Thursday, May 15, 2003

The Music of Maqsood o' dHAKA

Ahsanul Akbar writes from London

Atmosphere, urgency, emotion and socio-political change through revolutionary music: these are the principal cultural foundation of the phenomenal jazz-rock fusion band from Bangladesh, maqsood o' dHAKA.

The bandleader, Maqsoodul Haque (Mac), is a pioneer in progressive Bangladesh music and a well-known figure among fans in the country's rock fraternity. Having performed as the lead vocalist for then mainstream band FEEDBACK for almost 20 years, he formally left the band in 1997. The same year dHAKA, the first ever band from South Asia to fuse jazz and rock with ethnic music from Bangladesh, was formed based on the philosophy provided by Mac's lyrics and music.

Maqsood's musical career began as early as 1976 with Feedback, a little-known group performing for the audience in the Chambeeli Restaurant then the only supper club with live music at erstwhile Hotel Intercontinental (now Dhaka Sheraton). The band would render western pop; rock and reggae cover tunes to suit the crowd's mood, which would be keen on danceable numbers. Conforming to western style of singing, Mac soon established himself as a prominent vocalist and a flamboyant performer, covering over 500 songs from different genres of pop/rock to funk/reggae and on to blues and jazz.

Feedback's first album was relased in 1985 - titled Feedback Volume 1 - where Mac was absent. It later released its second Bengalee language album titled Ullash (Euphoria) in 1987, which featured smash hits Chithi (Letter), Chokh (Eyes - Adapted from Cultre Clubs "Time") and Majhee (Boatman) - all penned, tuned and sung by Maqsood. For trivia's sake, Chithi is the first reggae tune in Bengali. Another noteworthy mention in this pop/rock/reggae-fused album is Moushumi (Part 1), also sung by Mac, which saw its sequel in Mela (Carnival), the next Feedback album: considered a milestone in Bengalee band music. The title track of this 1990 album is a seminal masterpiece - a 'monster hit' as Maqsood calls it. The eloquence of the song captures the essence of festivities in Pohela Boishakh (14th April - Bengalee New Year's) whilst depicting the exuberant nature of Bengali youthfulness. Other key songs in the album featuring Mac's vocals are Goudhuli (Sunset - Adapted from Paul Anka's "Love is a Loney Song"), Palki (tribute to the late jazz musician Happy Akhand) and Jibon Jala (Life's Agony). Incidentally, Jibon Jala - is one of the many firsts that were egged-on by Maqsood's zeal for creativity - indeed it is the first jazz tune to be recorded in the Bengalee language.

Recorded between 1990 and 1992 at the HMV/EMI studios at Gramophone Company of India Limited, Calcutta, India, Joar (High Tide), a compilation of ten songs made popular by Feedback in Bangladesh, was released simultaneously in Bangladesh and India. The only original tune included in the album was Majhee '91 (Boatman '91) a soul-stirring ballad on the deaths of thousands of boatman in the Bay of Bengal in a tidal bore of 1991. With this recognition from HMV/EMI, Mac's vision as well as his immense fan following in the West Bengal was acknowledged.

Feedback remains the only Bangladeshi band to have been recorded by an international label.

When Bongabdo 1400 (Bengali era 1400), was released in 1994 to commemorate the Bengali era 1400, it differed from Feedback's remaining repertoire in terms of musical quality and approach. It was better all round: consistently better songs (most penned and sung by Mac), more explosive lyrics - and, when required, more tender numbers - all recorded with a tangible air of confidence that could have only stemmed from a band who knew they were the leading band in the country.

If one song exemplifies this ascent, it is Shamajik Koshtokathinnyo (Social Constipation); a prayer for emancipation, in this song, Maqsood inveighs against all the hypocrisy, opportunism and sycophancy that continue to haunt Bangladesh society-at-large. In another song, Uchchopodostho Todonto Committee (High-powered Probe Committee), we hear an angst-ridden Maqsood delineating governmental probe committees - as nothing more than a farce - set up only to deliver false promises. In this album, the songs that embraced phenomenal success in best written and recorded Bengali love songs, Gitikobita 1 & 2 (Musical Ballad 1 "Monay Poray Tomai " Remembering You" & 2 "Dhonyobad hay Bhalobasha "Thank you my Love" ), exudes compassion and tenderness, aided by Mac's vocal effects - pitching it high and low, using sighs and murmurs. The album's motif, innovation and uniqueness ensured the band secured the first JaiJaiDin award for music (the Bangladesh equivalent of the Grammy) the following year.

