In 1992, Azam Khan summoned me for a fight.
Azam Khan in Singapore
(C)This site contains the almost complete literary works, inclusive of commentaries, articles, Blogs, columns, poems, debates and interviews of the Bangladesh based anti-establishment radical thinker, columnist and Jazz musician Maqsoodul Haque (Mac).All articles in the site are meant for public dessimination, however seek email permission from firstname.lastname@example.org the author for republishing rights.
It was winter of 1976 and I had made plans to hang out with my friend Popsy the-then drummer for FeedBack. He called me in the afternoon to postpone our plans as there was an out of town concert. He was playing back-up for Azam Khan and knowing of my obsession for the man, asked if I was interested to come over to see the rehearsal instead? How could I ever refuse this God sent opportunity! I begged Popsy to introduce me to the great man. 'That's no big deal Mac; Azam bhai has no star pretensions. He is very simple, straightforward and down to earth. Don't worry about a thing – just come right over' – Popsy retorted before hanging up.
By the time I reached the practice pad at 181 Bara Maghbazar at Foad Nasser Babu's place, the sound of music told me the rehearsals were already under way. Carefully opening the half shut door at the entrance I tip-toed in and sat on the floor. I felt my eyes getting moist with pent up emotions. Whoaaaaaa…..finally face-to-face with Azam Khan? I pinched myself for a reassurance that I wasn't dreaming!
In the room was Popsy on drums and other members of FeedBack. Murad Rahman on Bass, Dr.Zakiur Rahman on Rhythm guitars (he was my predecessors as lead vocals for FeedBack) and Foad Nasser Babu who had by then switched to Keyboards. Ishtiaque from the old Uccharon I was told would meet up with the band directly at venue of the show to play Lead Guitar. I sat back and watched the maestro at work. It was a spell binding experience and an education as how to be a pro-active band leader.
Despite fact that there wasn't any PA system to support his voice clashing with all the electronics, he was in control. Asking the band to tone down and reduce volume, he quickly went through the ten song repertoire and I was amazed at his professionalism. His eye contact and hand signals were a class in itself. He didn't tire himself or the band by going through the songs over and over again; instead focused on the areas where there were confusions or if things needed further polishing. He insisted that by playing very loud nothing could be perfected and noise would mar their hard efforts. 'Rock is not noise; it's a circularity of punches. Make sure you get to hear the punch you deliver' were his polite words to the band, and one I would take heed for the rest of my life.
In about an hour the rehearsals were over. Popsy and Murad introduced me to him saying I was an English language vocalist. He cursorily wanted to know the songs I was covering and the name of the bands. I babbled off a long list and he in turn gave me an amused look! 'That's a lot of songs, but how about Bengalee?' Nah - I shook my head. 'Do give it a shot, after all it is your mother language' he said in the passing. After a few short words by way of briefing abut the timing and venue of the show to the band, he ambled out, took a rickshaw and was gone. His simplicity and humility were worth taking lessons. I was on a learning kerb.
Rock on the retreat
By 1977 several military coups and counter coups later, General Ziaur Rahman was in power. A former Sector Commander in the Liberation War, his men were out on the streets in aggravated moral policing. Long hair was banned and those foolish enough to sport them without knowing, (including the author of this piece) had to face humiliation of locks being sheared off in public. Azam Khan's concerts and public appearances declined. By the end of 1976 his new band the second generation Uccharon on whom he pinned so much of hope, folded up.
Guitarist Noyon Munshi would leave for Canada the same year never to return. He died in a car crash in 1981. Windy Sides of Care broke up in 1976 as well with its prolific drummer Idu leaving for the US. Its Bassist Musa Rahman tried to reform the band but never succeeded. Foad Nasser Babu and Murad Rahman moved ahead and formed FeedBack to fill the gap caused by Windy Sides of Care's departure. They were soon to become the resident band at the Chambeeli Room in Hotel Intercontinental.
With all that happening, Bengalee rock all but evaporated by the year 1978.
Survival meant to be able to perform LIVE or have a regular presence in the BTV. Azam Khan's notoriety as a 'couldn't give a damn' rocker led to his growing unpopularity with the Military dictatorship. Both avenues of expression were barred. Police permissions would not be granted for his LIVE performance added to that the sycophancy, co-opting and active collaboration with the Government of the day by his contemporaries in the Music scene, led to vulgarities and dirty politics.
