Thursday, June 24, 2004

Below the belt: We much rather have our "Shonar Bangla"!

Smarting from his defeat in a vainglorious attempt to be appointed the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Conference, the Bangladesh candidate Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury (SQC hereafter) on return to Dhaka has unleashed an agenda to harangue the NATION, by moving into a realms of obnoxious theatrics.

Rather than stand up with grace and accept his defeat to the much trumpeted 'sure shot' post of General Secretary of OIC lost as result of a last minute secret ballot, a much peeved SQC fired his salvo upon arrival in Dhaka by lashing our at the Leader of the Awami League and her constant attack of his being part of a gold and arms smuggling cartel.

The duo entendre of the Bengalee word "Shona'" being the case in point here, and depending on its usage, whether in public or private, and in its intent or purpose whether sincere or plain grotesque, the irony is the word translated into English means both 'gold' as much as it does the male genital!

Apparently the much hassled politician had 'taken it for a year' and thought enough was enough and this is the opportune time to counter-attack the Opposition headlong. However what is not understandable is, why has he chosen the time just after his defeat to launch his demolition derby on an unsuspecting and vulnerable citizenry ill prepared to either digest the shallow and vulgar meaning of the word "Shona" - and who would prefer the more profound and correct expression GOLD?

Reading between the lines all the press reports specially the Bengalee tabloids that quoted him verbatim, what transpired in his carnival like press conference on the 21st June, would leave anybody sensible to easily draw a conclusion that more than the Opposition, the irascible politician known for his quick fire retorts in any situation - the object of his shallow 'Punch and Jody' exercise was to make abject fools out of our journalist and media fraternity, who with their known leaning towards the Opposition were quite ill prepared to reprimand him on terms the citizenry would have liked.

The time spent on what and how he meant or intended the use of the word "Shona" i.e. in his reported quip "If she wants to ask for gold (Shona), she has to ask her husband first, why drag me into it?".....SQC tarried word for word with journalist and wanted to know how the leader of the Opposition meant when SHE used the word "Shona' - going on to say had she used "Shorno" (the academically correct expression for "Shona"), none of this unfortunate situation would have transpired.

Time for all of us to re-learn Bengalee?

In his defense SQC said his retorts where on the same line of 'meaning' - that of the Leader of the Opposition, yet there was none to remind him that, that whatever may be the meaning, such blatant misuse of 'double-expressions' are not only undesirable, people look up to 'Leaders' for directions, not divisions which such unwanted public utterances entail.

Once again it is the press that needs to 'relearn' how to 'quote' qoutes and do so with some haste!!!

The further spiral down in the sordid drama where he went on a free-for-all in describing the uncircumcised male genitals of a Shonatoni Leader of the Opposition, by asking: "was my circumcision an act of vulgarity" - is denigrating polity to that of the gutter. The people of Bangladesh certainly deserve better, for we do not want to ever end up believing that old adage: "Every country deserves the Leaders they have".

It would be no mistake to predict that this sordid saga of "Shona" is destined to be a slippery slide down the road to more profanities, and what is ominous is the last sentence by SQC before the press conference concluded:

"Ladies and Gentlemen - this is Open Season, Foul language will be countered with Foul language".

Is this the reaction of a man who would go all out to destroy the 'fabric of propriety' that we as a nation try to uphold at all cost, simply because he lost in a belated 'democratic exercise' of the OIC? Would he have launched attacks on the Leader of the Opposition in such 'colorful terms' in the event that he was elected Secretary General of the OIC? If Islam preaches sobriety in public conduct, surely the so-called Islamic Ummah has been spared electing somebody as undignified as SQC. Islam can certainly do without such 'statesman' and OIC richly deserves a round of applause.

The 'Open Season' of our politicians and journalist combine, that are totally divorced from the aspirations of the people who would much rather move on in his day to day existence, in his toughest priority that of SURVIVAL, the enigma of verbal diarrhea and innuendoes of the below the belt category will surely activate catharsis of events that would not preclude taking on the perverse with more perversity, shallowness with brutal expression of very many words with double meanings. Steps downwards are always easy.

At the end of the day, none of us - specially our patriotic Armed Forces, should be left wondering when we stand in rapt attention to our national anthem "Amar Shonar Bangla" - whether it is the male genital or the rifle that needs be held tight!

We much rather have our "Shonar Bangla' as much as we await with bated breath how SQC interprets the word "Ostro" or weapon which he has promised at a later date.

As the Yanks would say - Son of a Gun!

