Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Legacy of Azam Khan – Part II

Maqsoodul Haque – Mac

The Making of an Icon

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



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