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   Volume 10 |Issue 06 | February 11, 2011 |

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Cover Story


Photos:Zahedul I Khan

Baul meets Timba- Baby Akhtar Rocking the stage with Motimba.

"Music expresses feeling and thought, without language; It was below and before speech, and it is above and beyond all words” – Robert G Ingersoll”


The bansuri blends with the trombone and saxophone.

On February 4, 2011, at around 4 in the afternoon, a small crowd began to form outside the Women's Complex in Dhanmondi. The cluster was made up of people from all age groups, ranging from teenagers to middle aged folks. Some had arrived with friends, some were couples, standing hand in hand, while others appeared to be on an outing with their families. There was curiosity and excitement and a hint of impatience on every face, as they waited to be invited in, to witness an event that was about to make history in the musical sphere of Bangladesh.

The much-anticipated International World Music Festival had finally arrived in Dhaka, and music lovers all over the country were eager to be a part of it, as organisers, performers and of course as enthusiastic, supportive audience. World music is a term, which became popular in the 80's. It describes a genre in music which involves a combination of Western popular music styles with one or more genres of non-Western music such as folk or ethnic music, indigenous classical forms from different regions of the world and sometimes, even modern pop styles. Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Bob Marley and Miriam Makeba are a few of the great musical maestros who contributed to this genre of music.

For Bangladesh, a country where pop and rock dominate, this is almost entirely, unfamiliar territory. The show started with traditional Bangladeshi folk music, performed by Shahjahan Munshi and Rob Fakir. The familiar poignant, soulful music, and the powerful voices had a calming effect on the audience, who seemed to sit back, relax and absorb. Shahjahan Munshi had been a music lover from a very young age. Visually handicapped since the Pakistani era, he had learned to experience the world around him with the help of sound. "I come from Manikganj, and where I lived, there used to be a minstrel, who sang outside my home every day. He fascinated me. One day, he left his do-tara and went off somewhere. I felt my way around and picked it up and tried to play the instrument. When he found me he was very upset, but he was kind hearted and agreed to teach me how to play. He gave me his spare do-tara, and I fell in love with it," says Munshi. "I now specialise in Bhaab Boithoki songs and this music has changed my life. I have performed in many concerts in Bangladesh and abroad, where they enjoyed my music very much," he shares proudly.

The South London collective- Soothsayers.

The origins of Baul music date back to the 15th century. This breed of music celebrates love in every form, from the love for one's soulmate to the love of religion. Bauls or mystics, use a variety of musical instruments, the most popular ones being the ek-tara, a one stringed instrument carved from the epicarp of gourd and made with goatskin and bamboo. The do-tara is a long necked fretless lute, comprising of four metal strings made of steel or brass and a small earthen drum (dugi). The Bauls also use percussion instruments such as the dhol and khol and small cymbals called khartal as well as bamboo flutes known as manjira.

Lalon- Homegrown talent makes Bangladeshi's proud.

Every Bangladeshi is familiar with this school of music, but imagine a Baul's deep resonant voice, singing to the vibrations of a piano, the do-tara played alongside the bass, the dhol jamming with bongos and throw in the saxophone, trombone and flute somewhere in the mix. Which is exactly what happened, when Pala singer Baby Akhtar stepped onto the stage with Motimba, a Cuban funk band that has been breaching musical norms with their ground breaking beats, for over a decade.

"This has been my first time doing fusion and I absolutely love it!" says an exhilarated Baby Akhtar. " My husband plays the dhol for Kishon Khan's band Lokkhi Terra, so the last time he was in town, he listened to some of my songs, and invited me to sing for this festival. I have never experienced music that fascinated me to this degree. We have been practicing for a week, to blend our music and every moment has been immensely enjoyable." she smiles.

Jimmy Martinez on the bass and Javier Camillo on percussions.

The audience agreed and showed their appreciation through tumultuous applause and rambunctious cheers. Baby Akhtar's novel act was followed by Motimba's mix of Cuban Latin grooves and Afro-beats with Jazz and Funk. The founder and leader of this innovative band is someone Bangladeshis can claim as their own. Described as "a formidable jazz pianist" by London's Evening Standard, Kishon Khan had fallen in love with the fiery, intense rhythms of an Afro-Cuban melody - the Timba. He formed a band soon after, with a group of musicians hailing from different nationalities. Among those who performed, were the talented Cuban trio, vocalist and percussionist Javier Camillo, bassist Jimmy Martinez, and congero Oreste Noda. The trombonist Justin Thurgur and flautist and saxophonist Finn Peter are from England, while Tansay Omar, their drummer, comes from Cyprus.