Azam Khan would have none of that and although he was broke, money and fame for him was secondary, the mission more important. But victory was to prove elusive so he went on a tactical retreat, became a recluse and sulked. Although he said he was 'resting but not retired' the tragedy was true to rock traditions; he had embarked upon a self-destruct trajectory. Fond of good Whiskey, the dark times led him to hit the bottle a trifle more than he usually did. A rumor circulated about him turning alcoholic – and this time around there was some truth.
Quite understandably a financially strapped Azam Khan would not refuse any shows that came his way. He never held a job or a second profession. Music was his bread and butter – so the young guitarist Rocket, would play an important role at the time to source musicians for him and schedule rehearsals.
Incidentally for as long as he lived, he had no dearth of talented musicians all eager and waiting in the wings to back him. Even with all that reassurance, concert organizers, music distributors and several so-called 'stars' masquerading as well wishers cheated him. He knew exactly what was going on behind his back; but never complained publicly. He accepted it as his fate.
A depressed, angry and vulnerable Azam Khan would sometimes appear on stage tired and totally inebriated and in no shape to perform. His musicians started filling and would sing his song when exhaustion overcame him on stage. A delusional 'Guru worshiping' cult emerged around the time and made things worse.
These were cronies and hanger-on's overcome by the aura of Azam Khan but had no idea either about his music or his contribution in the Liberation War. Sadly they were a bunch of hooligans whose aim was to create chaos in the few and in-between Concerts he was invited to perform. They demanded free entrance and provoked violent incidents in Concerts. Further compromising and eroding his popularity, credibility and thereby reputation were most of these elements would light up Marijuana joints openly in his concerts. The Military in power was not amused.
To many it would seem that Azam Khan had created new enemies and he was powerless in correcting the situation. As far as the establishment was concerted – he was trouble. Good fortune continued to elude him despite his best intentions.
Concerts by Azam Khan were few and in-between and held in district towns whenever opportunities availed, but only under strict surveillance of Intelligence agencies. To make things easier in getting permissions, organizers would invite heads of District Administrations to 'grace the occasion' as Chief Guest! It was in Noakhali that one such Chief Guest; the Deputy Commissioner put a stop to his show and ordered the curtain pulled. In desperation Azam Khan jumped up and held on to the moving curtain – Tarzan style – and with his shrill plea of 'No, no please no' he was ejected off stage.
In 1982 General Hossain Muhammad Ershad seized power and rock was set for further destruct, degeneration and decline. He continued with the policy of his predecessor General Zia by pampering a handful of corrupt artists from the post-war generation of celebrities. Handing out largesse in form of money grants to create 'Music Academies' to taking them along on foreign jaunts – as well as offering them jobs in the Government was in vogue. Azam Khan while offered similar dole and jobs, chose not to sell his soul or betray the trust reposed on him by the people. BTV became a hallmark for all kind of crass music and Azam Khan slipped into near total oblivion.
With all of that happening around him – a see-saw with his health started. Concerned, I went to see him many times during the period, but other than complaints of fever or cold, he usually brushed aside all of that as rumors. He was brave enough never to admit what was ailing him, instead with his great sense of humor drew anecdotes of his daily trials and tribulations. I sensed correctly that more than ill-health he was depressed.
In between 1987 to 1990 a few albums were released, but one could make out that the great Azam Khan Touch was amiss. He was merely singing other peoples song and had no control over music direction. Financial difficulties meant he wouldn't refuse any offer that came either from TV or music distributors. There was nothing new on offer from Azam Khan and his popularity waned.
My indoctrination to Bengalee Rock
Although I joined FeedBack in winter of 1976, I wasn't present in the bands 1985 debut and self titled album 'FeedBack – Volume I'. Azam Khan thought it was due to a misunderstanding within the band and so sometimes in 1986 he asked me over and wanted to know why I wasn't doing anything in Bengalee. Typically I said that I find the language 'khyat and Bengalee music not my cup of tea' and he flew into his legendary and notoriously fearful rage. Before I knew it bam,bam,bam he had slapped me resoundingly and squarely across the face!
'You snobbish imbecile' – he roared to my red hot ears, 'if you think singing in front of few rich and drunk people at a hotel makes you a musician – boy you are dead wrong, you are only a musical prostitute'.
Rubbing salt to wound, 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 musical experience can rock in Bengalee, the Liberation War I fought for would 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 you got that?'
He was always affectionate, but on this occasion was stern and meant business, and I recall softly asking him to pray for me. A big brother hug followed and 'chesta kor chesta kor, Allah bhorsha' (keep trying, may God be with you) later – I drove home that rainy evening deep in thoughts. I had no way of knowing that my life was about to take a 360 degree turn.
