A Big-Brother for life
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