First Published 23rd June 2004

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

BAMBA - the way it all happened - Part 4

8. Working our way around insurmountable odds

At the vanguard of the revolt against Ershad were NOT our politicians but a renegade combine of student's wings of all major political parties that swore not to listen to their leaders and not to return home till the dictator was ousted. They made that public allegiance by touching the dead body of Jihad, a fellow student of Dhaka University, gunned down brutally a few days earlier.

Called All Party Student Unity (APSU) or Chattra Oikya Porishod in Bengalee, the student front had fought pitched battles with the Police, BDR and thugs of Ershad and it was common knowledge that there was a proliferation of illegal weapons all across the campus. All of 8-9th December, at the Mall Square in Dhaka University students were photographed armed to the teeth and openly brandishing weapons.

Yet here we were just a week later and it was Khalid's idea that the Mall Square is exactly where the BAMBA concert was going to be held? The country did not even have an effectively functional Government. How was I going to take a decision? Who would ensure security when things were this insecure? Importantly will BAMBA members be willing to take on the challenge?

A BAMBA meeting was planned at the Elvis Studio the next evening, and I gave a green signal to Khalid (who himself was a member of Chattra Oikya Porishod) to go over and talk to the leadership and see if they could assist us. Khalid immediately revved up his bike and went off, promising to let me have the result the same night, which he did over telephone:

''Mac - they are all with us, they want a concert, don't worry'.

Next morning Bogey probably hit the ceiling when I called to inform him our plans. Terming this an 'insane idea' and that all of us would be killed, he told me ever so firmly that the situation inside the campus was far too fluid to do anything as major as an OPEN-AIR ROCK CONCERT (he screamed).

I had to believe Bogey: he was then as he is to this day, a teacher of the Dhaka University.

By the evening of 14th December 1990, the reaction among BAMBA members to perform in the concert was mixed. Not so much as a desire not to perform but whether things would work out okay. The young Turks withion BAMBA gave me all the strength required to keep head and mind together. It was Shumon (then of Chime and now Pentagon) who grabbed me tight in a bear hug saying - "one life Mac, either we live to see history, or die for BAMBA". I had known and understood music all my life, this was the first time I learnt what a Musical Revolution can be, and I knew every member in BAMBA that day stood like a ROCK and was ready to ROCK Bangladesh.

Added to that was a hard decision we had to take: since it was BAMBA's as well as Bangladesh's first open-air concert; would it for instance be the right thing to perform English songs?

Would we NOT have problems with the culture-vultures that have since laid siege to the campus and who have till then remained merciless in their denouncement of rock-music as 'reactionary counter culture' and 'alien infiltration' if we allowed bands to sing in English? Above all what do we do with bands that did not immediately have a Bengalee repertoire - important fellow bands such as MILES and Warfaze?

I guess for the very first time we had a decision on the English-Bengalee divide and all agreed. ONLY Bengalee songs will be permitted - and while MILES obviously could not perform they were generous in their offer to lend their sound system as did all other bands and sound rental companies - FREE OF CHARGE. As always Hamin assured me he will be with me in the concert to assist- which he did.

Warfaze however were in a fix, and wanted me to give them some ideas, 'can you not somehow squeeze us in, just one English song Mac' they pleaded.

I countered this by saying 'okay guys do an English song - just translate the lyrics to Bangla - that's no big deal is it'?

'Heavy metal Bengalee songs'?

Tipu, Sanjoy and Komol's eyes literally popped out, but they weren't out to disappoint me - IF I promised to introduce the band to the audience as also this new genre in music, which surely was to begin that auspicious day - they will risk a 'GO'.

Without batting an eyelid I said 'no problem at all guys'. They went off for rehearsal.

By the evening of 15th of December 1990 almost 14 bands were up and ready for the blast the next day. Sound equipment's came in the truckloads and by 8 p.m. the humongous stage and bamboo scaffolding was ready.

I went home at about 8:30 p.m. for dinner, promising to return before midnight. Fanty assured me that he would start the sound check once everything was hooked up. On the drive back home I took a detour around campus. Between Doyel Chottor and the National Museum eleven small stages were erected with 'chonga mikes', and most of them were very backward looking 'natok' dais.

Typically, the Sammilito Sangskritik Jote meantime decided to ignore our concert completely and all the publicity materials we sent them were heaped into the dustbin. The press release sent through the newly erected Sammilito Press Kendro never made it to any newspaper even on the 15th of December 1990. I was anxious if we were going to have a crowd at all. Our show was to begin at 8 a.m. less than 8 hours away on an Independence Day - the first one in a long time without a dictator ruling our destiny.

There was some panic too, which I had to hide from the rest of BAMBA.

