Thursday, November 22, 2007

Marriage to Music or Just an Affair? - Aug 7, 07

"The music business was not safe, but it was FUN. It was like falling in love with a woman you know is bad for you, but you love every minute with her anyway. - Lionel Richie

Music as a career. The very idea seems kind of alien, right? After all, here it’s still pretty much a taboo issue, especially if you’re coming from an average, well-to-do, middle-class family. The so-called ‘bhalo-ghorer-chele-meyera-eshob-korena’ syndrome is paramount in our society. As one friend joked “I’d probably have to kiss getting married goodbye if my biodata said ‘musician’ instead of ‘software engineer’”.

Ironically, most of the musicians I know all had their moms initiating them into the wee world of music. Tanvir Alam, aka Shawjeeb of ‘Chaka’ fame, enthused, “Parents’ interest matter a lot. Yes it’s true that you need a god-gifted talent first. But then when one’s parents recognizes that gift and tries to nurture it, that’s when the whole story begins. But for the story to keep on being told, you yourself must have the realization of what a precious gift you’ve been given and then nurture it. Not at your parent’s prodding.”

However, no parent really wants to encourage their kids to take up music as their sole profession. Parents would rather have doctors or engineers in the family. And their fears have solid grounds. Almost every single musician I chatted with, be it teens in underground bands or seasoned veterans, had to say the same thing about Bangladesh’s music industry, “We need major reforms or else reality bites – way too hard.”

My friend Ali, who is ReBORN’s vocalist, expressed, “Most artists, especially the new entrants and non-commercial ones, are being taken advantage of by major labels. Career wise it’s a bad lookout for musicians here who don't want to make commercial music…like us for instance. International exposure, at least in Calcutta, would be great but the music labels here don’t even do a proper job of promoting your music across your own country, forget distant shores.”

Although having a very musical family to help encourage and support him, independent producer/vocalist/lyricist and CEO of Bengal Music, Shayan Chowdhury aka Arnob has worked hard at making a successful career for himself. He explained “Music as a career is hard. Unless you’ve the grit to sacrifice a lot of things, I’d advice that you have a separate professional career and do music on the side. Otherwise it doesn’t pay. You have to survive by doing jingles, drama/movie scores, etc. Just doing albums won’t be enough even if you’re concentrating only on profit-oriented commercial music. The profits hardly outweigh the costs. Say one wants to work with musicians outside. Who’ll bear the traveling expenses? Exchanging files over the net is all very good but it’s WAY different than creating music together inside a studio. It’s just not financially feasible for most people.”

He and other musicians also expressed their wish for a union or government body who’d implement legal issues dealing with standard pricing, intellectual copyrights, and especially royalties. Aronnya’s guitarist/lyricist/vocalist Dipto pointed out, “The radio channels are playing our songs, there are midis, ringtones being made by telecom companies, websites are giving away our stuff for free downloads…yes, we’re grateful because that’s all helping to contribute to our fame but what about our share of the fortune?”.

Arnob, Dipto and other musicians also stressed that fact that music education needs to see major forefronts. Arnob explained “Chayanot or Dhaka University’s Shongeet O Nattokola are good but teaches only the basics of Eastern music. That starts you off well enough but then what? Music is a process of continuous learning. The whole process of becoming a better musician is a series of 'aha!' experiences. It's not gradual, or steady, or step-wise. And the more you learn the more you can experiment. You need to go on learning your whole life and it doesn’t end with just learning how to sing a particular type of song or playing a certain type of instrument. You need to learn the harmonics of music. The history of music. The different raags in Eastern music. You need to appreciate art in it’s every form, not just in terms of music. Otherwise you can’t think out of the box.”

Triloy’s keyboardist, Apu and I were discussing how it would be wonderful to have people teaching music under one roof – a proper institution so to speak. For that to happen, someone needs to take the initiative to assemble the human resource and other assets required. The lack of good teachers is a major barrier. We don’t really have people in our country who can teach Western music and the respective instruments – the piano, the violin, the sax, the clarinet, etc – professionally. And I seriously wish someone would think of introducing music as a subject in the primary and secondary schools. I mean just think – it’s been scientifically proven that instrumental music enhances one’s mathematical skills and intelligence levels. That should be an incentive in itself!

