SRABONTI NARMEEN ALI and ELITA KARIM
We are a culture that loves music. There is proof of that everywhere -- drum and bass beats pumping through the windows of cars, the soft lilting sounds of Adhunik Bangla songs seeping through the cracks of the walls, Hindi film songs floating from music stores. In the midst of all this, however, there is something else. A persistent sound that commands attention -- a scratchy voice singing songs of mysticism and all-powering love mixed in perfect harmony with western instruments, be they keyboards, synthesizers, or a full-stream band. Ethnic is in and as a result Bangladeshi folk and Baul music has turned modern, ready for the ears of the music world that is all about remixes and fusion.
The culture of fusion music has proven to be successful with old timers like the band Renaissance, whose latest album is Ekush Shotoke, as well as newcomers on the scene such as Habib, who released his second album Maya last year.
One of the pioneers of the folk music fusion scene was Maqsoodul Haque, who, with his band Feedback in 1996 came out with the album Bauliana, which incorporates Baul music with keyboard and drums.
Similarly, bands such as Bangla, who is set apart from the rest particularly because of their lead female vocalist Anusheh, make use of jazzy beats and rhythm mixed with lyrics and overall sound of Baul music in their album titled Kingkartobbobimur. Although they compose some of their own folk music, many of their popular songs are remakes of Baul singers such as Lalon Shah's songs.
"The lyrics and the tune are untouched, but we work on the arrangement of and the instrumental arrangements," says Bangla's bass guitarist Buno. "We have a number of baul friends at the Lalon Mazar, who we meet on a regular basis. We listen to them, collect their lyrics and compositions and try to work on them as far as western instruments and arrangements are concerned. We usually would just jam and play Lalon numbers like Ami Opar Hoye Boshe Achi, Shohoj Manush and similar songs, because we liked them, especially the lyrics and the meanings associated. All we wanted to do was bring about these songs and present them in our own way. We never had the initial idea of actually restructuring these songs in our albums or remaking any of them for the sake of the young listeners."
Renaissance also did not set out playing folk music fusion because they had thought their audience would enjoy it.
"Our audience is more mature," says Naquib Khan, keyboardist, composer and vocalist. "We do not really target teenagers although a lot of them enjoy our music because it is band based. On the whole, however, our music reaches out to an older population. We don't really create songs according to what our audience likes or dislikes. We just play. If it sounds good we just go with it."
However, some artists actually do consider their audience while composing their music. Habib, hailing from London, became an instantaneous household name when the title track of his first album, Krishno came out. Starting from dances at gaye holuds to dance numbers at parties, Habib's folk music remixes have made their mark with the younger generation of Bangladesh.
"I always compose a particular song with my target audience in mind," says Habib. "It's all pre-planned. I've tried not to change the tune of the actual song, because that's not something I think I'd want to do. How could I honestly make my own tune of a folk song and have the guarantee of it having the folk feel? I would rather compose the music around it. The funny thing is that I have heard some of the originals of the songs I have done and they are very different from the way they sound in my album, but those changes are not mine. The singers are the ones who change the songs around according to their wish. I don't actually go out of my way trying to change the tune myself."
Unlike Habib, Renaissance does experiment by composing its own folk songs.
"What we are doing is not remixing music," says Naquib. "We compose our own original folk music. We have our own lyrics, our own tunes but we keep the basis of folk music within our compositions. At the same time we also try to blend western instruments with traditional instruments."
The band defines the true meaning of fusion by incorporating instruments such as saxophones and trumpets to add a jazzy feel while still managing to stay true to the roots of folk Bangali music. They also bring in different artists to play some of the traditional instruments such as bashi, dhol, khomok, khonjoni, mondira, dootara, ektaara and naal.
Artists such as Bangla and Habib sometimes improvise and experiment with western instruments to create the sound of traditional music.
"When we do not have a dotara, I have to make do with a guitar," says Buno. "Instead of the dhol, we use the drums to produce the same kind of rhythm. We like to use a lot of traditional instruments ourselves. Even in our album, we have worked with flutes, dotara, tabla, mondira and many more. These instruments are actually intermingled with western instruments and concepts like, trumpets choir music and even the blues.”
"There are a few songs which have been played from the keyboard with the intention of sounding like traditional instruments," says Habib. "I think my favourite instrument to use is the flute. The sound and the way it's played really touches me. The sound of flute makes you very emotional, sad and romantic. All these instruments -- sarod, sarangi, flutes -- have very emotional sounds. So far, I have mixed them with arrangements that are still on the more traditional side but eventually, I would like to introduce these instruments on 'groovy' and modern tracks."
So is it hard to keep the overall sound of Bangali folk music while dealing with so many other different sounding western instruments?
"For some reason although we have many foreign guest performers from all around the world such as Norway and Canada, it is not a struggle to keep the feel of folk music," says Renaissance's Harmonica player, Dr. Munna. "It just goes to show you that music is a universal language."
This brings up yet another point of controversy -- that of Bangla music versus the popularity of Hindi music. Some people, such as Munna feel that Hindi music should not overshadow Bangla music as it does, which is why it is important to promote Bangla music and Bangaliness as a whole through music.
