Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Transitions: Notes from Dhaka's Historical Underground - Part 6

Amidst all the euphoria things were beginning to trouble me. A previously undiscovered spiritual fire was lit by my association with the Bauls in 1988. As I moved even closer to them, I was beginning to reject everything around me. It really wasn’t a ‘born again’ phase, but more a ‘look inward guilt trip’ and discovering my personal frailties and the fragility of my existence. My knowledge absorption capacity was rarely ever so taxed in the many years of school, college or university than by what this new ‘school’ was beginning to teach me, and the more I learnt, the more I began to think. I saw the emergence of a new trait in my character - HUMILITY.

I went not just looking for songs that I could replicate - I had to understand their inherent meaning, and the process blew my mind. Men of wisdom guided me but never disapproved of what I believed in strongly. I told FEEDBACK that the next album, sadly my last with them, would be called Bauliana. Released in 1996, it was a shock to Dhaka’s urbanised fan base. Everything that goes around comes around and I was, for the first time in my life, labelled a ‘khyat’. What a compliment! That didn’t upset me, because delighting me were the thousands of letters pouring in from villages all over the country. The Rock Revolution was by now very silently becoming a mass phenomenon, no longer restricted to Dhaka. What a relief!

It was Paul McCartney who once said, ‘Music is pleasure - once it quits being a pleasure, one must quit.’ And so in the winter of 1996 came the time to bid farewell to Feedback. After 20 years with the outfit, in my resolve to leave, there were no emotions, no tears, just a few curt handshakes and adios guys. ‘Many�’ who thought we were competition were secretly delighted; others were shocked and I had to face a barrage of questions, and till today do not or WILL not give a specific answer.

I could never explain to anyone that I had entered a phase in my life where money, fame or popularity were not the most important things to me. I valued my inner peace and the opportunity to work with a lot of young and very talented musicians - thus Maqsood O’ dHAKA was born. I have never been happier.

The first dHAKA album ‘Prapto Boyeshker Nishiddho’ of 1997 was my ‘hell hath no fury’ condemnation of rotten politics and a polluted social structure that provides opportunity for criminalisation of all aspects of national life, sparing none - not even the youngest. I didn’t attempt to put square pegs into round holes in my lyrics; they had to be as true as my conscience would dictate, and they had to be brutally honest.

My attack on the establishment through music made me predictably its only casualty. The petty politics that a handful of rock musicians were involved in meant I would not be permitted to appear in any concert, and in the earliest dHAKA shows I would be asked to get down even as I was in the midst of my second on third song. I remained defiant and never let that happen even as Dhaka concert-goers were getting rubbished by fake fakir wannabes and sometimes bald sometimes bandana-ed what else have we jokers. My mission and that of my band was and remains giving it our best - no short change.

In 1999 the second dHAKA album ‘Ogo Bhalobasha’, the first jazz-rock fusion album from Bangladesh, was scuttled by my dear old friends, the culture vultures! My apparent blasphemy in daring to render a fusion version of a Tagore song made me the Public Cultural Renegade # 1, and I am happy with that! With friends such as these, do I really need enemies? The album is the least heard of my works, and it is a shame, because I thought this is the best work I had done in all my life. Bad luck!

And now?

My personal transitions have thus been stormy and never easy. I had to pass strenuous acid tests each step of my way. Suffer as I may have, my commitment is to the future of Bangladesh, especially the young to whom I have dedicated this one life, the only one I will ever have.

It is nonetheless with joy that I note so many new developments around me, and wish to wrap up by listing them. Pardon me if this sounds like a ‘coded, hooded’ sermon.

Most of my boro bhais own newspapers and ad agencies. Like it or not, they are ‘promoting’ and ‘patronising’ musicians and Rock bands, because there is a lot of money to be made from fizz and soap companies and cell phone operators through advertisements and television slot bookings. While I intend no disrespect, the truth remains that they have been idea constipated all along, but never failed to jump on one when they knew money could be made - great! Making money is no crime.

The generation divide is the now more acute than it was in our times. We actually failed here as the ‘new generation’ is no more than any other commodity up for sale, with ‘perform or perish’ mantras of event managers or sponsors being the underlying reality of it all. Making money is no crime - everybody needs money?

Dudes, don’t expect favours, do your own thing, and don’t bend - ever. Join the system to beat the system should be the new mantra - and hey, making money is no crime as long as you do it honestly, but do demand what is certainly yours. Don’t be taken for a ride with promises of a video shoot and night out in Mumbai! Again, making money is no crime but blowing foreign currency on idle Idol-like dreams is.

Country (folk) music is no longer khyat, and Baul is chic. Good. I appreciate the fact that so many are latching on to my dream of a huge revival of our more than 2000-year-old tradition, and whether they are doing it right or wrong is debatable. I am happy that they are doing it after all - so clap clap. Make no mistake, however; providence will deal us a very cruel blow if what we steal is intellectual property and somebody is staking a claim. Making money is no crime - but make sure the sick, starving and dying Baul Abdul Karim of Sylhet gets paid for YOUR use of HIS songs.

If only one could figure out ways to reach out to people down in the villages (whose music it is anyway) and find out more about their lives, their daily struggle and what the lyrics really mean. This will contribute to fine tuning our socio-cultural activism. Making money is no crime, but surely we shouldn’t mind that villagers make as much for they hold the proprietorship to dreams that can never pass your mind!

I know most of you personally down in the ‘new underground and I know things suck. You are only as good as your last album, your last video or your last concert, and the underlying tragedy is the way the word last is brandished like a sword over your heads. I wish things were easier, and I wish you had boro bhais whose priorities were different from piggybacking on your success and thinking about upping or dumping you. Some of you had the courage to say things that must be said. And heck, who the hell are they to ask you to ‘behave yourself’ - when they are behaving this bad? Imagine third grade bands like Junoon and Strings from Pakistan flying in and out of a concert in helicopters, while Azam Khan who fought their fathers for your freedom takes a rickshaw ride back home in independent Bangladesh? From March 1971 to March 2005 we have marched into dangerous territory, dudes. Making money is no crime, but tell them not to borrow somebody else’s watch to tell us the time.

I am a lousy advisor and actually hate that term, but here is my suggestion on what must be done.

First, hang in there and do what you are doing, and give it your best shot at all times.

Second, go cross-section (or cross over) - while we all love your metal riffs and head banging, 99.9% out there don’t - so do something that reaches out to an audience of all classes and all backgrounds, and there will be no turning back. You will have widespread appeal and it will be time to dump that ‘underground’ tag, for you deserve to be more than mainstream - you deserve to go global. You are pretty much kissing the skies. Making money is no crime - and don’t ever forget that’s the last word I said.

Transitions, like life itself, are not smooth. One can never make it from A to Z, but if there is such a thing called conviction, and if one can glide over and have the ability to make the best out of any situation, the task, hard though it may be, usually gets done. Enjoy what you are doing but never forget to keep notes of your millstones and milestones. I look forward to Notes from Dhaka’s ‘New Underground’ in about 40 years from now - if I live to be 88.

A life without a fight is a life not worth living. Remember Bob Marley? ‘Stand up for your right, Never give up the fight.’


Published in New Age


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