We received secret information of a plot to destabilize our concert politically. Khalid and I had a quick meeting. We had to let the public at large know what BAMBA's philosophy was all about, without being asked? I drew out an outline design on a piece of paper that would eventually be the large backdrop banner.

Other than BAMBA etc etc, we proactively wrote out a terse message "Band shongeet Oposhonskriti Noi - aye Bangladesher shongskritiri choloman dhara", translated to mean Band music is not counter culture but a continuation of the flow of Bangladesh's existing culture.

Not one among us had any doubt that this message was going to be effective. It was. By 6.a.m the next morning the banner was up for the world to see.

I returned back just past midnight and parked my car inside the PG Hospital, deciding to walk the short distance to the Mall. It was bitterly cold and I had Dio my then 5 year-old son, for company. His mother was not at all happy about his tagging along with me this late at night - but Dio was adamant with eyes in tears "Ameeo jabo tomar shathay" -- I had no alternative!

As we crossed the Fine Arts College near the rebel Poet Nazrul's grave, sound of 'canon fire' shook the ground beneath my feet. At first I thought that this was the ritualistic post midnight canon fire on Independence Day, but then a chill descended my spine. The sound was coming from the vicinity of the Mall Square - has somebody blown up the stage with all that equipment?

Holding Dio's hand tight I carried on towards Madhu Canteen, my heart thundering in fright - but suddenly a microbus crossed us and from inside Lokman Hakim the reputed music director craned his neck out to scream 'oyee Maqsood HIT HIT HIT, TOP TOP TOP'.

His mischievous grin told me we were onto something BIG - good or bad, I had no way of knowing.

I sweated in the cold air.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

BAMBA - the way it all happened - Part 3

5. Heading the 'cultural renegades': Condemned to President!

Amidst shouts of 'yeah, yeah' and 'right-on, right-on' Bogey defiantly declared that I was to be the President of BAMBA henceforth? No amount of persuasion on my part to the contrary, even to be given time to think this over, worked.

So there I was- I found myself heading an organization that had no office, no bank account, no constitution, no registration, no address, no phone numbers - indeed lumped in together we were a rag tag non-entity with the infinite enthusiasm and attitude amongst its member to take on the world by its tail and giving it a right spin?

The future of band music and BAMBA was never in doubt; we were destined for the musical history of Bangladesh. In the youth it represented, BAMBA then had the force of a guerilla army and a determination that could be the envy of any political party anywhere in the world. There would be no turning back.

Between 1988 and 1990 BAMBA had been at the forefront of many social advancement and charitable causes, raising funds at any given opportunity, yet all said and done BAMBA could not find itself a firm footing in positioning itself as a business endeavor and had no money to do anything on its own. Subscription was basis for its membership, which basically covered nothing. To top it off, in our inexperience whatever we decided upon was going to be standard fare thereafter, and we continued to improvise. It wasn't easy.

At that stage we were not too keen on this becoming a 'money making proposition' either. All we wanted was to promote Band music in Bangladesh - and BAMBA was the ideal venue for launch of our philosophy and showcase our talents, which by then had evolved to blend a lot of concerts with a mix of English cover versions with some very hard hitting Bengalee original penned, composed and performed by its members. It was good time and 'party' time period.

Bands like Souls, Chime, Obscure and WINNING and Feeling's were drawing more response and crowd with their Bengalee originals. MILES with Shafin back from the UK were only months away from their first Bengalee album. Feedback was already a Bengalee phenomenon.

6. Newer trends: The English-Bengalee Divide in Band Music

An English-Bengalee divide was therefore inevitable, as there was also a shift in the demography of the audience of concertgoers. Most of the new audience had no orientation with Western music, indeed if at all, the only Western music they had probably heard and were growing up with, was the fare of Bengalee rock that we were churning out. I felt then as much as I feel now - that we simply could not be the best examples. Remember I am talking years before cable, MTV or the Internet came to influence our lives.

It was at this stage that Feedback was perhaps the first band in Bangladesh to make a public announcement to say that effectively we were OVER with our English repertoire of some 500 cover songs of over 12 years.

We already had more than a dozen original Bengalee songs to our credit that was lapped up by crowd in any concert we played and while we lost a major audience (and money) segment thanks to that decision - we knew all too well that we were on the right track as far as the future was concerned.

Personally my feeling was somebody among us had to hazard sticking necks out, and so convinced was I about the future of Bengalee rock, that I was quite prepared to have mine chopped off! I have believed in leading from the front, and was willing to 'dare', for I knew I was going to win, and it didn't matter at all when some very senior bands of the day called our move 'suicidal'.

Ironically the first murmurs inside Feedback about me being 'dictatorial' had also started.

