Music to my Ears
A week in the role of a sax-playing fundraiser
I've decided to throw myself into the fundraising campaign for the BNWLA Hostel Appeal. Readers will remember the stories featured in this magazine towards the end of last year, of survivors of domestic slavery and trafficking, rescued and given refuge and training at the current BNWLA hostel, along with victims of rape, acid attacks and other traumas.
There's a drive on to build a new more suitable shelter with a playing area in Gazipur. It's a worthwhile cause and I want to offer support, but it's all a bit daunting: there's a huge way to go (we need 44 crore taka), and a lot to learn, but I'm reassured by the ancient Confucian saying: “The longest journey starts with the first step.” It's going to require a great deal of energy, but positive energy is one of those magical phenomena: the more you use up the more you find within yourself.
I realise early on that in this kind of campaign, you have to draw on whatever talents you have. In my case, that means making use of writing and playing saxophone. The connections between these and fundraising may not be immediately obvious, but read on…
BlueNote in action. Photo: Snigdha Zaman/ Ikon Photo
Turn up at one of the biggest hotels in the city for an audition. If I can play sax regularly in the lobby, maybe I can raise some funds that way? The managers are courteous and welcoming, despite the fact that I feel like a street urchin in this opulent and hushed marble temple. I am introduced to the resident pianist and we begin by launching into an impromptu version of Summertime. (That tune follows me everywhere). Success: we're in the same key! The sound echoes rather grandly through this latter-day cathedral. One or two of the guests seated in the lobby even look up from their laptops so it must be going quite well. The managers are impressed and it seems that soon I will be able to start.
I will have to combat the sense that I constitute some sort of wallpaper. Music at its best is really an interaction in which the audience bring their emotions, their memories and experiences in response to your playing. However playing at someone buried in their laptop, when all you can see is their bald spot, is similar to talking to someone whose head is covered by a paper bag, or who's standing on the other side of a closed door. Maybe if I play loud enough or add some ingenious innovation to my act, I can make a connection. Perhaps I should swing in on a trapeze? Or play standing on my head?
The website for the campaign (www.bnwlahostel.org) is finalised and launched. Things are moving. I discuss plans with a photographer, design a brochure and contact a printer in a single evening. It's amazing how fast things can happen in Bangladesh, when you want them to. News of the campaign is shared with the Human Rights Organisation Drishtipat, and immediately several people offer their support. A member who is a graphic designer in London designs a logo without charging for her services, a student in Indiana gives some sound financial advice, and a colleague here at SWM offers to write additional stories focussing on survivors past and present. People are pulling together, and I feel both energised and inspired by this.
Getting a new start at the BNWLA hostel.
News of the sax playing is spreading amongst the movers and shakers of Dhaka society, now that I have played at a few private parties. Does this mean a new career as a sax worker? On my way home from work, I receive a phone call asking if I can step in at the last minute to play at the leaving do of an expatriate senior executive. We agree on a price (all proceeds, of course, going to the appeal) and a few hours later I turn up on the top floor of one of the new Dubai-style buildings that have sprung up on Gulshan Avenue. This is a cool urban space, with a balcony looking out over the city. Standing out there before I play, I take a deep breath and look out into the darkness, taking in the heady pulse of evening. There is a sense of human energy out there unlike any other city I know.
Being a musician at a corporate do is an interesting experience. In this context too you are there pretty much as decor: people might notice if you stopped, but are only vaguely aware of you while you play. That's fine - it's what you're paid to do, although it is tempting at times to play the same note fifty times to see if anyone looks up.
We break for a series of valedictory speeches from the staff, which are humorous and well-delivered. I notice, not for the first time, that Bangladeshis have a gift for sincerity and directness. Unembarrassed by personal, emotional statements, people look you straight in the eye and share their feelings. We northern Europeans often find this kind of thing harder - we falter, stumble, avert our eyes and take refuge in platitudes.
Around midnight, I pack up and head out, reeling slightly from the talk, even in farewell addresses, of sales plans, targets and launches. It's another world. Out on the street, my only target is to get home, but there are no rickshaws, so I begin the long walk. Suddenly, there's that longed-for sound as one rattles into view out of the gloom. Damn, there's someone on it: a wizened old man in a white shift and tupi. I trudge disconsolately on, but suddenly, he tells the driver to stop and beckons me up. After greeting each other, we sit in companionable silence for the next five minutes, while down on the ground our strange shadow rolls along with us, elongated in the moonlight. I look at his ancient profile and feel his thin body next to mine. When he gets down, he nods gravely to me and trots, yes, actually trots, off down the road.
To an evening meeting with Advocate Salma Ali, Executive Director of BNWLA, to discuss the campaign. She is delighted with progress so far. She assures me of her complete support and encourages me to do things the way I want. In this context, that is an extraordinarily open-minded stance. In the bureaucratic atmosphere of so many jobs, you have to get a signature every time you want to pick up a paperclip. So there is something extremely refreshing about this trust: it frees you up to pursue things. It releases your energies, and of course it brings results. Maybe there's a moral in there somewhere…
Have an inspiring e-conversation with a British Bangladeshi friend who is a fount of ideas for linking my playing and the work of the hostel, so that we can raise money through entertaining others at clubs, restaurants, parties and corporate events, rather than through holding out a begging bowl. He puts the excellent pianist Saad Chowdhury and me in touch with local executives, and also suggests hooking up with PR companies. We reckon that a duo linked to a good cause and consisting of a white, Bangla-speaking, sax-playing Welshman and a half-English, half-Bangladeshi pianist is just possibly something of a novelty in Dhaka. We're called BlueNote (http://www.bluenotesound.blogspot.com/). Coming soon to a pair of ears near you.
To round off the week, I return to the current hostel with the photographer. For the campaign brochure, pictures are taken of many of the survivors playing, learning, working on crafts and dancing. And as I look around, speak to the women and children there and sense the commitment of the staff, I am surer than ever that this is a deserving cause. What's more, if every week is as productive as this one has been, one day in the not too distant future we will surely reach the target and realise our dream of building that hostel.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007