But is the picture all bleak? If that were the case, why are more and more people trying to enter the industry? Isn’t the mirror always suppose to have two faces?

Well, one positive trend we’re seeing now is the amount of opportunities and resources available to pursue your musical ambitions. There’s easier access to musical instruments and equipment. And instead of scourging for old hand-me-down music magazines, you have the net to do anything from downloading guitar tabs, to advancing your musical knowledge, to promoting your music. Recently I opened my own music page on Myspace, which is brilliant for generating interest - people can hear your music all over the world at the touch of a button and it's a good way of letting people know about your gigs.

Ashiq of RaaGa also mentioned how the advent of music channels like MTV and Vh1 was not only exposing people to different genres of music but was preventing the yester years’ trend of ‘copying’ music. He stated, “Inadvertently this forces you to explore your own talent and make something from scratch. You grow more.”

And these days regular gigs like “Friday 6 PM KOZMO (A)live” at KOZMO Lounge and “Wireless Sessions” at Decagon Café are also helping to create a platform for budding musicians to showcase their talents.

And if you can turn your back on all the social shackles during the initial stages of your struggle and become a rockstar…well, the society then runs after you. And a career in music doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do albums. There are many session artists who’re earning around 1 lakh taka per month just by playing in gigs or working on albums with music producers and artists. That’s big money.

It’s like how Mr. Richie put it above. Here’s a situation where you fall passionately in love with a woman, who’s a tad dangerous but oh so addictive. Who knows? If all goes well, you could just end up marrying her after all and live happily ever after.

Monsoon Magic - June 7, 07

Every….Single….Time. Undeniably. Irrevocably. There’s no avoiding it. Each and every time the skies above me darken as the rumbling clouds gather before opening their arms wide open to set forth the cool, cool monsoon breeze, I wake up.

What I mean to say is that it may be in the wee hours of the early morning, say around 4 a.m., or during a lazy, weekend afternoon, when I’m totally lost in blissful slumber, that without a doubt, an imminent storm will wake me up. There simply has to be an invisible connection between the onslaught of rain and my biological clock. Mind you, I’m no light sleeper. Nothing short of a blaring alarm clock (or my ma banging on the door non-stop) will wake me up. So the only conclusion left to make is that I have an undeniable love affair with monsoon in all its glory.

It all starts with the calm before the storm. The so-called calmness is just a façade. You can actually sense the throbbing pulse of suppressed excitement of the imminent downpour to follow. I can feel it beating in my pulse and it literally makes me pace the floor of my bedroom and veranda… waiting… waiting… when suddenly, out of the blue, I’ll spy some errant leaves swirling in a burst of air and just scant seconds later that sensuous, erotic touch of the wind that’s so much a part of a storm will start ebbing and flowing. Go on. Take a deep, deep breath. Now wouldn’t you say that that has got to be the one of the richest legacies that Mother Nature has given us?

One reason I think I love the rain so much is because of all the wonderful memories that are tied to the monsoon season. I still recall how my ma would help me and my elder brother, Sakib, tear up used pages from our revision copies and make paper boats, big and small, to set adrift on the puddles and streams of rain water that would collect in the cervixes and hollows on the ground. Then there’s getting wet in the rain while feeling your toes sink in the warm, wet earth below and the grass tickling your feet. The best part about this is that you have all your clothes on which somehow heighten the enjoyment of it all. Don’t ask my why for I have no clue.

And how can we forget all the ritualistic food??! Piping hot tea or coffee with crispy muri bhaja with zesty shorishar tel and onions. Or if it’s lunch time then bhuna khichuri with spicy beef or fried fish. And since it is the monsoon season, it means that the dining table will include your homemade, yummy mango chutneys. The ones made by your nani or dadi always taste the best. Oh! Speaking of mangoes, they’re a constant element when it comes to dessert as well! And lichies, which we skin and refrigerate in a box so that they taste like frozen sorbets, makes their perfect dessert-dating partner.

See? It has to be the memories.

Just three days back, right on cue at 6 a.m., I woke up. I was a little disoriented at first and couldn’t put my finger on what it was exactly that had broken my sleep. Then I heard it. The wailing sound of the wind rushing through the leaves of the trees. I got up in a flash, all the sleep gone from my eyes and ran towards my window to throw back the drapes and the shutters. And smiled. Because I knew that in just a little while, I’d be on my way to making some more memories. Memories of monsoon magic.