A year later in 1987 when Ullash by FeedBack was released I contributed six songs in the album. The first thing I did was go over to Azam Khan, hand him over the cassette tape, and with his pleading 'shon, shon, tham, tham' (stop, stop, listen, listen) make a run for it!
A few days later I received a phone call. It was Azam Khan, and he mockingly complimented me – 'ki rey Englishman, shesh mesh Bangla gaan tui gaili?' (Hey Englishman, so at long last you are singing in Bengalee?). I broke down into uncontrolled sobs……… and it is the only time in my life I recall talking to Azam Khan on the phone. Among his many eccentricities his allergy for the device was legendary!
Although my association with Azam Khan was since 1976, we rarely met unless it was for very urgent issues. If the occasion required, he had his way of summoning me to his house through Tinku or Ejaz who would remain his trusted lieutenants till the end.
Other than that we would meet at various concerts, social occasions and/or award ceremonies. However I have always felt a deep reverential bonding towards him. He was not only a rock icon, he was also a well meaning elder brother not only me to me, but many of us in the rock fraternity. He did keep a track of what I was up to and would send in his advice or admonishments as the case would be.
He never made small talks and usually after giving me a patient listening, and with a lot of respect for my political views his last words would be 'fight ta chalaiyya jaitey hoibo – we have got to keep the fight going. Later it would be just one word whenever we parted company, fist clenched – FIGHT!
To be continued...............
New Age Op:Ed
27th June 2011
Maqsoodul Haque – Mac
By mid-1973 words spread like wildfire in the youthful underground about the emergence of Azam Khan and how he has taken on the establishment of the day. As has been the case with many legends, the messages were mixed and some in mythical proportions. Most of it was disapproval and personal attacks on his lifestyle statement; unkempt long hair and beard, the symbols of revolt and defiance to parental authority. Others were guarded whispers that grew louder and scarier. The two words that our parents feared the most – 'drug addict' would haunt and malign Azam Khan quite unnecessarily.
Over all the words were about his mesmerizing presence on stage and the spirituality attached with his first big hit, 'Hey Allah Hey Allah Rey'. While he tackled the demons within him, he took pain to spread the word of Love and Peace as well as a firm belief in one God. In 'Char Kolema Shakkhi Debey Hazrat er Ummot' he was shedding off hate in his heart that the nine months long war had accumulated as a debilitating residue. He was expiating. He exposed the cult of fake Fakirs and frailties of fake lovers, in his song 'High Court er Mazar' and the refrain 'ei je duniyai - manush chara kichui nai' (nothing greater on earth than Man) - reaffirmed his spiritual connection to the ancient Bauls of Bangladesh.
Azam Khan's secretive nature notwithstanding, his covert connections to the Maizbhandari Sufi order of Chittagong could never be confirmed. It is possible that he did have an informal orientation. His closest friend at the time was Feroz Shai and in many concerts they jointly performed the scintillating hymn 'Gausal Azam baba Noor e Alam, tumi Ismey Azam baba, taran e wala'. Azam Khan confirmed to me that it was he that added the word 'Shai' (the wise one) to A.K.M Feroz Alam's name. Feroze Shai would go on to propagate the Maizbhandari lip-to-ear school of Sufi thoughts in his first hit 'Gausal Azam Maizbhandari school khuilyacchey'.
Despite all the positive razzmatazz and deeply absorbing spirituality discourses of the day, there was no denying the Marijuana (THC Delta 2, cannabis, Ganja, Shiddhi, weed etc) epidemic overpowering the Nation that led to endless and senseless debates and controversies. It was also a double edged debate. Marijuana was officially a 'Government approved controlled substance', freely available and no one could be criminalized for either its possession or use!
Reminiscing the times, I wrote an academic piece "Substance Abuse Marijuana: When Honesty is the only crime" in the weekly HOLIDAY (a sister publication of New Age) in July, 2001:
"All grade of narcotics from Marijuana, Alcohol to Heroin had imbibed the fighting spirit in mans history, and to deny that, would be denying history. Fifteen hundred years ago before prohibitions on Alcohol came in the Quran, the earliest participants in Islamic wars such as Badr, fought infidels and embraced martyrdom, high on Alcohol.
Marijuana was inducted to our young in the historic 1971, because it was also for the first time that large number of city-bred young left the confines and security of their homes for rural village communities. They lived, trained and fought for independence in villages where Marijuana was to a large degree socially acceptable. Its contribution to our Liberation War therefore must be acknowledged, because I personally know of at least a dozen past Mukti Bahini guerrillas who went into battle 'stoned out of their mind' to beat back fear and pain.
