accommodate more than two thousand people at most - it moved to parks, open play fields and by 1992 to stadium, where again the young were willing to pay premium price to watch their rock heroes LIVE.

35. Rock for the Mass - Is this part of a new evolving Bengalee Culture?

From 1990 till today rock has not looked back. With state of art digital recording studios, to thousands of watts of amplification and laser lighting technologies, rock concerts in Bangladesh are a treat. Thanks to corporate sponsorship and the development of the audio industry together with music videos and liberal air time on rock radios and television channels, rock is a happening thing - no different in character than anywhere else in the world. Bangladesh is firmly placed in the rock map of the world, with dozens of international acts making Dhaka and Chittagong important venues for performance and all of this has happened without state patronage - very much a public sector entrepreneurs enterprise.

On an average fifty albums of rock acts are released in Bangladesh yearly, and some of them have already reached the million marks in sales. Whilst an absence of the rock press is still felt, rockers today have more media coverage then ever before and large concerts have seen attendance of fifty thousand or more audience even in far flung moffusils and district towns on to the University campus all over Bangladesh.

In 1992 Feedback, was the first band from Bangladesh to be ever recorded by an international label, the HMV/EMI in Calcutta, West Bengal. Concerts of Feedback in Calcutta, followed closely on heel by Souls, MILES and later Love Runs Blind (LRB) saw the rock phenomenon spread like a wildfire to West Bengal which today has more than a dozen of its own acts and a growing audience hooked to Bangladesh and West Bengal brand of Bengalee Band Music. In recent times bands like MILES, LRB and Ark have gone to the US and Britain for concert tours - and truly it is an international phenomenon, with most bands having their website on the Internet with their music on MP3 and videos as also a large presence in Napster!

Artistry has become so rigorous and well defined, that Bangladesh also has heavy metal rock acts that have a sizeable fan following and an underground rock scene that caters to new emerging bands with power and great talent. Every neighborhood in any major city in Bangladesh has a rock band, and competition is very steep with national level contest organized through corporate sponsorship.

36. The Future of Bengalee Culture - Destined to be heard

Given the tongue-lashing I have reserved for the old, I'd like to saw only this - that I have been privileged to be part of the rock fraternity in Bangladesh as an activist since 1977. I have seen its growth, its struggle and now its fruit, and all I can say is: there is no way one can deny the destiny of the young of Bangladesh between the age group of fifteen to thirty - who arguably constitute sixty percent of the population of Bangladesh. They have been shouting loud for years for their voices to be heard and indeed they are destined to be heard sooner than not.

In the new millennium Bangladesh sees immense possibilities in its young. Had we started early like we did with Music, the face of Bangladesh would have been transformed long ago. That unfortunately did not happen and it is all because of a failure our establishment to see the force and talent of our youth.

The child born on the 25th of March 1971 is thirty this year. A child that has only seen Bangladesh - and no other country he can love. To deny him an opportunity to love his country they way he sees best - is denying ourselves an opportunity to see ourselves firmly in the global world. We grapple with our priorities and the shameless political culture of doom. It will not be before long that a revolution - hopefully a peaceful one - will change things in Bangladesh, and make it free for its own citizens to sit back and enjoy the fruits of Liberation - its INDEPENCE. The next revolution will be led by the young - no different in thinking or attitude than any other in the world as we see it today. I wish them luck.

I dream to see the next revolution - and I dream, because I do not have to spend money dreaming. I dream for the best - for the best has been deprived off Bangladesh for far too long. I dream of clouds to clear before the rain. I hope everybody who has shared this long piece on culture with me - will also share the dream - and help shape a dream for a new future - which millions laid down their lives, without question, for the Bengalee language, for freedom and - BANGLADESH.


Thanks and gratitude:

Abdus Sabur Khan, senior broadcaster and cultural personality for not allowing me to go overboard by checking details of my comments, Fazlous Satter, Journalist, environmental activist, Adilur Rahman Khan Shuvo, lawyer and human right activist and member of Odhikar who first requested me to write on culture, Tanveer Chowdhury, friend and fellow free thinker, the Editor of News From Bangladesh, who agreed to serialise this in his on-line daily on the Internet, Naeem Mohaiemen, at HBO in New York who will also be serialising this piece in his onelist, Mr.Enayetullah Khan, Editor of the prestigious weekly Holiday in Dhaka who will also be serialising this piece despite my harsh opinions, Ahsanul Akbar, friend and Economics student at the University of Exeter in the UK who played the role of a puritanist cultural antagonist to keep me angry and excited and later conceded defeat, as also continued to egg me on to write after my period of 'creative slumber' in 2000, friend and fellow agnostic Joi Gautam Saha, Systems Analyst, Rosewell Park Cancer Institute, Buffalo, New York, who made sure that non of my remarks on his community were politically incorrect, as also the little bits and pieces of 'apostrophe' that my spell check okayed and I later could not edit out, to Saeed Haque Dio my sixteen year old son, who let me sit in and work at his PC inside his rehearsal pad, sacrificing his daily drum practise - and last if not least my dear buddy Emran Mahmud, Managing Director of Radio Metrowave who has been a constant source of support and understanding during all my trials and tribulations.

To my foes - life would be so dull without you!

This eight part 30th Birthday Tribute to Bangladesh was written by Mac between January and February 2001

First Published 19th February 2001


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