Transitions: Notes from Dhaka's Historical Underground - Part 5
It was in 1986 that Azam Khan asked me over to his place and wanted to know why I wasn’t doing anything in Bangla. Typically I said that I found the language 'khyat and not my cup of tea', and he understandably lost his temper. 'If you think singing in front of a few rich and drunk people at a hotel makes you a musician, boy, you are wrong, you are only a musical prostitute!'
No greater shame overwhelmed me more in life, because what he said next was prophetic, 'If educated guys like you with so many years of experience can rock in Bangla, the Liberation War I fought will lead us on to real independence, the independence from narrowness of our vision, of our mentalities, and there is not much more time that can be wasted now got that?'
He was stern and meant business, and I recall softly asking him to pray for me. After a big brotherly hug he said, 'Cheshta kor, cheshta kor, Allah bhorsha.' I drove home that rainy evening deep in thought. I had no way of knowing that my life was about to take a U-turn.
By 1987 I wrote and composed Majhi, Chithi and Chokh in the Ullash album by Feedback. Foad Nasser Babu, the bandleader and my lifelong musical guru composed Mousumi Part 1, and Bangla to my surprise proved to be a more difficult and complex language than I had earlier thought!
'Famous' in the Nineties
When 1990 arrived, by some strange dispensation of the Supreme Being, I 'allegedly' became FAMOUS! Melai Jairay from the Mela album of the same year was a monster and getting very hard to control.
I didn't realise then that what I had done was write an anthem that a whole new generation would lap up. Innocently I was only talking about partying and having great fun on the Bangla New Year’s Day, which was till then supposed to be a very dull, boring and ‘serious’ affair. The song came from an apprehension that the only ‘fashionable’ thing one could possibly do on the first day of Naba Barsha was to eat Ilish maach, panta bhaat and chilled Coke at the Ramna Batamul, while the fed-up entertainment-starved younger crowd by then was milling about to ‘see’ girls and create disorder! Confrontation was inevitable.
To enliven the day, Rock concerts on Pohela Boishakh was my dream, till then considered a thought bordering on ‘insanity’ as a prominent culture vulture pointed out. ‘Real Bengalis will resist such adulteration of culture.’ In disgust I raised my middle finger and told him, ‘Neither will real Bengalis permit this funeral parlour music you call high culture for too long.’
I detested this ‘kosherisation’ of what a real Bengali is, and questioned relentlessly the entire paradigm of the so-called ‘refined culture’. Most of my boro bhais and boro apas who had partied and revelled with us in the seventies were joining the puritanical and chauvinistic culture vultures at the expense of hugely disappointing the young.
Melai Jairay was thus designed to move a generation away from these misplaced culture junkies and their very pathetic highbrow obsession to places where we could party. And what better place than the mela or the fair? You could buy, you could sell, you could socialise, you could play, and you could eat and drink and, most important, do your own thing without anybody dictating terms or looking down their noses. There weren’t any fast food shops or cool joints those days to hang out in, so what better choice did we have?
Thankfully concerts today that go on till the wee hours of the morning are the ones that dominate Boishakh festivities each year. Sadly, programmes at Ramna Batamul, where the revolt against Pakistan-backed communalism and hate was confronted in the early ‘60s, has been reduced to a meaningless and token mass ritual.
The Bangladesh Musical Bands Association (BAMBA) had the honour of holding the first ever open-air rock concert in this nation’s history on the DU campus on December 16, 1990. A new beginning had dawned on our fate as the hated dictator, General Ershad, was overthrown by a people’s revolt on December 10. It is a small matter that I was leading the charge of the Rockers as president of the association; more important was to send a clear message across to whoever the powers may be, that Rock is destined to have its feet firmly placed on the soil of this precious motherland of ours. There would be no messing about and
I knew I didn’t have to try very hard.
When Feedback finished its set the same evening with Melai Jairay, and a 30,000-plus audience of men, women and children of all ages, sexes and religions kicked up a dust storm just by dancing, the very ugly face of ‘cultural fascists’ had been slapped resoundingly and blackened for good, for ever. The BAMBA was not keen on leading by diktat, but by example, and bugles for the Rock Revolution to commence in full force were blowing triumphantly in the wind.
There were good reasons to name the Feedback’s seminal 1994 album Bangabda 1400.Very rarely in life does a generation get to see a new century begin, and here we were approaching the end of a Bengali century in which the greatest cultural and literary figures of our history, from Kazi Nazrul Islam to Rabindranath Tagore, had composed their immortal works. In six years time there would be a new millennium in the Gregorian calendar, and I was absolutely sure that I would survive to see that as well.
While in London work had feverishly begun to construct the Millennium Dome to commemorate the coming of a new century, in Dhaka our culture vultures were busy splitting hairs as to whether 1400 would begin on April 14, 1994 or 1995! The debate, as I had expected, ended inconclusively, yet little did anybody realise how much we were falling behind in leaving a footprint on this once in a lifetime historical event, or is it opportunity?
Roummy and Dora of Cats Eye helped in designing our outfits for the cover and posters, and the album went on to become history. History just didn’t end with the album; the year later and the years since keep reminding me that to commemorate Bangabda 1400 in Bangladesh, there were no art works, no sculpture, no films, no books, no first-day cover or postage stamps.
What a shame that we ‘great Bengalis’ have NOTHING as a public testimony to remember a new century, so I am blissfully reassured that the Feedback album will perhaps be the ONLY public record on Bengalis doing something tangible for Bangabda 1500 to remember us by. I may be completely wrong but at the risk of sounding arrogant I must say that this was our humble stamp on history, a statement that Rock in Bangladesh didn’t just sit back and stay laid back.