I remember telling an audience at a concert "There is no point making Michael Jackson any more popular than he already is by singing his song - might as well do our own stuff - if we are to have an existence"! A whole lot of clapping and a few boos told me what a voting would not.

The English-Bengalee divide also raised some very fundamental problems among BAMBA bands. Those that did Western covers were somehow inclined to have this preposterous notion - that they were better and more knowledgeable about music than the 'Bangla bands', as would be referred to snidely!

The Bengalee only bands (or Bangla bands for the lack of a better expression) on the other hand were convinced about their own superiority because the majority of the audience was coming in to see them perform - and hence the gates depended on them; not on these 'bunch of English medium upstarts' they would retort.

And it went on and on.

Between concerts I was getting more than an earful, and try as I might, it continued to create frictions, something an organization like BAMBA could ill afford. We tried shuffling the time slots - allowing English bands to perform ahead of the Bengalee bands. Complaints filled in from the Bengalee bands that the LOUD English bands were driving away their audience before they could even settle down - and there was some truth to it. Bangladesh's soundscape was not ready for Iron Maiden or Metallica way back in 1988?

Yet try telling that to the English bands? They would come around saying that the audience would leave immediately after the 'khyat Bangla bands' finished - and they were usually left with a dozen or so 'hard core' fans to play for.

The English-Bengalee divide in BAMBA continued till circumstances intruded and provided us with a workable solution.

7. BAMBA Open Air Concert - December 16th 1990

The summer of 1990 were politically restive times for Bangladesh and the anti-Ershad agitation's were at its peak. BAMBA did not have much activity year long, other than a few meetings and organizational formalities - and sorting out a major dispute over ownership of a song claimed by both Chime and WINNING, and later an ugly split within Chime that saw claimants for the band by two sets of musicians.

We had gotten ourselves terribly bogged down on these trivialities.

In between a committee was selected on an adhoc basis and the post of General Secretary went to Khalid of Chime, and there were several other posts allocated, significantly Fanty from Feelings was to coordinate BAMBA in Chittagong and Tipu of Obscure in North Bengal. I grudgingly continued as President.

By 10th of December 1990 the then President of Bangladesh, the military dictator General H.M Ershad was overthrown in a massive public revolt against his tyranny and the mood all over Dhaka was very electric. The next day hundreds upon thousands of people poured into the street in rapturous celebrations and every street corner in the city was besieged. Cultural ceremonies of one kind or the other were being held in every nook and corner of Dhaka. The spirit of democracy and freedom was suddenly rekindled.

The party of all parties however awaited Bangladesh and I had no way of knowing that I would be honored to be a part of it all!

It was on 13th December 1990 that Khalid barged into my office and wanted to know very brusquely if BAMBA would 'just sit tight and do nothing' while so much was happening around us. I wanted to know what he planned on doing - and when he said 'an open air concert in Dhaka University on 16th December' - I had beads of cold sweat around my forehead. So scared was I that I remained speechless for about a minute.

I had good reasons to be worried.

Monday, June 07, 2004

BAMBA - the way it all happened - Part 2

3. FLOOD AID - '88: BAMBA goes it alone with help from Udayon School

After about a month when the floodwaters had dried up and the stench all over Dhaka from the sewer system evaporated, Bogey, Hamin and myself had the first unofficial BAMBA meetings at his (Bogey's) residence in Green Road. Plans went quickly underway to organize a two-day concert for Flood relief at the Engineers Institute. A further meeting with other bands followed and to formalize matters we all agreed that Bogey should be nominated Convenor of BAMBA and press release, money matters etc down to MC'ing the show would be in his domains of responsibilities.

Hamin was to look after sound, lighting and other technicalities, which we all agreed only, he seemed to understand and that was about it.

We had a team of young volunteers from Udayon School (I can regrettably only remember the name of Shafique, the son of a BNP lawmaker living in Magh Bazar, but the total team was more than a dozen) which did the running about for permissions from the DC (there is a law in the country that makes it mandatory to seek permission for use of microphones) and organizing security etc - plus the toughest of all jobs, marketing the tickets and maintaining accounts.

As for my responsibilities?

With my then reputation as an agent provocateur, I was to be as Bogey put it: "Big Mac - without the fries" - whatever that meant!

4. Sorting out things with the 'Heavy Metal' heavy duties - 'No Problem':

There was another problem - there were only about 8 bands in total - and ALL of us had major problems with the 'heavy metal dudes' in town, whose inclusion I thought would increase the number of participants in the concert - and naturally the audience.

I had my reasons.