Our drug epidemic started from a generational divide, the lack of understanding and empathy, as also abject illiteracy of our pretentious literate, and its failure to address a growing social and emotional crisis that was affecting the young. The trauma of the War of Liberation in 1971 and the return of our war weary young men and women back home saw the induction of Marijuana - a natural drug, into our society at large.
To this day in the US; Korean and Vietnam War veterans regularly seek and receive psychological counseling. Conversely there were many cases of suicide among our glorious fighters who were unable to do anything to counter flashbacks of their bitter experiences in war. Yet none of our guerilla warriors were ever provided any counseling for the immense mental trauma and agony that this devastating war entailed on their psyche. Marijuana was for them the only escape to heal, or so they thought.
Therefore when the rock icon and former Mukti Bahini guerilla commander Azam Khan sang, his epic song 'Frustration' in 1973-74: 'jaala jaala jaala shudhu monay ree, jaala jaala jaala shudhu pranayree' (Burn, burn, burn my mind burns, burn, burn, burn, my Soul burns) we exactly knew what was on fire and what was 'burning'.
Not acknowledged then; Azam Khan was indeed rendering a unique social service through music. He was sending desperate signals of the young that were pleading for help. The establishment of the day or our parents in general, retorted that what has been set into motion by the 'notorious rocker' is only an effort to make a 'great fashion' out of frustration. Azam Khan's known Marijuana abuse did not help the situation."
It was summer of 1973 while preparing for my Matriculation exam that I first went to see Azam Khan LIVE in a Concert. Most musicians backing Azam Khan were members of the famed Windy Sides of Care. They were the best in the business in those days, and played heady live cover versions from Santana to Deep Purple and even Chick Corea at the Chambeeli Room, a 100 seater chic restaurant and dining facility with a band stand, at the then Hotel Intercontinental, later Dhaka Sheraton and now Hotel Ruposhi Bangla.
The musicians were – Idu on Drums, Ishtiaque on Lead guitar and my friend the late Larry Barnaby on Bass, Nilu on Rhythm Guitar, Gabriel on the Keyboards and the unforgettable Babu on Tambourine and vocal harmonies. If anybody knew anything about rock in Bangladesh back then, it was them and with Azam Khan they blended perfectly, creating an entirely new genre. Bengalee Rock as a LIVE phenomenon had arrived.
I wrote in "Transitions: Notes from Dhaka's Historical Underground" in New Age in 2005:
"In independent Bangladesh the global concept of freedom couldn't have had a better time. Marijuana smoke hung like a 'thick cloud' from the floor to the roof of the Engineers Institute auditorium in 1973. With audience chanting 'Gausal Azam hoo hah' in the psychedelic haze, on stage would appear a Christ like figure, bearded and hair flowing past his shoulder. He was a former Mukti Bahini guerrilla Commander. His name; Azam Khan, and he proceeded to blow our minds with music from his band Uccharon and shape our fearless attitude much to the consternation of our parents."
From Audio to Video
What followed next was a two single 33 rpm record. 'Orey Saleka, Orey Maleka, Orey Ful Banu parli na bachatey' and 'High Court er Mazarey' went on to establish Azam Khan as a household name. His Concerts nationwide were packed to capacity and often tethering dangerously at the seams. His fan following was wild and enthusiastic and it wasn't uncommon for fights to break out as they attempted to gain entry into Cinema halls and auditoriums to see the legend. Worse was to follow.
A gunfight outside the Jonaki Cinema Hall in Dhaka while his concert was ongoing led to one death and several injuries. The Police Force in those days were ill equipped and in no way trained to deal with music fans. Bad press further eroded Azam Khan's reputation but indomitable Bengalee Rock nonetheless moved on to newer heights.
It was sometimes in 1974 that Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed a charismatic teacher of Dhaka College would host a show for entertainment starved Bangladesh in the only TV station available then. The state run BTV was conservative and feudal to a fault. So it was a welcome surprise and filled us with great pride when an announcement was made that the show next week would feature Azam Khan and his band Uccharon!
We waited with bated breath in front of our Black and White TV screens. When Azam Khan came on, he was at his elements. Head banging in raptures he opened with 'Orey Saleka, Orey maleka' followed by (my all time favorite) 'Ashi ashi boley tumi ar eley na'. As he came in for the last of his three song set, he made an elliptic announcement. 'This is a brand new song dedicated to the dead or dying' – WHAT? We were zapped and electrified with what came next.
