cultural icons from our orb
through art can we emerge from ourselves and know what another
Marcel Proust in 'Maxims’
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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
(R) thedailystar.net 2004