It would be fitting to start this with an anecdote from around 2001. On the charts billboard show on MTV, I noticed a curly blonde girl gyrating her petite hips to a song “whenever, wherever”. As a young twenties, the eyes were glued to the screen, and the hips, but I did not think much of the singer or the voice afterwards. That song would pave the career of one of the biggest pop stars of our times, Shakira. Over next few months after that song smashed all the billboard records, there were a few more songs played on TV, and one particularly drew my attention called Te dejo Madrid, sung in Spanish, but I soon forgot the star Shakira has become, and was sucked into the daily chores of life. Then in 2003 during my first visit abroad to Bangladesh for work, the client took us to a shopping mall in Dacca, where in a music shop I found an MP3 CD of all Shakira songs.
When I played them, there was an initial disappointment that all songs were in Spanish, but that soon became the reason I would listen to the songs over and over again. Although the content were not very clear having no knowledge of Spanish, I still found that her voice was a tours de force, she was the aria with a bass of a mezzo-soprano in her voice, her voice was not something for the faint-hearted as they hit you like a thousand glass shrapnel and blow you apart, and the vibes don’t stop at your eardrums but hit the brain cells like fresh smell of habanero. Despite avoiding so far from becoming a fan, I did become a fan at last – the only solo vocalist I would be called a fan of, other than The King (Just to clarify here, there is only one king, MJ was only the king of pop). I became a fan of Shakira Meberak, who spoke five languages, wrote all her songs and put music to them, and played several instruments as well, and especially the voice that had the free spirit, not tarnished by the materialistic world of music industry. I liked the Shakira who sang in Spanish, and represented a youth life of Columbia. Even though the tracks in English paved the path for her super stardom, after listening to the original Spanish versions, they did appear rather monotonous, it lacked the vitality. And thus, through listening to Shakira songs over and over again began a journey of exploring the Spanish music, which is the last frontier crossed at the time of writing this, in search of discovering various genres of music – a journey that began years back, perhaps during the first few years of my life.
Despite the lack of any music lessons ever, I felt as if music has always been running in my veins. Being grown up in a Bengali neighbourhood in the eighties, which could be treated as the avant-garde period of Bengali cultural renaissance in the neocommunist era, music was omnipresent in many different genres and shapes and forms. There were the Indian classical music, which in itself presented a myriad of classes. There were Hindi and Bengali film music, then the rare and eclectic western music and beyond these various sources, mainly heard though radio or TV, there were direct musical influences in the form of musical schools in every neighbourhood with aspiring parents sending their children to be taught musical lessons, mainly classical or Tagorian – the two columns of music education of the time. Apart from this, there were bands and folk songs of various kinds ranging from baul vagabonds to communist youth forums. In short, music were everywhere in every hour of your life, it was impossible to avert.
My earliest recollection of music was the sitar tune by Late Pt. Ravishankar, played on the daybreak on radio every day. My day started waking up with that one, followed by the same songs played between 6:00 and 6:30. The other genre I got accustomed to from the early childhood was the film music. Until I was about 13, I hated films and would only go to children films, very rarely, and such was my aversion that I would go to other room if someone had films on TV. However, film music was inescapable – be it on radio, or TV or loudspeakers at street corners for any and every conceivable instances – religious, social, political or recreational. There were two distinctive differences between the Hindi and Bengali film industry music – Hindi had already gradually moved away from its classical base that dominated the music industry since its inception, whereas Bengali music was still based prominently on its classical roots. Also due to the nature of the majority of the mainstream films, Bengali ones, being mainly shot indoors, adopted slow melodious tunes, whilst the Hindi songs, the biggest money spinner for films, have shifted to faster and saucier tracks.
Then came the late eighties and like rest of the world, Calcutta was swept away by the king of pop MJ. On all occasions, the loudspeakers churned out tracks from Thriller, Bad or Dangerous instead of the film songs. If not the popularity were for the music, it was the break dance that came with the music, which heightened the fan base even wider. And thus formed a propensity to listen more of the contemporary western music, which previously had an eclectic audience due to, amongst other factors, a lack of access and high prices for the cassettes – almost five times the price of a newly released Hindi film track, and possibly 20 times if it was an original version imported. Despite not understanding any more than 10 words out of all MJ songs, I was more keen to experience this new and different mode of music I never encountered before and started listening to the few programmes aired on radio playing western music, and in early nineties the national television broadcasters would introduce a few programmes later at night playing pop and rock & roll.
This all changed in 1993, when the city first had the cable and satellite dish TV connections that opened up a much wider range of western music through the likes of MTV. The restriction on accessing western music has been lifted, allowing a large variety of music to a wider audience base. Even during those days, western music to me was a collective identity, I could hear the difference in rhythm and content of different genres but didn’t know what they were and would still hardly understand many words of the songs to comprehend the overall message. As a result, what started much earlier, I was still carrying on appreciating the music, the rhythm and a more succinct fact that these music represented a life and people of an almost diametrically opposite world; the music sent ripples of glimpses of a world that never existed before. Since then until 2005-06, music channels on cable would become an integral part of my musical explorations – be it nineties boy bands or melodies of seventies, from Beatles to Pink to Eminem to Britney.