Bongabdo 1400 was a historical cultural statement by Maqsood and Feedback. The album is the only official record of the Bengalee era 1400 commemoration. In an interview Maqsood said 'there is no postage stamp, first day cover, sculptor, art - nothing of tangible significance that Bengalees in era 1500 will officially remember 1400 - other than this album. This was our small imprint on the Bengalee cultural roadmap - that 'we existed and believed firmly in, something history surely will not pass us by'.

Clearly, the period between 1976 and 1994 defines Maqsood's pop/rock and reggae/funk phase. The musical path that the singer/songwriter chose to follow thereafter came as a surprise to many. While fans expected another Bongabdo 1400-esque production, the band went through a folk fusion phase, delving deep into folk roots of the national musical heritage.

'Diner Alo Nibhay gelo' (Light of the day is over) in Bangabdo 1400, indicated for the first time Maqsood's then secretive and controversial association with the rustic Baul community in Bangladesh.

Experimenting with the legacy of agnostic saints the Late Fakir Lalon Shah, Shri Radha Romon, Pagla Jalal and others, Maqsood arranged for the remake and release of DehoGhori (Body Clock) in 1995 - to test the water in a one-song single album format, a first in the history of Bangladesh music. The success of a Bangladesh Television (BTV) performance ensured that the time was ripe for folk experimentation's.

The band followed this up with a complete folk fusion album titled Bauliana (Going Troubadour) in 1996, enjoying hits with Korimona, Gurur Bhaab and Shyam Kalia. Bauliana is the last major album of Maqsood with Feedback.

The music Maqsood 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 musical course he wanted to pursue was to be a vehicle to give vent to his strongly held apolitical views and allow him to raise socio-political awareness of the youth.

Feedback not keen on activism through music understandably opposed the idea with good reasons. The no-nonsense political lyrics in Bangabda 1400 had already raised eyebrows and Maqsood had fallen foul with the establishment of the day.

Following this longstanding musical disagreement, Maqsood formally left the band on the 7th of October 1997. For the fans, the news was more of a shock than surprise and was reminiscent of the Beatles breaking up - a loss to frown over - but Feedback's disinclination to compose songs addressing socio-political anomalies made Maqsood's departure inevitable.

Coming out of his folk fusion phase and leaving the band he made successful over a twenty-year period, Maqsood immediately formed dHAKA. The concepts of the band being rather like an anti-thesis to bands.

While bands are structured, dHAKA is based on chemistry, fusing various talents and adding a crisp sound of jazz to rock; the sound of which was quintessentially of the underground variety. While the compositions of dHAKA may evoke memories of a Steely Dan or Chick Corea record you heard years ago, Mac is fixated with the albums of his inspirational musical mentor - Gil Scott-Heron, the living legend and father figure of radical funk/jazz/rap music.

Mac's experimentation with dHAKA (the word may sound like the name of the nations capital, but the singer-songwriter chose it for its literal meaning - covered - also perhaps as a continuation of 'dhak' or Bengalee hand drums) was completely new to the audience, who have had very little experience of listening to jazz-rock fusion in Bengali and that too accompanied by fiery lyrics!

The first Maqsood o' dHAKA album, Prapto Boyoshker Nishiddho (Banned for Adults), a bestseller, opens with a punchy number Unmadonaey Katey Prem (Madly in Love), which infuses the sound of soft rock with a heavy dose of funk. Right from track one, the sound is different to what Bangladesh listeners are used to hearing; in other words, dHAKA cut in with a breath of zephyr with their free flowing, funky numbers in a market suffocated by asphyxiated music.

Nishiddho boast several songs that are, in essence, protest numbers. It is hard not to attribute much of the kinetic brilliance of this music to the inherent issues and tensions that are prevalent in today's Bangladesh.

The most salient examples are Parwardigar (Creator), attacking 'religious extremists' Giti Micchil: Gonotontro (Musical Procession: Democracy), a procession of the dispossessed and the marginalized youth and Abar Juddhay Jatay Hobey (Got to Go to War Again), about the struggle to establish freedom of speech and expression.

The album concludes with the radically radiant Giti Bhashon: MrittyuDondo (Musical Speech: Death Sentence), clocking just under eight minutes, in which Maqsood demands the death for the entire political establishment, before demanding his own death sentence, presumably for being an accomplice to the existing socio-political order.

Mac's expertise on folk-fusion is once again apparent in Rai Jago, a two hundred-year-old song on the love between the Hindu mythological figures Shyam and Rai penned by Shri Radha Romon. Other tracks that stand out are Hridoye Gethey Rekhecchi (Pinned to my Heart), a cheery tune for the overjoyed in love and the antonymic Chole Gele (When You Left) - a tearjerker for the broken-hearted!