As Motimba (More Timba) rocked the stage with their energetic, infectious rhythms, they brought the audience to their feet, dancing the salsa and clapping with the beats. "Many people have said that music has no boundaries, and I think we have proved this once again tonight," says Javier Camillo. “Everywhere we go, people are open and receptive to our music as we are to theirs. About three years ago, I performed in Morocco and I was as fascinated with their music, as they were with mine. We pick up elements of music wherever we go and try to incorporate them into our act. We are now trying to add Bengali folk music and Indian classical music to our mix, which is turning out to be very interesting," he shares.

The charismatic Dele Sosimi steals the show.

Camillo has been musical since he was merely four years old. His parents enrolled him in a music school in Havana where he started with the violin. Within a year, he developed an interest in percussions and drums and focused on mastering his skills with these instruments. Camillo met the members of Motimba in London, and formed a connection instantly. " London is a cosmopolitan city where there are many different people from different cultures and ethnicities. When musicians from so many different parts of the world, Brazil, Africa, India, Bangladesh etc, jam in the same place, that is when fusion is born," says Camillo. " I am honoured to be one of the pioneering performers at the world music festival in Dhaka and I hope there will be many more to come. I have already started working on some new ideas for the future. I'm planning to record with Nazrul Islam, who is a dhol player for Lokkhi Terra, and I'm going to record some traditional Cuban music, blending it with Bengali tunes and instruments and see how it goes. This is what I do, when I am not sleeping, I am playing an instrument," smiles Camillo.

Camillo wasn't the only one inspired by the dhol. This delightful instrument also enamoured Dele Sosimi, one of the world's leading educators and instructors in Afro-beat. Like the Motimba crew, Sosimi likes to pick up different components of music, wherever he goes. "I love the Bangladeshi drums, (dhol). I'm listening to it and it's inspiring me right now," says Sosimi.

Sosimi has been performing since he was 15. Although he traces his ancestry back to Nigeria, he was born in London and grew up in Lagos, where he started his musical career by playing the keyboard for Fela Kuti's Egypt '80, one of the most popular bands in Nigeria.

"I have always loved music. I had the opportunity to be close to a piano when I was in high school and I taught myself how to play," shares Sosimi. "Over the years I started writing music too. My music is a mixture of Nigerian rootsy music with the influences of James Brown, funk, soul and big band jazz. Fusing different music comes to me naturally now, my writing persona has such individuality, that the process just flows. It could be a tiny phrase, that builds up into a collection of motives or it could be a theme that comes first and everything else builds around the theme," he continues.

Sosimi's charismatic stage presence overwhelmed the Bangladeshi audience as he made them laugh, sing and even taught them some of his famous dance moves. When his performance came to an end, he left the crowd screaming for an encore.

Nazrul Islam- Dhol player and rising talent.

Dele Sosimi was joined on stage by Kunle Olofinjana on the drums and guest performer Maurizio Ravalico on the congas (a tall and narrow single headed Cuban drum with Central African descent, made from hollow logs and played in fours). Marco Piccioni and Phil Dawson were on the guitars while Patrick Zambonin played bass. Robin Hopkraft was the trumpeter while Idris Rahman played the tenor saxophone and Finn Peters, the alto saxophone (a brass instrument with a single-reed mouthpiece resembling that of a clarinet, originating from Belgium. The tenor saxophone uses a slightly larger mouthpiece than the alto). Justine Thurgur played the trombone (a brass trumpet-like instrument, characterised by a telescopic slide used to change pitches.)

"I'm very proud to be one of the artists in this premiere festival. This is history being made right here. After the festival, I want to see if I get inspired to write anything about Dhaka or about any music I've heard here and maybe start the recording process of something new. That way it will be very nice if I can come back to Dhaka next year and say look, this music you are about to hear tonight was inspired by my first time here. I'll be trying to hang out as much as possible with the musicians I have met, from Dhaka and see if any cosmic connection can happen musically," says Sosimi.

The performers had gathered ardent admirers from within the audience at this point, who were already forming fan clubs. Snatches of comments such as "this is the best concert I have ever been to in Dhaka," "unbelievably good," and "absolutely brilliant," were flying about everywhere as the crowd, lounged about the large field, lit up with colourful lamps, the air thick with delicious smells wafting from the food stalls. The assemblage, which had grown considerably by the second day of the event, could now be counted in thousands. To add to the festivities, Chinese lanterns, lit with fire were being released into the skies at regular intervals, loudly cheered on by the spectators.

