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OP-ED: Still my guitar gently weeps

  • Published at 05:55 pm April 2nd, 2021
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50 years of songs about Bangladesh

It was the first Bangladeshi wedding of its kind in that city -- two “young” people meeting, falling in love, and marrying, with no family in the continent, friends were all they had to share their joys with. The night before the wedding, there was a little get-together at the groom’s apartment. There was a lot of nostalgia, fuelled by intoxicants of many kind. 

And then the music came on -- Bang-la-desh, Bang-la-desh … followed by a wailing guitar -- there were no dry eyes in that room.

In the slum by the railroad track, a boy was born / His mother weeps, as the boy has died -- sings Azam Khan in Bangladesh. This might have been a true story: Khan lived his entire life not far from those slums by the rail tracks of eastern Dhaka. Written in the immediate post-war years of deluge, destitution, and death -- not just of people, but also of their hopes and dreams -- the song was likely a metaphor for the land Khan fought for in 1971. 

Azam Khan was the first Bangla rock star. It’s not a mere coincidence that this new form of music reached this land around the same time that a new country was being created. Bangladesh emerged at the time of the incipient globalization, not just in the economic domain, but also in the sociopolitical sphere of the diaspora and NGOS, and sociocultural trends such as the counter-culture, rock music, and pop art that used novel audiovisual technologies to percolate and ricochet ideas around the world.  

Of course, the economic globalization has been crucial for Bangladesh’s economic development in the recent decades. But we must not forget the role played by the political and cultural globalization of 1971. Bob Dylan or The Beatles, and Che Guevara or Chairman Mao for that matter, weren’t exactly unknown to the East Pakistani youth. The spirit of the soixante-huitard very much echoed in their own uprising against the Ayub Khan regime.  

And the Concert for Bangladesh was the first benefit event of this kind in history!  

Now won’t you lend your hand and understand? Relieve the people of Bangladesh -- pleaded George Harrison in two August summer evenings in New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1971. Approached by his friend the Indian maestro Ravi Shankar, the expectation was to raise $25,000 from a benefit concert. With performances by Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, and Bob Dylan, along with Shankar and Harrison, the two shows would raise $250,000. 

The money wouldn’t reach the country until after the war was over. But it would go on to fund the development of oral saline that has saved millions of lives -- not unlike that of the child Khan sings of -- over the years. Bangladesh has benefitted from globalization in more ways than one, and by the time of that pre-wedding evening, the country was well on track for decades of sustained growth and development. 

As the chorus would be belted out in concerts and stereos, much like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” about the wasted life of a Vietnam War veteran, Khan’s “Bangladesh” would go on to become an affirmation over the years.

Khan wasn’t the last rock star of Bangladesh. James and Ayub Bachchu are two notables to follow in Khan’s footsteps, and both had their own rock anthems titled “Bangladesh.” Both concert favourites, the two songs, however, couldn’t be more different.

James begins in an epic, operatic fashion, thunderously name checking HS Suhrawardy, AK Fazlul Huq, Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Ziaur Rahman, Jahanara Imam, Jasimuddin, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Abbasuddin, Abdul Alim, Sufiya Kamal, Zainul Abedin, SM Sultan, Shahidullah Kaiser, and Munier Chowdhury. The chorus echoes Tagore’s Amar Shonar Bangla. Prince Mahmud’s lyrics mention the three million killed in the war, the Shaheed Minar, the seven Bir Sreshthas, and the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra. 

As cogent an articulation of the heroes and icons of Bangladeshi nationalism as one could get -- demonstrated, for example, by Mainul Ahsan Noble a couple of years ago, when he chose this title to end his quest in an Indian reality TV show -- this is in direct lineage to a radio favourite from 1971 that claimed that the soil of Bangladesh was more precious than gold because here sleeps eternally not just Rafiq-Shafiq-Barkat but also Titu Meer and Issa Khan. 

Of course, all nationalism is ultimately exclusive, and one can’t help but note the lack of any non-Bengali Muslim name in these rolls of honour.

Against the bombast and chest thumping of James, Bachchu is far more quiet, underrated even. The first lines might have been a love song -- similes and metres of a favourite poem, first drop of monsoon rain in a lotus-pond, it’s not until the reality of a plate without any rice that the song hits. Zayed Amin’s lyrics cover post-euphoric blues, someone from those happy days now forever lost, sadness in the corner of young eyes -- rock has always smelt like the teen spirit, and this is right up there with Neil Young or Jim Morrison.

Notwithstanding the affirmation of the chorus, the song contains biting political commentary. Listening to a mother’s vacant heart because of a wrong hero’s call, one can’t help but think of the mother Khan sang about. Had that kid lived, would he not grow up to be a nameless punk in Farhad Mazhar’s Rotten City? 

And listening to a history of wilful mistakes by a gang of men-child, one can’t but help reconsider views about all the luminaries James sings of.

Bangladesh has come a long way from its breeched birth in 1971. It’s no longer, to borrow Harrison’s words, such a great disaster. Unfortunately, 50 years on, I’m not sure that with every mistake we are actually learning, even as the guitar still gently weeps. 

Jyoti Rahman listens and writes about that in www.jrahman.wordpress.com.

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