The most popular song on Nishiddho, however, is Bangladesh '95 - a poignantly patriotic number with a stirringly spellbinding tune, fleshed out delicately under the melodic direction of the Delhi based Gautam Ghosh - one of the many musical figures Maqsood collaborated with in the making of the album.

Nishiddho was dedicated to the memory of S.M.Sultan (Lal Miah), iconoclast visionary and artist extraordinary.

The next record from maqsood O dHAKA, released mid-1999, is aptly titled Ogo Bhalobasha (O Love), for the manifold faces of love is the album's theme. Lovers rock to sensitive bossa nova-samba and bitter blues-funk to euphoric roots reggae, all showing Maqsood mastering every style and a capacity to blend them in on Bengalee terms. Ogo Bhalobasha is a complete jazz-rock fusion album; a first from Bangladesh and the songs encompass an excellent assortment. The different genres of music in the collection have been fused with jazz, Indo-classical and in tracing our rich folk roots - Marfati, Murshidi and the Baul traditions

The album opens with a thumping Bhalobasha Dibosh '99 (Valentine's Day '99), right from where Maqsood's inclination to acknowledge a love of the saxophone is evident. The Dhaka based expatriate American saxophonist Travis Jenkins (died December 2003) is featured throughout the album, all in the jazz-styled tenor/soprano/steel flute capacity Maqsood judged to be appropriate in the fusion process. The outcome of Mac's introspection this time around is a collection of songs, affluent in allegory, that have the powerful instruments used pertinently, giving them a rich enough blend to catch the fever of fusion music! This comes when for the very first time Maqsood acknowledged the arrangement credits of a complete album.

Emotionally, the songs rarely stop bleeding the heart.

There is the title track Giti Kobita 3 - Ogo Bhalobasha (Musical Ballad 3 - O Love), featuring the awesome Indo-classical voice of Urmi De, warbling in the background, and the main voice of a man deluded and disillusioned by love, taking the grip of absolute heartbreak. There is Obhishaaper Pala (A time for curses), a blues-funk fusion that seemed to have born out of bitterness and grudge, pondering the manipulative essence of love. Stemming out of frustration and a deep sense of loss, we have the remake of now US based 70's composer Nasiruddin Ahmed Apu's, Amee Tar Kicchu Pabo Kina (Wouldn't I Get Any), a bossa nova-samba funk fusion number that also incorporates a duet in English - with the then Dhaka based Scottish expatriate Lindsay Khondaker. Indeed, virtually every song is cloaked with an adolescent unease or confusion about love, its mechanics and consequences. The results are frequently touchy and/or tragic.

In Chithi Bektigoto - a sequel to Chithi from Feedback's Ullash album (Personal Letter), Mac pays a tribute to his fans, as they have always been a constant source of inspiration for him, while on Gitikobita 4 - Hay Probonchona (Musical Ballad - O Dithering) he deals on a more personal note on life, love and his finding of a new direction to overcome the "mental storm" - a nervous breakdown he suffered in the summer of 1996, that briefly affected his artistry.

The album was dedicated to the memory of the avante garde artist, Deepa Huq, wife of his Dhaka University, English Department teacher, the poet Kaiser Huq, whose battle with cancer and ultimate death while the album was being recorded left Maqsood deeply troubled and disconsolate.

In spite of the sheer brilliance and creativity, the album proved to be more controversial than Nishiddho, much to the younger generation's surprise. Maqsood's rendition of a Tagore number (na chahiley jarey pawa jaey), titled as Rabindranath 2010, was not well received among the puritans and pundits. Controversy and more trouble dogged Mac - a long battle that he fought with courage and intelligence to come out as the winner in the end. The puritans simply had no clear or logical argument against the dHAKA version of the song that had, by then, become the focus of media attention among Bengalis and many non-Bengalis both at home and abroad. Ogo Bhalobasha, in spite of the "terrifying threats" from "culture-vultures", remains readily available in the market and critics consider it as a groundbreaking album in Bangladesh band music.

Maqsood O dHAKA's repertoire is a tour de force in which every song uncoils with a passionate voice often delivering maverick messages, facilitated by lightning lyrics, mellifluous melody and more. Clearly, the infernal force of personality of the band front man has much to do with their appeal. Nonetheless, you do not have to know the radical "Maqsood persona" in order to feel the magic they supply; that is one aspect of dHAKA you can pass over. The rest, however, is inescapably here, in their wonderful records incandescent grooves. The power and prowess of this music will turn you on and shake you up, and may even demand that you reassess the socio-political order existent in Bangladesh, for real. Whatever the case, expect the unexpected and you will no doubt enjoy the experience!



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