This carnivalesque atmosphere was being enjoyed by a gathering of people, which included Bangladeshi and foreign students, and professionals from all age groups. Every person seemed relaxed and cheerful as they absorbed a new kind of music, with new instruments that were unheard of till now.

One such instrument, was the Kora, a West African invention, fashioned from a large calabash, cut in two and bound with cow skin, to make a resonator. It also includes a notched bridge, like that of a guitar. A traditional Kora has 21 strings, eleven of which are played with the left hand and ten with the right, made from think strips of antelope hide. This exotic instrument is played in Guinea, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Gambia, by traditional families who are historians and genealogists, and pass on their musical skills orally, through generations.

Tunde Jegede plays his spell-binding kora.

Although the instrument is of West African origin, the player who mesmerised the audience with its harp-like, soft, melodious tunes is a UK based musician, known as Tunde Jegede. Years of studying African and Western classical music, has taught Tunde how to become a master chef of fusion, combining the two different styles in various different ways. Tunde composes for musical groups that range from the traditional African music ensembles to the symphony orchestra. Tunde also plays the cello and percussion alongside the kora .

"I started playing the kora when I was 10 years old. For me, if you're talking about music, my approach to collaboration is in terms of synthesis rather than fusion. The concept of fusion as some people have said, is bringing different things together. From my experiences, most of the projects that I felt really worked were ones that involved people who have been part of different traditions and it's through them that the synthesis comes about, " he says. "A lot of the work I do is in different spheres, I work with orchestras, compose music for symphony orchestras, I've worked in the jazz scene and the African music world. I also studied classical music in New York. Living in London over the years, I've worked with different artists. I was used to hearing tablas and sitars and the santoor from quite early on, so it's not that strange for me, whereas for a Kora player from Mali, they might not be familiar with some of those traditions," he continues.

While forming an acquaintance with the unfamiliar, Kishon Khan's Lokkhi Terra added a familiar ingredient to the recipe. The music presented by Lokkhi Terra was a combination of sub-continental ragas, taal and folklore added with Afro-beats, jazz and Latin tunes. Khan introduces the world to Bangladeshi melodies through this band.

Sohini Alam, Aanon Siddiqua, Gaurab and Sumel made up the vocals, Justin Thurger was on the trombone, Finn Peters was on the saxophone while Phil Dawson provided guitar styling. Patrick Zambonin played the bass while Oreste Noda, Tansay Omar and Nazrul Islam added flair to the performance with their percussions. Haider Rahman, a Bansuri player, and pupil to the famous flautist Hari Prasad Chaurasia threw his tunes into the blend as a guest performer.

Nazrul Islam, a dhol player from Brahmanbaria has been playing for Lokkhi Terra for about ten years now. " I first met them at a festival here in Bangladesh where Arnob and the band Bangla were performing. They liked my music, which is mostly Baul and I have been with them ever since. I have been inspired by Lalon, Hason Raja and Shah Abdul Karim from a very young age. With Lokkhi Terra, I had the opportunity to partake in concerts abroad, mostly in Europe, and it has been a great, educational experience for me," says Nazrul, for whom, fusion music has become a part of life.

The crowd dancing to the irresistible beats.

Lokkhi Terra may have added a hint of Bangladeshi folk to their musical journey, but the audience received a much larger dose of original Bangladeshi folk songs and a refreshing composite of fusion consisting of folk and Western progressions from their own homegrown bands, Lalon and Ajob. Lalon, fronted by a dynamic and powerful young vocalist, Shumi, the winner of B& H Star Search 2000, drove the audience to frenzy with their irresistible rhythms. Spectators were on their feet clapping and roaring their approval.

The band members Masum (guitarist), Sento (bass), Muang (drums) and Leemon on the guitar were thrilled to be a part of the festival. "I am very proud of Bangladeshi music. I want the world to be exposed to our culture and I think the best way to reach out is through music. I like the concept of different countries, sharing their music in a way, by putting it out there. I don't think it is difficult to fuse music at all, although some types of tunes, especially Arabic ones are definitely hard to pick up," opines Leemon.

The modern folk rock group Ajob, headed by Gaurab, a London based Bangladeshi singer, songwriter, and composer also had a large fan following. Ajob's fast and groovy numbers once again sent the audience to their feet, dancing and singing along exuberantly.

The synchronisation of different beats continued with the arresting performance of a South London collective, Soothsayers, who took the audience on an exciting and mystical journey harmonised by a mix of reggae, Afro-funk and urban jazz. Soothsayers have been creating waves in the London music scene for over ten years, blending pulsating rhythms with soothing ones, creating a whole a new adventure. Founded by UK/Bangladeshi Saxophonist Idris Rahman, and Trumpeter Robin Hocraft, the Soothsayers are considered one of the best live acts on the London scene and according to the audience, one of the best acts in this festival.