Trip to Tong-land - June 7, 07

Road trips. Or train journeys. Ok. Here’s a quick multiple choice question quiz as to what’s the best part about such sojourns, be it cruising down the roads in your car or chugging down the railways of our country to some far off, distant place.

Yes, yes. I know. Some of you might claim that it’s the beautiful sceneries that zip past the windows. Music aficionados might sing off-key praises about the importance of arranging all the amazing and ‘feel good’ music in your mp3 or your car’s CD collection – the ultimate ‘road trip’ or ‘train journey’ playlist. Alright, I admit that these have to be a quintessential part of the whole traveling experience but aren’t we forgetting the one thing that is absolutely unique to our country? Any guesses? Anyone? No? Sigh! How can we leave out or survive without our tong’er dokans. They should have reached a cult-status by now…

One has to admit that once you start feeling all the cramps and aches and pains down your legs and back (or alternately your bladder starts protesting against incessant pressure), it feels like absolute heaven to stop the car by a quaint, little roadside tea stall and get down to stretch a little (or alternately put your bladder to rest nearby some unresisting shrub).

The creaking, wooden benches, permanent appendages in front of the stall, somehow feel way more comfortable than the seats of your car and the tiny cups seem to be just the perfect size for holding the right amount of tea. Talking about the tea…the guys who run these places seem to have down making sickeningly, sweet dudh cha (milk tea) down pat. But strangely enough, they don’t taste sickening on these trips. In fact, they seem to morph into the best damn tasting tea ever made on the face of this planet. The rong cha (milk-less tea) taste equally good with the water taking on this interesting, slippery texture due to being simmered over the stove non-stop in a metal pot.

As for the proprietors I just mentioned. Well. Somehow my dad, or my uncle, or my brother – yes, it’s this guy thing – always seem to end up striking up with them what seems to be the most riveting conversations this side of a cocktail party. Must be something in the tea.

The road trips aside, the train journeys have their own perks when it comes to these tong’er dokans. There’s not a lot of walking you can do inside a cramped train and not surprisingly the stopovers en-route to your destination feels like mini-trips within your big trip. The tea stalls bear gratifying similarities to their roadside cousins, thank god, and the best part about such stops is that there’s always this little drama involved of making sure one doesn’t miss the train. Yes. Run, baby, run.

For those of you who’re completely in the mist about what I’ve written so far, I’d recommend that you ask someone within your circle of friends, who’s a road trip or train journey connoisseur, to take you on one. After that, if you don’t re-read this article and go “Ah!” then I should take up another career like say…traveling. Here that rapid-fire tinkle of a spinning spoon inside a tea cup? That’s a tonger dokan calling out to me to do just that.

Want to go for a ride?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Showcase of Summer Get-aways - May 19, 07

With temperatures racing upwards every day, you sure don't need to be reminded that summer’s here. The fluctuating temperatures between the hot, humid outdoors and the cool confines of AC’ed rooms have clothes sticking to you as soon as you step outside, not to mention giving you severe cases of dreaded summer colds. Besides, one’s precious ACs are of no use with our famed powercuts and loadshedding. The heat seems to make you more sluggish at work and all you feel is like taking a break from it all and spending some time with mother nature as your only company, albeit with all the basic amenities near at hand so that you don’t need a vacation from the vacation you’re taking! The best part about getting away during the summer is that since it’s off season, the hotel prices are nearly slashed to half their peak rates and the ‘holidaying crowd’ is blessedly minimal. Translation? You can really enjoy a trip in true solace and silence.

Approximately only a 4 hours drive by car or bus from Dhaka, how about traveling to the lush and lovely tea gardens Sylhet is so famous for? There is the beautiful Zakaria City and Jaflong, and you might also want to include a visit to the shrine of Hajrat Shahjalal (R) and take in the mesmerizing effect of the water fall, Madhabkunda. Enjoy the Monipuri Tribal maidens doing their famous dance for you, and besides checking out the shopping malls there, be sure to drop in at London Fried Chicken, a local franchise company in town opened by a guy from London, said to have some of the best fried chicken you’ve had for ages.

