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     Volume 4 Issue 4 | July 16, 2004 |

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Demise of two
cultural icons from our orb

A.H. Jaffor Ullah

"Only through art can we emerge from ourselves and know what another person sees."
Marcel Proust in 'Maxims’

First it was crooner Ray Charles and now thespian talent Marlon Brando. The year 2004 has seen two of the most influential cultural icons of our time take their last exit. Instead of lamenting the loss we should celebrate their lives. The best way to honour them for their lifetime accomplishments would be to mention how they have enriched our lives rather than just mentioning what songs Ray Charles wrote or sang and what movies featured Marlon Brando.

Ray Charles (1930-2004)
Ray Charles passed away on June 10, 2004. He was 73 at the time of his passing. In the 1960s when we were in erstwhile East Pakistan and growing up as teenagers, some of us were rolling listening to Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, and the Beach Boys, as well as Tagore and Nazrul's songs. We did not know much about Ray Charles, let alone his songs.Rhythm and Blues (R&B) was an unknown genre to us because none of the shortwave radio stations such as BBC, VOA, or even Australia Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) would play any of the soulful songs that Ray Charles had recorded. In fact, a very few of us in 'Dacca' in the 1960s were listening to Black American music such as Gospel, soul, Blues, Jazz and all that. So when I first set my foot in America in 1969 I was surprised to hear the mellow and bluesy voice of Ray Charles. Mr. Charles was a very popular and upcoming African American vocalist by early 1960s. Many Britons especially some teenagers were very much into African American music; they were buying small but EP (Extended Play) vinyl records with A and B-sides. The LPs (Long Play) were available but they were meant for classical music and for famous artists of the day.

Ray Charles was born in 1930 in rural Georgia in a place call Albany. He was diagnosed as blind in his childhood. But he did develop an interest for music. Like many other African American musicians, Ray Charles was influenced by and sang gospel in church. The "Genius of Soul" became a recording star in the 1950s. His sound featurd R&B, soul, gospel and even country music, In his career, he won 13 Grammys, earned three Emmy nominations, scored the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors, and carved a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

Some singers by a stroke of luck may have a signature song in their entire life. Ray Charles was an exception to that norm. He had a signature songbook that refused to be defined by any single genre. Listeners are familiar with his throaty pleasant growl and his distinct piano licks. His smashing hits were "Georgia on My Mind," "Unchain My Heart," "I Can't Stop I was very surprised to know that even my children knew one or two of his soulful tunes. Come to think of it, the PBS award-winning show “Sesame Street" used to play Ray Charles' signature tune "Hit the road Jack" to entertain toddlers and parents alike.

The inborn quality of musicianship in him was summed up by someone on a web site: "He was the seminal singer of "soul" music, and no one could phrase a lyric better than Ray Charles. In addition, he was known in the music business as "One Take Ray," because he was known to show up at a recording session and get it exactly right the first time. He was, however, according to an interview with one of the regular sidemen, very tough on his drummers. His fellow musician said, "Ray would drive drummers crazy, because some of his songs are so slow. Drummers never seemed to be able to play slow enough for Ray Charles. I can completely relate. Ray Charles never needed a drummer to keep the beat; he had an internal metronome that was flawless. A good drummer didn't lead Ray Charles. A good drummer followed Ray Charles.”

Encomiums for Ray Charles came from many living legends too. The Queen of soul music Aretha Franklin said, "A great soul has gone on. He was a fabulous man, full of humor and wit." Many accomplished vocalists, such as Frank Sinatra referred to Ray Charles as a "genius." Others called him "the greatest pop singer of his generation" and "a true American musical original." The king of the pop-soul genre James Brown also had high praise for Ray Charles. He became very emotional hearing the news of Ray Charles' death when he said, "We lost a genius and we lost my brother. You've lost a cornerstone of good, and that hurts real bad.”

Marlon Brando (1924-2004)
Brando was an enigmatic actor, whose rare blend of sensitivity and savagery had brought him acclaim as one of the most powerful actors in American movie industry in the last 50 years. Like his movie persona he was also an icon of defiance in his personal life. He died on July 1, 2004, at the age of 80.

The first movie of Marlon Brando that I ever watched in 1963 0r 1964 was "Mutiny on the Bounty." By that time Brando had acted an 11 movies and made a name for him as one of the most emotional heroes of the time. Brando came to Dhaka in the early 1970s and stayed in Hotel Intercontinental opposite the Sakura Restaurant. A bevy of girls from the Holy Cross College went to see the actor; the thespian chastised the girls telling them that he did not expect all the adulation from them because he thought it was out of character for girls from our region. That was Marlon Brando.

Brando was "sweaty, swaggering, mumbling, wounded, brutish, and beautiful." His naked display of raw emotion in celluloid matched that with his tragedies in personal life. Of Brando Newsweek's cultural observer Jack Kroll wrote in 1994, "That will be Brando's legacy whether he likes or not-the stunning actor who embodied a poetry of anxiety that touched the deepest dynamics of his time and place."

In the postwar movie scene Brando was a new breed of actor who could display a raw soul "that ached with passion but also was unpredictably bestial," as one film critic put it sensibly. Another critic noted that in "The Men"-- Brando's first ever movie--the actor "comes like a blood transfusion into cinema acting." Among the movies he made in the seventies his fans remember his portrayal of mafia chieftain Vito Corleone, who mostly whispered rather than talked, in the movie The Godfather" and as Army Col. Walter Kurtz, a delusional Vietnam war veteran who symbolizes all the madness that was associated with the war in Indochina in the 1960s.

Brando was equally successful in generating public interest in his personal life. He was the one who popularised 1950s leather-jacketed masculinity. He would attend swank Hollywood parties wearing jeans, insulting the hungry gossip columnists, flaunting his preference for dark-skinned women (a no-no back then). In one word he was a defiant celebrity. In the 1960s as the civil rights movement gathered steam in America, Brando became one of the earliest celebrities to march for civil rights and American Indian causes. He refused to attend the Oscar in early 1970s to accept the prize for his acting in the movie "The Godfather." Instead, he sent an American Indian woman who read Brando's statement delineating the discriminations against American Indians. All this perplexed the Oscar-goers and it was a fodder for gossip writers for weeks.

Brando was both an eccentric and moody person. He got depressed very easily dealing with film and marital woes. One time he bought an entire atoll (bunch of islands strung together) in Tahiti for $ 270,000 in 1967. He fell in love with the French Polynesian Island and its people after filming of "Mutiny on the Bounty" in early 1960s. He was even married to a Tahitian woman for a short while. One could fill an entire page listing Brando's oddity. The world lost a powerful actor with the passing of Marlon Brando. Some of his legendary movies will become classics as time passes by if they are not so by now.

In summary, the world lost two cultural icons of the west in a short interval of time. Ray Charles will be remembered for his soulful wailing and Marlon Brando for his temperamental and poetic acting. Both of them carved a niche with their talent. Their contribution to popular postwar culture in the twentieth century will be greatly remembered. French playwright Jean Anouilh once remarked, "The object of art is to give life shape." We all will agree to it that both Ray Charles and Marlon Brando shaped our cultural world. Their presence will be sorely missed.

Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah is a researcher and columnist writing from New Orleans, USA



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