Mustafa Zaman, Star Weekend Magzine, Dhaka, 4 September, 2009
In a mechanised age, the art of making music has become its own antithesis, a profitable enterprise. In the West, popular music is now only a cog in the great wheel of fortune called market economy. At the home front people are making efforts to replicate that ‘achievement’.
It seems that the music for the masses gets easily replaced by the music for the trendy when economy is the only drive. Accordingly, music in the album form are actually being churned out under the authority of predetermined poetics, one which stems from a choreographed convergence of money, editing panels, and the continuous demand for hit numbers. These industrial musical products bear the sign of the pure mechanistic intent, one that meddles with the sounds, sights and visualisations of any creative musician.
Some want to break away from this. And in their attempt to do so most usually try to achieve at least a degree of estrangement from what is the norm by reviving soppy melodies of the past. But Leela is an exception. As a group it banded in 2005 to ‘turn music into praxis’, displaying a strong tendency to make good use of the mileage still left in the songs that rocked this part of the world during the heydays of left activism. Add to that brew the 70s point blank deshi rock one that trashed artsy rendition to embrace a candid vocal style — of which Azam Khan emerged as the lone king.
Leela, in their attempt to manifest the difference from what is effete and feeble in the face of all kinds of transgressions that marks our time, has produced an album which they call Naiok, hero in literal translation.
Arup Rahi, lead vocal and conceptual guru of the band, readily transposes a new meaning to the word ‘hero’ by redirecting our attention from the urban location to the vast rural expanse, which is Bangladesh. For him the hero resides outside the cosmopolitan din ‘in the midst of the earth-tilling masses.’ His concept calls into question the very possibility of a hero’s existence in the urban, commercial/architectural setting. Both his words and music sets in motion a new understanding of the hero by relocating him/her among the peasant class, whose struggle and cause Rahi lionises and attempts to give voice to. This effort to dispel at least some of the misplaced notions around inorganic ‘heroism’ shapes the tissue and texture of the very first album which Leela has conceived. The conceptual difference bears down on many a track rendering some of the numbers noisy and nonconformist and a few chant-like and devotional.
Being a bard and activist, Rahi has been privileged to be able to pick up a lot of indigenous nuggets from the popular soundscape. Not that he is out to revive the past practices whose influence is gradually in the wane. The experience of giving a good hearing to rural popular music of Bangladesh has informed this album to an extent.
‘If the heavy beat and guitar work that builds the ambience of the album testifies to our affinity to hard rock, most of the tunes clearly links us to the local tradition,’ Rahi points out. Without even deviating much from the vocal style and the tune lifted from traditional songs, the compositional mishmash, intentional as it is, let the band achieve their musical signature.
If the album opens with an apotheosis of the Bengali peasants, inviting the listeners to stand witness to an imaginary sonar kishan, which is also the title of the song, the second number sinks into self-examination using a good bit of raga-tinged pleasantness that recalls Baishnab devotional music. Piasa amaar pathar angey keno jagale hey praan, pravu hey… the line itself harks one back to the days of Baishnab prem-infused (prem equals love and devotion in Baishnab thinking) movement of the 16th century Bengal. That the personalised lyric and the accompanying easy-going music secure a tryst with a new destiny is exactly what makes this song stand out among the 10 songs that make up the album Naiok. Aside from the last two of the numbers — which are Leela’s take on Lalon Fakir, compositions that are heavily fortified by grungy guitar work — the rest of the scores are Leela’s original.
The third number is an attempt at self-deprecation Bengali style, off-hand and untainted. Bondhur premey khaisi go dhara aami the very line puts the middle-class temperance to test. This is where the self-confessional mood meets streetwise language and is manifested through an intentionally pesky voice carefully attending to an indigenous tune a combination many would have flinched away from even at the time of devising.
As for the stotra or hymn-like quality that rules the two temperamentally slow numbers Ami tomaar maajhey jhirjhiriey boitey cheyechee and Yasmin, the firm yet melancholic side of Rahi’s voice gets to work its magic. These two songs carry all the loads of emotions to be able to resonate with the listeners. Consumer demand often robs music off this kind of instinctive quality that goes with the true musical intention. Leela’s Yesmin certainly is a piece that brings out the emotive spirit in its fuller, gutsier dimension.
Most of today’s musical productions are the results of inappropriate manipulation; they sound as if they are nothing but administered harvest. If there is manipulation in Leela’s first attempt, it is mostly informed by an inner necessity.
Their mix carries point-blank delivery and stream of rock where the guitar and the drum unite to assault as well as stimulate the ear. The highpoint of this album is Rahi’s lyrics that attentively put forward some imagery as well as bits and pieces of his mind, which in turn illuminate social realities for all to witness. At times the commonplace and the mundane is Rahi’s ideal vehicle as in Tui ashlee naa, where lines such as Aami kaancha bazarer shera shobjee nia randhee/ Aami chhera moshareer doree thikthak bandhee/ Tui aashlee naa serves to elucidate an aspect of existence that rarely find expression in art. The other side of the spectrum, as explored in the song Yasmin, also provides for a good bit of social/psychic examination. Addressing the perpetrators who molested and killed the little girl from Dinajpur by the same name, the song starts off with a strain of resentment the voice of Rahi’s replacing the voice of the reincarnated Yasmin. A song like this without refrain, without chorus could only sustain the interest of the listener through some engaging utterances –Aamar mormo pira nai, nai shukher abhiman… and Ebar tomar bishoi bolo, naam bolechho mohot kato naam…– which are directed to her male counterparts. For the song writer the reflexive mode suites the purpose, which is to give voice to the voiceless.
The musical experience that awaits one in Naiokdom, is based on a framework where noise, naff voice, breathy vocal skills commingle. In some of the songs noise rises to its pitch point but fails to overwhelm the eardrum as things seem to stay on a single plateau. It could have been groovier. Meaning this bunch of musicians did not pay much attention to the various facets of the musical experience. A smatter of grits could have rescued some of the songs from becoming a high velocity yet banal drone. One also gets the feeling that some polyphonic textures could have been exploited to the band’s advantage. In a couple of songs the dotara that accompanies the guitar does wonders for their style. As for the voice, a little less pitch and more timbre could have been fitting in some of the high-pitched zones in some of the songs.
Yet Leela’s Naiok experience has enough horsepower to throw one out into a new constellation of noise and meaning. If the disparate elements such as the rage of rock and the trembling, pensive voice unite to create its nerve centre, the listeners should have all the reasons to expect more of the same, only in its utmost qualitative variance, from the sound machine and social logic that created it in the first place. The challenge for the group is to make their nervy noise-stream breath life no matter from which direction the group wants to poke fun at or tickle that great emotional giant called life one that also harbours all our sensibilities around love, loss and longing.