The heart rendering cry in his voice and refrain - 'Rail line er oi bostitey jonmechilo ekti cheley, maa tar kandey, cheleyti morey gachey, hai re hai Bangladesh' – made our blood curdle. The song 'Bangladesh' was a monster hit and went right through the roof. But that was not all. The Government of the day had underestimated Azam Khan's fan following. Millions were tuned in to watch the performance.
As BTV didn't have VTR (Video Tape Recording) facilities, it meant programs were uncensored, real-time LIVE! By evening of the next day the song was on everybody's lip and even our parents and elders were moved by the fact that somebody focused attention to the sad events surrounding our lives. It was an epochal man-made disaster and one Azam Khan had predicted would be erased from our history, the great famine of 1974 in which an estimated 1.5 million people died of hunger. His song would relive and commemorate that period of infamy; and the only song to date about the famine.
The poignant lyrics for 'Bangladesh' was written in the backdrop of Azam Khan's being eye witness to hundreds upon thousands of starving people arriving in Kamlapur Railway Station from all over the country and then dying. He lived a walking distance from the station and the helplessness of it all paralyzed him. He gave away all the money he earned from music to the destitute, but the underlying tragedy of the 1974 famine was; money could no longer save lives. The Taka because of devaluation was a worthless currency.
The poor, dispossessed, marginalized and distressed would ONLY beg for food and all hell broke loose. The unending cry for food and little children and elderly dropping dead was happening in unison. It was maddening and the sight of a mother wailing over the body of her toddler, a common phenomenon in those times, moved and overwhelmed the sensitive Azam Khan.
Compounding to his woes, the song led to an unofficial ban being served on his performances by the Government run BTV. His strained relationship with the Late Sheikh Kamal (a freedom fighter and eldest son of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman), were to be severed forever. Further Marijuana abuse and his distraught condition made a nervous breakdown inevitable. He was interned for weeks at the Holy Family Hospital.
Regaining his health took a long time and in the subsequent days of 1974 until 1975 would see Azam Khan in dire straits. He had lost his back-up band during the time he was interned and political and societal pressures were intense. Alienation and rejection was complete. There were no concerts and a rumor circulating much to our dismay was he was suffering from oral cancer. It proved not to be true as a few months after the assassination of Bangabandhu on 15th August 1975; Azam Khan took upon a new challenge.
He gave a press statement about reforming Uccharon and that was not all, he was looking for and has found fresh young musicians; but NOT from his own generation. It wasn't an easy decision. His back-up band and musicians from Windy Sides of Care were thought by many to be irreplaceable. Most had earlier either by choice or compulsion joined the Sheikh Kamal backed and inspired band Spondon.
Others moved to regular employment in performances that the Hotel Intercontinental offered. Studios hired many as session musicians. Ego conflicts, jealously and petty disputes led to some of his closest musical allies abandoning him. In a round about way, money, interference and political machinations managed to split Bengalee rock right through the middle.
Although dejected, Azam Khan was undaunted. He threw in his lot with an emerging new generation of rockers and was confident about their talent and abilities. Through the legendary rock-guitarist the late Noyon Munshi he sent words to the house band playing cover music at Dimple Restaurant (near where Arong is located in Mohammadpur today) about his plans.
Foad Nasser Babu on Bass and Pearo Khan on Drums (now in FeedBack), together with Dulal on Rhythm guitar readily agreed. It was an umpteenth honor to play with an icon and they pulled their lot behind Azam Khan. He didn't want any keyboard player so that's how things were. Three guitars, drums and vocals were good enough to kick up a storm. Rehearsals started quietly by the October of 1975. Given the political crisis and wind of change sweeping the country, Azam Khan readied himself for a new role, that of a modern day minstrel of rock.
By early 1976 he was back with a bang and once again stole the limelight in a five song special for BTV. This was a clear signal that his bruising psychological duel with the establishment was all but over. They had to capitulate given the sheer enormity of his fan following and the power and appeal of the extra-ordinary new songs that he had recorded at Ipsha Studios with his new line-up.
When he came on screen, we were however in for a rude shock. He had cropped his long hair short and his clean shaven look made him unrecognizable! No, he wasn't cut out at all to be a rock and roll renegade so what we were seeing was only visual noise and one we had to get used to. The 'new look' incidentally stayed with him till he died.