Let’s by-pass the rather clichéd Cox’s Bazaar shall we? Let’s foray into a place a little bit more difficult to access but well worth the effort. All you romantics will surely love Kuakata, locally known as Shagor Konnya (Daughter of the Sea), the only beach in Bangladesh where you can enjoy watching both sunrises and sunsets. Kuakata means “digging a well” and there’s a two hundred year old kua (well) here built by the Rakhine tribe, who’ve settled in Kuakata from Myanmar. Keranipara is the nearest Rakhine village from the beach, where you can visit a 100 year old Buddhist temple named “Seema Mandir” with an incarnation of Buddha made of eight different metals. Parjatan Holiday Homes at Kuakata is the safest and coziest place to stay although there are a number of other hotels around the badh (dam).

In Rangamati, you can enjoy the wondrous beauty of Khagrachori waterfall, the blue, blue water of the man-made Kaptai Lake with its hanging bridge, the colorful tribal life and culture, jeep rides through hills and dales, attractive handicrafts…yes the list is seemingly endless. Suvolong, surrounded by the waters of Kaptai Lake, is sure to make even the weariest hearts feel they’re on paradise – yes it’s that beautiful. And oh yes…those of you with a sweet tooth should know that the sweetmeat of Suvolong is famous for their delicious taste. Also, try to spend a night with a good book and your mp3 player on the nearby island resort “Peda Ting Ting”, which in Chakma apparently means “take food, take rest and go”. You can catch the sunset and sunrise over the lakes and mountains. The island has three cottages for rent, named “Radhamon”, “Dhonpuri” and “Tanyabi”, and a restaurant where you can enjoy indigenous specialties like chicken baked in bamboo and grilled fish fresh from the lake. Yum!

Now for all you Indiana Jones types, how about a spell at the Sundarbans or Bandarbans? I have it on good authority from my deshtrotting friends that Bengal Tours and Guide Tours have some of the best deals for these places. They offer a lot of different tour packages depending on how many days you want to stay, what kind of cabins you want in their launches, what kind of food you’d prefer, etc. But the minimum decent package would cost around BDT 5,000 to 6,000.

In Sundarbans, your main accommodation will be the launch and you can go on daily boat rides to sigh in wonder over the mangrove forests and wild deers, and gasp over large and lazy crocs sun tanning on the riverbeds. The large and lazy part is quite deceiving as I’ve seen these beasts disappear with lightening speed into the waters, when a boat gets too close for their comfort. And if you’re really desperate to spot a Royal Bengal Tiger, although chances of that are very slim, you can even stay overnight on a macha (wooden watching tower) at Hiran Point…if you want to, given that the guides won’t stay with you or take any such responsibility otherwise. They’ll simply leave you there around dusk with a lantern, food and blankets. If you survive the ordeal, they’ll come to fetch you come next morning. Unless you have nine lives, best not indulge in such daredevil acts. For those of you not interested in roughing it and prefer soaking in art, history and culture, try visiting the shrine of Lalan Shah or the Shilaidaha Thakur Bari, where you can see the daily usage materials of Rabindranath Tagore’s family.

Bandarban, wilder than the other two hill districts, Khagrachari and Rangamati, boasts deep forests, high hills, innumerable springs and the simple life of the tribes. There are 11 different tribes living in Bandarban, so it’s a town of mixed cultures. Besides the tribal people’s holy places, there are Hindu temples, Kangs (Buddhist temples), mosques and churches. Bandarban is ideal for trekking and hiking. An exciting and popular trekking route is that to Keokradong, the highest peak in Bangladesh, and staying overnight in a tribal village is a requisite of this trip. It’s also possible to cover the second highest peak, Tahjingdong in the same trekking route. And for those of you who might not find all that walking up their pants, you can try out the “Quantum Meditation Resort”, established in Lama, for some spiritual pursuit in natural surroundings.

So if you’re feeling as if the summer heat’s making Dhaka life even more oppressive than usual, simply get away from the chaos of modern life and rejuvenate in the natural surroundings of our beautiful mother land. Just one last word of advice. Do make Odomos your best friend during these trips and not the mosquitoes...haha – bon voyage!

Useful links: