Music To My Ears: The Songs Of Bangladesh
Growing up in a musical family has its benefits. And the most effective and rather useful benefit in my case was developing an inbuilt tendency of listening. Not to only music, or words, but to all sorts of sounds around me. From the morning birds’ songs to the late night’s crickets, all these sounds that I heard, amused me as a kid. I heard them, noticed their musicality, and listened to them and try to get meanings out of them. This habit of listening comes in handy to this day, when I actually try to make music. And that helped me to learn and self-teach myself new instruments. I get the basic idea of how an instrument works and how to work it when I see one. I’m not very good at playing all of them, but that doesn’t stop me from trying out new instruments.
I’ve never confessed up until now, what has helped me or provoked me the most into making music. And the truth is, it’s all these wonderful sounds around me. And it’s not only found in nature, but there’s music in everything the people of Bangladesh does. Every generation of every socioeconomic class of this country has their own genres and sub-genres of music. And every genre and sub-genre seamlessly blends with the lifestyles and mentalities of the people it comes from.
Let me come up with some examples. There’s this very popular sub-genre of folk music originating from where I come, the northern part of Bangladesh, called the ‘Bhawaia’, and it was created by the cart drivers. Before motor engines arrived, a popular mode of transport in this area was ox and buffalo driven carts. And the men who drove these carts were called ‘Gariyals’. On long lonesome journeys these Gariyal men got tired and bored and sang songs of their own lyric and composition. Thus, the sub-genre Bhawaia was created. One quality that distinguishes the Bhawaia from the other folk sub-genres is its jerky tone and style of singing. This feature originated from the little jerks they got on the carts from their long rides on rocky ways. What could’ve been a disturbance to their music, turned out to be one of its main features? This is how music became a part of the Bangladeshi people’s everyday lives. You can tell which part of the country a song comes from, or who it was created by, when you hear one.
In my early teen years, you know, in the rebellious age, when challenging everything becomes a thing, I often wondered what made the selectors choose Amar Shonar Bangla, a song of Tagore which wasn’t even of his own composing, as the national anthem of Bangladesh. To be honest, I was actually sick of the song, as I had to sing it in school everyday back then. Let me be honest, I used to lip-sync to the crowd most of the time! To me it felt like they were being unfair to all those beautiful patriotic songs that spoke of the pride and glory of my country. But then it struck me, back in 2013, when I first heard a cover version of the song by a London-based Bengali band, ‘Khyio’. They composed sang it in the most unconventional way I’ve ever heard (they started the song from the bridge of it!), and it not only didn’t sound bad, but it sounded so good that it brought tears to my eyes.
That’s when I realized that this is our song, and no other song can make a better national anthem than this one. The tune is a folk tune, composed by Gagan Harkara, a singer of the common peasants, coming from the rural parts of the then undivided Bengal. And the lyrics that Rabindranath Tagore gave to it, speak of the most original, rural beauty of Bengal. And it’s people’s rawest emotions for their motherland. The song also has a historical background. It was written during he era of the British reign, when a proposal was made to divide Bengal into two for better adminstration on all of it. Tagore wrote the song as a protest to this proposal and also as an attempt to make the common Bengali people see what their motherland already has in store for them and that they do not need any Britisher to tell them where they should live and what should they call themselves. The proposal was withdrawn after various violent and non-violent protests by the common people. Unfortunately, Bengal was divided as a side-effect of the communal delusion and the distraction of independence tactfully created by the politicians in 1947. But the song still remains to be the Bengaliest Bengali song there ever could be.
As I was saying, there’s music in the heartbeats of Bangladeshis. Even in the trying times of the liberation war against Pakistan in 1971, before they even got themselves a decent air force, the people of Bangladesh formed an orchestra, a band, and a rebel radio station of their own called Swadhin Bangla Betaar. There they constantly played motivational patriotic songs along with news and stuff, just to inspire the freedom fighters into gaining their victory that they roaringly did within just 9 months. Some of this country’s best patriotic songs were created during that time, and the artists who worked with them risked their lives to do so, even sacrificed it, but didn’t let the music stop.
After the liberation, band music started developing in this country. And the ones who were doing it, even made their songs to be the most native, with a touch of the West, just so that the common people can grasp them. They were native in all ways they can be, with their words speaking of the most common issues of the lives of the common people. I recently found a song on YouTube by a well-known band originating from Chittagong. The song was a blues song, in Chittagong’s native dialect! It had everything a blues song ought to have. Riffs on a slide guitar, a groovy piano, a harmonica honking in cross-harp, everything a blues song requires. Only, the language was Chittagong’s own. And it was really funky. I never thought a native tongue could sound so cool.
And in this day of information technology, all those divisions and sub-divisions of genres and class sort of faded away, and they all stitched up to be a sort of luscious buffet meal of music. All genres of songs, all sorts of instruments are laid out there for you, and you just pick one, and do whatever you wish with it. The internet just bridged the divide of genres and generations of music, and everyone is trying out everything. I see talented young people learning things as old and sophisticated as classical music, and experimenting with it and making new ones. New songs, new genres. I play Indian classical on my harmonica, and my friend plays blues on Ektara (a single-stringed native folk instrument), and none of it sounds bad! In this way, we’re learning without the boredom of it, because we’re having fun with it.
As I write this article sitting on my balcony late on a chilly October night, I can hear desolate sounds of songs coming from a Baul fest happening somewhere nearby. Maybe I’ll grab my harmonica and see if I can catch up with them from here.
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