Markedly different were the new songs: 'Alal o Dulal, 'Je meye chokhey dekhe na', 'Prem chiro din durey durey ek hoye thak na', and the only semi-classical experiment in his career, 'Amar bodhua ki gaitey janey gaan'. The revolutionary rock hero had simmered down considerably. None of the anti-establishment rhetoric's or spirituality in his early music was noticeable any more, but it wasn't the case that he discarded his earlier songs altogether. The new line-up made further improvisations on the old songs which led to larger outreach to his fan base.
Over all he concentrated on melody and what we were in for was a huge dosage of unrequited love songs that would firmly place his music amongst the greatest Bengalee romantic songs of our times. A new era for Azam Khan and music in general had dawned.
It would be short lived.
To be continued.................
New Age Op-Ed
26th June 2011
New Age is serializing a slightly abridged version of my 4 part essay on Azam Khan beginning today - Saturday the 25th July until Tuesday the 28th July.
This is all about my impression of a man who charted the course of our history as well as Rock. I hope all of you will find it interesting and informative.
Baptism in Fire: From Guerrilla to Rock Hero
It was a rain drenched night in June, 1971. A three man squad of fierce Mukti Bahini guerrillas has been crawling head down for well over an hour. A well fortified Pakistan Army forward bunker in Saldah, Comilla, is their target. Earlier they had walked nonstop from their secret camp within liberated Bangladesh for 4 hours. Exhaustion, blood sucking leeches, mosquitoes, insects, and slimy mud covering their bodies, made progress slow and tortuous. Pain numbed their senses and snakes were everywhere.
Worse, the only homing element to target the enemy was beacons coming off several Petromax lamps (hejag batti in Bengalee) visible only as a blur in the distance. The orders from the Sector Commander were precise. Crawl till the enemy is sighted and in line of fire before executing the ambush. Optical illusions made figuring distances exacting. The element of surprise could not be betrayed. This was to be the young warrior's baptism in fire.
Yet it was the guerrillas who were in for a bigger surprise, almost to points of bewilderment. Before they could figure out and gather their bearings, they realized that they were less than half a meter away from target! From their vantage point, on the top of the bunker and about three meters below, they saw the dreaded enemy. Six burly Pakistani soldiers huddled together for dinner under a tarpaulin cover.
The rain was bearing down hard - and no, there wasn't any sentry on duty. The guerrilla's, heart thudding with excitement waited. They had to be doubly sure. Those were early days of the war, and weapons were few. The leader, a Section Commander of this special ops squad clutched a vintage World War II 9 mm Sten gun with an extra magazine of bullets. The others had a pistol and 4 grenades between them. In awe they eyed the enemy's assortment of weapons.
They soon realized this was no ordinary bunker. It was a heavy machine gun nest! They had to go for a precision kill, so the leader signaled his comrades to lie perfectly still until he opens fire. Rising stealthily from crawl to a crouch and then standing upright he readied his weapon. The enemy had only to look up and they would have seen him, but they were in midst of a happy pre-meal chit chat.
Wafting in the air was the aroma of beef, rice, lentils and generous amounts of salad and vegetables. The guerrillas felt a stomach cramp. They hadn't eaten proper food in months since the war began. They were hungry and it was distracting. With seconds to go, the leader was overcome by sense of remorse and pity. It was after all going to be the last meal for the Pakistani soldiers, so he let the enemy gulp a few morsels of food. The other members of the squad were getting anxious by the seconds because of the delay.
The leader steeled himself for the kill and with his great sense of wry humor, thought quickly; 'How about singing them a song, in a language the enemy understands before they die, a befitting goodbye'? He chose a 60's Hindi film song popular in East Pakistan and India.
And so it was with his shrill voice and the song - 'eisa mouka phir kaha mileyga' (when will I ever get a chance like this again) a staccato of rat,tat,tat,tat,tat …….Sten gun fire pierced the silence of the night. The first magazine was emptied. The enemy had no chance and as they lay moaning, the second magazine of 28 bullets was swiftly brush-fired in a final coup de grace.
The operation was over in less then five minutes. Before they retreated to base, the final count was six Pakistani soldiers shot dead, several weapons captured and the bunker blown up.
The 21 year old guerrilla leader and a Section Commander of Sector 2, on the secret mission was none other than Azam Khan a.k.a. Mahbubul Haque Khan who passed away in Dhaka on Sunday the 5th June 2011 aged 61.
Successive Governments post-1971 made a sordid mess of our history. Each new version had to be colored to accommodate requisite post-Independence political expediencies. Although Azam Khan participated in no less than 30 frontal fights and innumerable hit-and-run operations during the war, not much is known or documented about his valor and heroism during the 1971 Bangladesh War of Liberation.