Between 1987 and 1988 with Feedback (where I was then the lead vocalist), I performed several of these joint concerts ("mixed concert") and it was a pleasant surprise to see the number of new bands and musicians.

I stumbled into the heavy metal "bad boys" in RockStrata, In-Dhaka, Aces and Warfaze - in one such gig at the Hotel Sonargaon , and found them supremely talented.

Another aspect that moved me tremendously was their close-knit 'brothers in arm' kind of camaraderie - and it was usual to see all of them hanging out together in any concert, irrespective of whether they were performing or not.

Sometimes they also shared musicians, just incase a guitarist of one band failed to show up, another from a fellow band instinctively filled in, for them the show had to go on - come what may. This attitude was sadly lacking in many of us 'established bands', and I thought that the heavy metal example could and should be an eye opener for the rest of the pack in BAMBA.

They had 'problems' of course: they played LOUD very LOUD, were brash, and unacceptable were their infinite indiscipline. Yet when I talked to them one on one, they turned out to be among the finest guys that I had ever met in my life. Their reputation or lack of it - I felt had somehow outpaced them.

For reasons unknown they all seemed to like me, as much as they made no secret that they did not like Feedback's music! I was touched by their honesty, so one afternoon invited them for lunch in my office and in a meeting that ended pretty close to about dinnertime, persuaded them to 'change their ways' for the future of Band music.

It was hard persuasion (impertinence was like a religion for them) but it worked. They had heard about the upcoming BAMBA concert and were itching to perform and I seized this opportunity.

'No problem' I said - without realizing that the 'real problem' was - who was going to bell the proverbial cat?

Then came BIG PROBLEM!

The following day I called Bogey and suggested tongue-in-cheek if we could get the 'heavy-metal dudes' to join BAMBA and the upcoming concert?

"What" he screamed - "have you gone mad- that will be the end of BAMBA, no one will ever agree."

On condition that I will ensure that they behaved and that their 'discipline' was my 'total responsibility', he consented that I could raise the matter in the final BAMBA meeting, (before the concert) scheduled for the same evening in Sargam Studio.

There was however a 'catch' attached.

Bogey inisisted that the BAMBA members had to be convinced about their joining, and the 'convincing'- I had to do, not the Convenor - he was not going to be in the meeting anyway: 'unavoidable dinner Mac'!

What followed was a grueling four-hour long meeting that evening and not a breakthrough was in sight, till I wanted everybody to answer a very simple question.

'Isn't BAMBA all about promoting talents - and can anybody out here place his hand in his heart and say that the 'heavy metal dudes' are not talented?'

The ice was broken and the 'heavy metal dudes' who I had prearranged to meet me at a teashop nearby jumped in joy when I gave them the news 'guys - you are ON'.

On the day of the concert, with minutes to go before the start of the show - Bogey was nowhere to be seen. Somebody had to declare the show open and then go about MC'ing.

Pilu the drummer for Bogey's band Renaissance came in from somewhere sweatng nervously to deliver me devastating news. Bogey is down with high fever. He will not be able to come and perhaps miss Renaissance's performance slotted for the next day. He has delegated me to make sure the two-day long afternoon to night concerts were a success.

A quick word with Hamin and with not so much as very little time to gulp a breath let alone think, with over a thousand strong audience already inside the hall screaming for the show to start, the curtains were drawn.

I like a complete fool, ended up welcoming everybody, and followed this up with making sure that all bands kept to their assigned time slots as well as doing some "bit-talking" in the recess when the next band came in and tuned-up.

Everything fell into place like a well-greased machine afterward and Flood-AID 1988 was a screaming, all sold-out mega success.

The 'heavy metal dudes' were brilliant, leather jacket, chains, studs, bandanas, girlfriends, extra helping of fizz and sandwiches and attitude aside; their distortion and fuzz guitars thanks to sound engineer Mishal Kabir - became a phenomenon worth reckoning.

The most complex of rock forms in the world had come to stay in Bangladesh.

The money we raised through the concert was spent directly to sponsor the buying of corrugated tin sheets for a village near Dhaka - and BAMBA members personally went over to distribute them.

Al Amin (now living in Sweden) from Chime handled the entire operation, by taking a dozen BAMBA members over to and handing over flood relief. The grateful villagers treated them with Biriyani and a goat was specially slaughtered to feed the 'bhodro long haired kids' from Dhaka. I was out of town, so missed this momentous first.

All in all I escaped the two-day ordeal with about a nano-centimeter of flesh around my teeth - but that was not all.

Two days later at a post concert get-together of musicians again at the Sargam Studio I had to face the hardest decision of my life and one I was not mentally prepared for.