During nineties another revolution in the Bengali music industry has been happening silently, which began in the seventies through the likes of Late Gautam Chattopadhyay alias Monida and his Bengali folk-rock group Mohiner Ghoraguli. Bengali bands (Bangla band as they are known) had seen its resurgence through an exceptionally talented trio of Suman-Nachiketa-Anjan. The genre can be classed as folk-rock as Suman-Anjan took inspiration from Dylan to Seeger to Joan Baez, whilst Nachiketa had his style of rendition mainly based on the Bengali folk songs mixed with rap. The more hard core Bangla Rock movement has been going on on the other frontier of the Bengali speaking world, in Bangladesh. The likes of Miles and LRB have been creating some amazing pieces during this era, and their experiment with guitar and drums were miles ahead of any Bangla bands in West Bengal. Reminiscing those years, there was always a heated debate on who the best of the trio was and the socio-political relevance as songs of Suman were quasi-communist, Anjan’s were usually neutral and Nachiketa was disillusioned Leftist. Inspired by these three, suddenly there were a larger number of Bengali bands in the fray ranging from folk songs from Bhoomi, Chandrabindoo to rock themed Cactus, Parashpathar. This movement almost in its own has altered the musical landscape of Bengal in the twenty first century. Whilst the Tagore and Classical genres were always in the contention, the film music to the contemporary music, they seemed completely liberated from the aegis of the previously indispensable classical roots.
While doing my engineering degree there was a big hype on a certain Yanni performing at the Acropolis. I didn’t know who Yanni was, and my experience of contemporary classical western music orchestra was only limited up to three tenors and Zubin Mehta. On one evening, MTV aired Yanni, live at Acropolis and that moment will most definitely be cast into the hall of fame of musical mesmerism I have experienced. Tracks like Aria, Santorini, Acroyali…words cannot describe the feeling and the magic they created on me, it was pure bliss. On that very moment new age/techno went all the way to the top of my most favourite genre, as I realised at that very moment, that no matter what the mood is, when I put these music on, time just melts away and takes with it all your worries and woes. Then I came across Vangelis who created the music for the film Chariots of fire, and all I remember was I roamed all across Calcutta trying to find all his albums and ready to pay any price. The good news was That I was not disappointed by Music World, the bad news was that they were all imported original tracks as there were no recreated versions in Indian studios, hence costing an arm and a leg. Thus I had all his albums from China to Antarctica to Themes; the more I listened, more fascinated I became of his works. On the happiest moments of my life, when I had time to cherish it, I’d close my eyes and the ears would be filled with with Aria or a Santorini or Antarctica, and my mind would immediately drift away cruising along the sunny Mediterranean or diving into the hypnotic blues and whites of Antarctica.
Over the years I tried to stretch the experience even further, be it the genres like funk and bluegrass to different languages – French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Celtic, Chinese and even though all such exposures enriched me, apart from adding some exciting artists to my list of favourites, the overall impact was not substantial. This can partially be attributed to lack of ample exposure of each genre/language to reach the critical sample size, where I would have come across good quality music.
The Spanish music had been an exception throughout. Returning to the Shakira anecdote, perhaps I did manage to listen some good quality music as Shakira acted as a pivot; my explorations started Shakira and if unsuccessful I always had those songs to come back to. For example while listening to si tu no vuelves, I discovered another Latin music superstar Miguel Bosé, who is probably unheard of in the non-Spanish speaking parts of the world. Then I found another version of the same song by Amaral and Chetes. Amaral is my most preferred band for last few years and I discovered them out of the blue! I even went to a concert by Amaral in London, the only time they were in the UK. Again, looking at Amaral’s live concerts on YouTube, I came across Amaral’s remake of la noche que la luna salio tarde by a rock band 091 and invited their lead guitarist Jose Ignacio Lapido. Searching his name and band again led to another realm of nineties Spanish rock and what a guitarist Lapido is! These are small examples how the six degrees of separation unveiled to me a whole world of fascinating music that all started in that shop in Bangladesh.
Having heralded a picture of the musical journey I have traversed, as the new wonders unfurled in front of me, the realisations permeating through these experiences can be summarised in an expression I picked up in the language that kindles my current passion in music,darse la vuelta or turn around. Turn around in a fashion that Paulo Coelho wrote in The Alchemist, that one you fulfilled all your dreams, travelled the world and still searching for the treasure trove you found that it lies next to your doorstep, where the journey began. Perhaps being away did play a part but my next big venture would be to go back and experience the Indian classical music and instruments, and the bands, and perhaps the film music with which I had no contact for last seven years. This will be a journey off the beaten track of the exploitative and anti-individualistic big music studios. In that glass empire where consumers are omnipotent lords, and artists their puppets, and barely any artists emerge who create music just for the sheer joy of it, and with their ideas not what the crowd wants. Perhaps going back to the roots would pave new pathways to explore; this journey will never have a destination, but it will be interesting to see if I follow the same path of the past again making a never ending loop or whether this will take a completely new direction each time and the map will look like a fuzz of thousand circles all passing through each other but none of them following the same trajectory…