But not all artists feel that Hindi music has done the Bangla music scene injustice.
"The thing about Hindi music is that it was not always this good," says Habib. "It has gotten better throughout the years and I think it has probably helped us more if anything because it has managed to make people acquire the habit of listening to music and also has improved their listening skills and built their appreciation for music. If you think about it people in villages probably do not understand Hindi that well. And at the end of the day, people always want to listen to music that is in their own language, because they can relate to it more than they can relate to music in other languages."
Labiq, from the band Ajob, a recently formed fusion band that has been doing a few live shows and who will be releasing their album soon, also feels that Hindi music or no Hindi music, there is a high enough demand for Bangla music.
"As part of this generation, we do feel that the general listeners do prefer to listen to a lot of western music and even Indian music," he says. "However, there is a section or a community to whom the raw feel of folk actually has a direct appeal."
So is the reason for these artists' success the growing demand for a Bangali pride that we feel is slightly amiss in comparison to other countries? Perhaps young Bangalis were just waiting for their chance to find their roots through music -- find something that they could relate to and enjoy without feeling that they are selling their culture short.
"Initially when I started, I never thought I would have this impact on the young generation -- that Bangla folk music would become popular and that the young people would feel closer to their culture because of it," says Habib. "But now that I see that this is happening, I really do want to cultivate their tastes towards Bangla music."
"The thing is that I don't feel that our younger generation is lacking in pride or culture," says Munna. "The generations above us -- the puritans -- are horrified about our attitude towards the music that they enjoy, like say, Rabindra Sangeet, which falls into the category of certain classic Bangla Music that is here to stay. They see our long hair, our attitude, our guitars and drums and wonder what we are doing. Tastes and likes and dislikes change with age. But the point to remember is that your roots are ingrained in you, and you will always come back to them. So it doesn't make a difference whether you come back to it by listening to fusion or Rabindra Sangeet."
"Youngsters do listen to the folk music that are being remade today, and not the original versions, because they are attracted to the various kinds of instruments that are used to make the compositions more upbeat and as a whole, restructured," says Buno. "These kinds of experiments actually fascinate them. However, there have also been many young people who have gone all the way to listen to the original versions of these songs, after listening to the album."
So what really defines a proper folk song?
"Bangladeshi folk music has a completely different feel which has nothing in common with any other type of music," says Habib. "It has a completely unique sound. The two key elements are the tune and the lyrics. I think those are what defines a real folk song."
Maya, Habib's title track, originally by Baul Abdul Karim, talks about the different stages of a man's unrequited love for a woman. The lyrics compare his love to a burning flame in his heart and claim that the loneliness he feels without her brings darkness within his soul.
Lyrics are usually the core factor in any type of music, but the meanings and double meanings within Bangla folk songs are different mainly because of their references to Sufism, oneness and love for god as well as one's country.
For example the lyrics to Bangla's Ami Opar Hoye Boshe Achi by Lalon talk about waiting to be taken by the Creator. Lalon compares it to waiting at the banks of the rivers to be taken to the other side.
"Our lyrics are not only about the conventional idea of love, they also speak of the timelessness of music itself, of the time gone by, of humanity, religion and the elements that bind everything and everyone together," says Buno.
"Most of our lyrics surround the theme of love," says Munna. "Love is applicable for everything. Be it love for our country, love for god, or love for a person, it always overlaps."
Renaissance's Nonaiya Nonaiya Kotha Koi, in a Chittagonian dialect, is about the mourning of a man for his partner who has left him and he recalls her love and affection. The words are written by lyricist Shahid Mahmood Jongi.
Ajob's Labiq says that they collect most of their lyrics from the Akhras and Mazars in Kushtia, which they visit frequently.
"These lyrics speak of love and its universal effect on not only people, but also the many elements of nature and life," he says. "These songs also speak of a certain divinity and God that people look up to and believe in. Some of these songs also reflect on the philosophy of life after death and what becomes of our souls then. The words actually speak out to the people, of century old concepts, like time and how every moment going by is lost forever."
It is the soul of these songs that keep alive the feel of Bangla music from generation to generation. Be it the lyrics, the tune, the fusion of traditional instruments and western instruments or the catchy western beats mixed in with the husky, spiritual sounds of Bangladeshi folk, fusion and remixes have created a stepping stone for the new and improved Bangladeshi music world.
These artists make a sincere effort to stay true to the originality and uniqueness of the folk genre while composing with a western feel. It is their efforts that help to foster a sense of Bangali pride within the generations to come. They have provided Bangali youngsters with the ability to "groove" to songs that can be heard throughout various villages and towns of Bangladesh, thus bringing together people of all different classes and backgrounds in a unique way. These are the songs of our people -- of fishermen, wanderers, lovers, spiritualists, philosophers and commoners. And although the words may not be comprehensive to everyone, the overall feel and the sound of folk fusion and remixes unite Bangladesh with the sheer simplicity and appeal of good music.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005