It is thought that his pre-war leftist orientation was the reason why he never received a gallantry award. After the war, barring a handful, he maintained a discreet distance from the rest of his former comrades. Whenever he spoke of the Liberation war his words were limited only to details of how he left home and his return. At most he would describe his training in Melaghar, Agartala. That was all.
It therefore took me years of persuasion for him to come up with the first person account above. Sadly it's the only one he ever divulged to me and that too because of my insatiable curiosity. There were other reasons why he chose to maintain his stoic silence.
He explained to me in 1992: while the Mukti Bahini was a guerilla force it nonetheless fought under a formal and structured military chain of command divided into sectors, sub-sectors and sections. True, they were a rag-tag group of irregulars and volunteers; however the call of war meant the participants had to undertake an oath of secrecy. They were soldiers for the Nation. It was an oath he chose not to renege upon for as long as he could.
During my intense probing on the subject, there were times he would give me an anguished look and much to my frustration, slip back into deafening silence.
Since official war citations were rarely if ever recorded, he loathed the emerging hero worshipping cult of 'Bir Mukti Joddhas' (heroic freedom fighters). He found it shocking and reprehensible that some of his former comrades were game to megalomania. Many were going about dishing stories of their exploits in the War, with some exaggerating way out of proportions in breach of the oath of secrecy.
In 1992 in sheer despair he told me:
'When your mother and sisters are raped in front of your eyes, your father and brothers mercilessly tortured and killed; you do what you have to do. Fighting for the motherland is no obligation – it's a duty. In fighting the war, I did no 'favor' to my Nation – neither do I expect any favors for what I did in return'
Bangladesh – Post 1971: Emergence of the Rock Hero
To understand Azam Khan and his music one has got to look at the way the World was shaped in 1971 and the tumultuous events that followed in the years thereafter. It was nearing times for the Vietnam War of 21 bloody years to come to an eventual conclusion (1975). In the US, a new movement evolved to address the consciousness of the young. Disparagingly they were termed 'hippies' – in other words social outcasts, riff raffs, good for nothings.
War and senseless brutalities was no longer fashionable. When millions thronged The Woodstock Concert - 3 Days of Peace and Music in 1969 – all our rock heroes from Santana, Rolling Stones, Sly & The Family Stones, The Who, Crosby Still Nash & Young (CSNY), Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR), Jimi Hendrix, even Ravi Shankar participated. With screams of FREEDOM, the mass assembly was a peace missive fired by citizens of America, aimed at the Soul and Conscience of all Mankind. The White House turned a deaf ear to it all. Music meant nothing – or so it thought.
Never officially acknowledged by the Bangladesh Government were efforts by likes of Ravi Shankar, Bob Dylan and George Harrison in 1971 to garner support for our Liberation War and the plight of millions of refugees then in India. On 1st of August 1971 over 40,000 people thronged Madison Square Garden in New York and George Harrison's epic rock rallying anthem 'Bangladesh' would instantly propel him to the center stage of world history. The triple album on the concert went gold in days after its release.
It was a 'worlds first'. A concert to raise awareness is tough call when the issue is political. Holding the concert in US soil with its Government opposed and hostile to the just cause of our people was an even more daunting challenge. In today's context it would be equal to rock musicians raising funds in a 'Concert for the Talibans in Afghanistan' – in Los Angeles!
Had there been no Concert for Bangladesh, the war mongers in Washington would surely have intervened to assist the Pakistan Army in days ahead of our liberation. Victory for us just didn't mean the surrender of the Pakistan Army in Dhaka on the 16th December 1971, a flag and a map. Largely erased from our history and public memory is the humiliating withdrawal of the US Navy's 7th Fleet armada stationed in the Bay of Bengal.
The Concert for Bangladesh changed music globally. World Music became what it is really meant to be – bullets hitting the Soul of conscious people and thereby forcing changes in lifestyle and attitude among the masses, as also policies of Governments.
Cultural Renaissance: A generations fight for freedom of expression
It was precisely the time for the US, Europe and rest of the West, to lap up Indian Classical Music which has gone on to establish its firm grip thereafter. Ravi Shankar, Ustad Alauddin Khan, and Allah Rakkha popularized the Sitar, Sarod and Tabla. Similarly, Indian Guru's and Sufi preachers were the rage and gave comfort and counseling to those in spiritual ill health in the troubled times.
