December 10, 1990 will go down in the history of Bangladesh as the day that saw the ouster of the hated military dictator Hossain Mohammad Ershad. What has passed many of us by since; Ershad was overthrown by a youth led mass movement. Fed up with the incessant chicanery of their “leaders” in their dealings with the dictator of nearly a decade, it was the only time that the youth front of Awami League, BNP and even Jamaat joined hand in an unprecedented display of unity – the rest is history. For the political landscape it was to see the return of semblance of representative democracy after 1975, a wait of almost 15 years. On the cultural landscape it would usher in a new era, where freedom of expressions, denied and subverted for decades were to be restored and enter center stage of popular imagination.
The other historical event was the first ever open air concert held by Bangladesh Musical Bands Association (BAMBA) on December 16, 1990 at the Mall Square of Dhaka University – the same spot, where over a dozen students were killed in a last ditch gun battle with the henchman of the dictator. Over 50,000 people thronged the Mall to witness the free concert where more than 15 rock bands celebrated freedom away from the clutches of dictatorship. The momentous concert ended on a heartening note that evening, with an hour long performance by Shahjahan Munshi the visually challenged Baul from Manikgang.
Rock and Baul music tied a symbolic thread of commonality and unity on the day – and that was only a demonstration of newer things to appear on the horizon. Urban mainstream and rural “cultures” merged and as if by providence were set to rock in a manner unseen. The winds of change following the historical BAMBA concert saw rock music - stunted post-1975, re-emerge with strength and vitality – and together a noticeable shift in repertoire and listening habits of the audience. From 1990 onwards newer and unheard of genres entered the Bengali soundscape. From pop rock, hard rock to thrash metal, to heavy metal and jazz-rock fusion etc, very quickly and resolutely became powerful musical genres in Bangladesh.
A young and appreciative audience was also lapping up Baul music for they realized and recognized that Bauls were part of our forefather’s rebellion against any form of oppression. Baul was our ancient roots rock tradition and the young just did not stop by giving it tokenistic lip service. Baul fusion was in fact just a few years away from happening. In 1996 the legendary band Feedback (the author was then its lead vocalist) much to the surprise of their urban fan based, launched a complete Baul fusion album. Titled “Bauliana” – the album show cased the possibilities of interpreting Baul music in a global music format. Experimenting not only with the works of Fakir Lalon Shah and other masters of some 200 years, the band notched up their presentations by including living Bauls themselves in the album.
The legendary Hiru Shah the oldest living Baul of the Lalon Shrine at the time and Santosh Baul of Bhanga, Faridpur (both now deceased) were featured in the album, that saw the beginning of a process of Masters joining in an urban production. “Bauliana” was the first Baul fusion album in the history of Bangladesh and was an instant “crossover hit” endearing the band not only to their existing fan base, but also in rural Bangladesh – where it also gave listeners a foretaste of the unique and emerging rock music movement.
The process of soul searching and introspection that is fundamental in Baul music and its philosophy soon became an ongoing praxis among new Baul fusion exponents - the majority of whom were from a generation that was born after the Liberation War of 1971. The Fine Arts Faculty campus in Dhaka University organised for the very first time a proper “Shadhu Shongo” with hundred of Bauls and Shadu Gurus in attendance. The times also opened up scopes for much younger Bauls emerging from the Akhara tradition to come to Dhaka to perform and record their works without been treated as “village bumpkins!” Outwardly the most potent indicator was; newer Baul music forms with the Akhara tradition notwithstanding, led to appreciation that had nothing in common with the closed, cliche and somewhat intolerant attitudes of the previous generation.