Lokkhi Terra

The magnetising vocalists, Julia Biel, Idris Rahman and Robin Hopkraft engaged with the audience, encouraging them to dance, and announcing that the best dancers would receive free cds from the band. The band also interacted with the audience after their performance, by handing out cds and discussing their music. Bass player Kodjovi Kush, drummer Wesley Joseph, guitarist Phil Dawson and pianist Kishon Khan were also a huge hit.

"We started off by playing township jazz and different kind of groove based music, when the band got together. We played a bit of reggae bit of jazz, a bit of African jazz, Afro-beats and West African kind of rhythms," says Idris Rahman. " We incorporate elements that sound good to us. We travel a fair amount, we've been to Sardinia and Czech Republic and played in various festivals in Europe, so the influences do come from there," he continues.

When asked if he includes Bangladeshi tunes in his music, the saxophonist says, "There is nothing that I consciously think is Bengali influence in our music, although there have been in some of the pieces that we've done, like a tune called Ishmael by Abdullah Ibrahim who is a South African pianist. It's a little bit Eastern sounding, the scale that we used in the intro to that song. And listening to the music last night just brought back memories and the inspiration for that is coming from deep within me. So I guess there are elements that are in there of my Bangladeshi roots."

The band is in Bangladesh for a very short stay, but they have enjoyed their trip immensely. "We very much hope to come back. We hope that this festival will keep growing and build on the success it has achieved this year. I think it's amazing what they have achieved and it's a privilege to be a part of it," says Julia. " Idris hasn't told you that he also plays the clarinet amazing well. He's got another project he's working on with his sister who is a wonderful piano player and together, they came to Bangladesh a couple of years ago and did a tour, playing their version of very famous Bengali folk songs. So he's bringing out his Bengali side in this way and a lot of Bengali musicians here have requested him to play and record albums with them," she shares.

"We worked on an album, with Arnob and with Gaurab. They came to England and we toured with them and Nazrul Islam did the tour as well. So we will continue to work with them," adds Idris.

The very first, Dhaka World Music Fest of 2011, was indeed a remarkable event, which marked a milestone in the realm of Bangladeshi music. Not only were Bangladeshis exposed to music from different parts of the world, they also had a chance to interact with, learn from, and jam alongside musicians who are masters in their area of expertise. New relationships were formed, both professional and personal, which we hope will take our music to exciting new heights of accomplishment and introduce our own brand of music to the world.

As all the performers at the festival, stood on stage for the grand finale, there was a sense of camaraderie all around. There was a mingled feeling of sadness as the festival ended, and a new kind of curiosity about what was yet to come. A warm feeling of togetherness washed over the audience as they watched, one last time, their old favourites and new, flawlessly cross cultural and musical boundaries, and witnessed a new kind of fusion being born.

The Making of the Festival

The efforts behind the conceptualisation and organisation of Dhaka's first ever World Music Festival have been enormous

Tamanna Khan

Music is a communicative tool that can travel across borders, defy all cultural and religious boundaries. Notwithstanding the different tunes, notes and instruments used, the main essence of music remains same all over the world – music is what touches the soul. Although exchange of tunes and instruments has taken place across nations since time immemorial, festivals that incorporated musicians from all over the world begin to develop in the 1980s. However, according to Kishon Khan, lead artist and pianist of the Afro-Cuban Funk jazz band Motimba that has played in many world music festivals, "When world music came in the 80s, it initiated to give a voice to artistes who weren't being represented in the mainstream industry and came from countries, which were not centres of the industry; mostly countries outside the West."

He continues to say that since the 1980s, world music has moved on and now it encompasses all genres of music be it rock, jazz, pop, hip hop, baul, Indian classical or Irish folk. "What makes world music is that you have different cultures collaborating, you recognise the different traditions from different regions and countries of the world."

This year on February 4 and 5, Kishon Khan's Motimba along with nine other international and national bands plus two guest musicians have brought the taste of world music to Bangladesh through the Dhaka World Music Fest 2011. Sponsored by Grameenphone and organised jointly by Culturpot Global UK, Excalibur Entertainment, Jatrik Travels and Symbiance Partners, the two-day music festival, held at Dhanmondi's Sultana Kamal Mohila Krira Complex has enchanted diverse crowds from different age groups with songs and renditions from the sunny Cuban streets to the dirt roads of Bangladeshi villages.

"The most universal language in the world is music. It unites, it talks; you don't have to understand the language. You just need to understand it with your heart and soul.”
Farhan Quddus and Runi Khan.