Azam Khan had an earlier fascination for The Beatles and George Harrison in particular. It was only natural for him as a freedom fighter to acknowledge wholeheartedly his (Harrison's) huge contribution to our cause as also, his pure spirituality.
Rock until the late sixties was unheard of in our part of the world in its native language. 1971 is significant. We had entered a truly happening global cross-cultural exchange phase in the history of the world. The fall-out in Bangladesh was marked in the persona of Azam Khan. Guitar, drums and keyboards made its bold entry into our cultural domain.
Accusations of cultural revisionism were in the air. Our elders and the teeming middle class in general, not familiar with the emerging new soundscape gave it a sinister label 'Oposhongskriti' or counter-culture. The parochial and stagnant notion of mainstream Bengalee culture from our grandparent's times was set to be literally brutalized into much needed reforms. This was going to be no win-win situation for rockers, therefore politicized and abusive culture vultures were deployed by the establishment to confront the disquiet.
However the shape, definition and course of culture would change for the better in the years to come, and something our puritanical patronizing cultural cognisanti could ever imagine - not even in their wildest dreams. Never in history did Bengal ever have a renaissance of such a magnitude.
It is therefore absurd to even suggest that anybody other than Azam Khan could have risen up to the occasion and taken on Rock's mantle on his lean shoulders for yet - another fight. He bore all insults and ignominy heaped on him with fortitude, resilience and humor. He was the penultimate hero. Neither his credibility as a front line freedom fighter nor his patriotism could ever be questioned. The simplistic yet powerful messages emerging from his songs could not be rubbished. The son of the Muses in Bengal had arrived and he was destined to change our attitude and importantly the music scene of our country forever.
Nothing in the world stood between him and his mission. This was to be no guerrilla theater; it was far more arduous and hazardous than bargained for. The Government of the day as much as our parents was uneasy with this errant yet mercurial former freedom fighter.
What unfolded would change the course of our cultural history forever.
The Jhanki Philosophy : Azam Khan's meteoric rise
People without a basic education in Western Music or culture term Azam Khan's music as pop. Some have gone further than that, and have branded him either a 'Pop Guru' or 'Pop Shamrat' (Emperor). Nothing could be more ridiculous and for records, he despised both terms.
Pop as a word may mean 'popular' yet as a genre it has an altogether different and negative connotation; 'crass' - as in 'unrefined as to be lacking in discrimination and sensibility'. To explain it further, Pop music is wall paper music. It is neither painting nor sculptor i.e. it has no permanence. Shelf life or public memory for pop does not go beyond 3 to 5 years. In today's Bangladesh it is not unsurprising that pop music attracts huge public following. A 'one-time-use product', media overkill and corporate packaging guarantee skyrocketing sale and that too for a very limited time frame. Pop projects and propels less than mediocre idiots to 'superstardom'!
Azam Khan's music is all about what pop is NOT. It has lasted for over 38 years and it will last for centuries. Yes Azam Khan was 'popular' – but so were Nazrul and Tagore but can anyone dare use the term pop before their musical genre? Also do we ever hear about our 'pop Prime Minister'!
Rock on the contrary, is just not a Western musical genre. It is a comprehensive philosophy and lifestyle statement, which at its finest rejects status quo, establishment i.e. any form of exploitation or subjugation of fellow man. It is a derivative of the words 'Rock and Roll' or to shake and rattle listeners to act, free their spirit, wake up and rise up in revolt against all scum's of the earth.
On the flipside it is also a self-destruct philosophy and it isn't as if Azam Khan was unaware of it. He had volunteered for several hazardous near-death encounters during the Liberation War and survived. Our Liberation, as far as he was concerned, meant just the culmination of many skirmishes – the final battles were never fought, the war as such never ended? Independence means freeing the Nation ensnared in mental slavery and as in War and so in peace; he chose to take sides with the toiling masses. His weapon would be Music.
It is only appropriate that Azam Khan gave the philosophy an amusing Bengalee coinage – 'Jhanki o Dola' – later settling for just 'Jhanki' or Rock. His favorite quip whenever he saw me was – 'jhanki ditey hoibo' (we gottta rock it)! How more 'Western' can you get to describe Rock in Bengalee than just that one punch word – 'Jhanki'?
In retrospect I think it was simply brilliant! \m/
To be continued..........
New Age OP-ED
25th June 2011
Maqsoodul Haque – Mac
"Patriotism is the last vestige of scoundrels" Samuel Johnson
New Age XTRA
Print Version, Friday 24th June 2011