However this fiesta has not taken place in Dhaka just by chance. Runi Khan, the founder of Culturepot Global, a UK based organisation that arranges cross-cultural events in different fields of arts, has always treasured a desire to bring world focus on Bangladesh at least for a day. Noticing her country's absence in the global cultural scene, she decided to create a platform for Bangladeshi artistes, so that our rich culture and heritage will be visible to other nations. In her youth, she had the opportunity to witness the emergence of world music and its political and social impact especially during the Liberation War of Bangladesh through the "Concert for Bangladesh" held in 1971 at New York's Madison Square. With a view of arranging the 40th reunion of that concert, she approached Farhan Quddus, head of Excalibur Entertainment, Bangladesh.

Unfortunately, the time required for bringing together world-renowned artistes like Ravi Shankar and Eric Clapton, went against their favour. "Although it was a fantastic idea, at that point we did not realise the kind of logistics, hard work and legal implications involved in the entire thing," says Farhan. Thus, instead of discarding the whole idea of trying to bring global attention to Bangladesh through the reunion, the duo made plans for a music festival at Dhaka. "We have always wanted to do an annual world music programme like that in Glastonbury, Montreal and Newport , so when Runi Khan brought this whole concept we said let's do it," recalls Farhan.

Around the same time, the telecommunication giant Grameenphone was looking for events that would focus on the celebration of International Mother Language Day on February 21 declared by UNESCO. Runi's idea of arranging a festival where musicians from all over the world will perform their traditional music in their mother tongue appeared appealing for the company. "The most universal language in the world is music. It unites, it talks; you don't have to understand the language. You just need to understand it with your heart and soul," explains Runi. "They understood exactly what we want and said that for the next three years we were creating a platform– it would be called Dhaka World Music Festival. Then it will be a city branding like that of WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) in Singapore and London," adds Farhan.

Kishon Khan- A master pianist and founder of Motimba and Lokkhi Terra.

One of the main considerations in selection of the foreign bands for the festival has been the issue of funds. "These are world renowned names but they are playing at half of what the local musicians get. They are coming to Bangladesh because they love what they do," asserts Runi. She explains how these bands in normal circumstances would not have shared musicians; sat together and decided to play for each other by doing a couple of rehearsals. "When we actually needed 40 musicians, their cooperation to help us cut our cost, made it possible to work with only 22,"adds Farhan. According to Runi Khan, getting in touch with these world-reputed bands and musicians has been possible because of Bangladeshi-born musicians like Kishon Khan and Idris Rahman, who also play for these bands.

While selecting local bands, the organisers have tried to include both popular artistes as well as those who play underground. In Kishon's words: "Sometimes instead of focusing on succeeding popular musicians, people should focus on session musicians like Nazrul Islam and Baby Akhter because they are the bedrock of the music scene here. Nazrul has recorded for Lokhhi Terra, Bangla and Momtaz – one Afro-Latin jazz fusion band, one Bangla rock and the other Bangla folk." Calling Nazrul Islam a session player just like himself, Kishon Khan continues: "We are not pop stars, we play in different bands. That's the type of person I want people in Bangladesh to see because that's the type of person who makes a living off music. That is what should be projected to young people; much more than the rock stars in TV, who come from affluent families."

Though coordinating these varied groups of musicians has not been easy, breaking the bureaucratic tape in finding a venue proved to be far more difficult. Farhan shares how hard it was to make people understand the concept of the festival and how in many circumstances government officials would give excuses of security when request for open air venues were made. The delay in venue confirmation affected the marketing and publicity of the event, yet the biggest problem arose from unavailability of music instruments like the heavy weighted keyboard. "The international musicians require just two things – good sound and good instruments and there are certain instruments which they cannot bring and we said we would provide it," says Runi Khan, disappointed at the lack of professionalism in this area.

In spite of all the barriers and disappointments, the festival has taken place successfully giving Bangladeshi crowd the chance to rap with the Cuban timba, swim in the African kora's wave and clap with the dhol's dhinak-dha. For the first time ever, Bangladeshis witnessed true fusion in the form of world music on their soil. "The problem with fusion here is that people listen to Rock and Roll and Bollywood. However, fusion is not just giving a jazzing backing to sound, it is mixing sound," explains Runi. And true fusion has been created when the ingenious musicians from all over the world, who live in the shadows of the stars, played in unison in the finale as Rob Fakir drew out the lyrics and tune of the maestro Lalon, through "Milon hobay koto diney". Yet another platform of unity has been set in Dhaka through its first ever world music festival.


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