Roots and Shoots in Bangladesh (courtesy of Simon Broughton and Kings Place)
Simon Broughton travelled to Bangladesh in search of some of the country’s finest and most distinctive musicians, the Shikor Bangladesh All Stars, who will collaborate with London-based Lokkhi Terra at Kings Place’s Songlines Encounters Festival this summer.
Rob Fakir strokes his beard and catches my eye with a mischievous stare. He picks up his peacock-headed lute – a dotara – and starts to sing. His voice is rough-edged and lived-in, but as a harmonium and various percussion instruments join in, I realise why he’s considered one of the best singers of his kind. He sings with a directness that means you can’t take your eyes – or ears – off him.
I’m at the shrine of Lalon Fakir in Bangladesh. He was a mystic poet and musician who died at the end of the 19th century. Most Bengalis will know some of his poems and to the Baul and Fakir musicians, who are the country’s most distinctive folk musicians, he is a saint. The songs of Lalon are central to their repertory.
One of his most famous songs says: ‘Is Lalon a Muslim? Is Lalon a Hindu? He doesn’t know. He’s human.’ Rob Fakir knows around 500 of his songs and has sung here at the shrine of Lalon for the last 40 years – when he’s not away on international tours. Why does he admire him? Because ‘he talks about humanity. If we know about ourselves we can know about the universe and about God, because God lives within us.’
In a part of the world where religion is all too often a polarising force, the appeal of this universal message is clear. At the time of Partition in 1947, East Pakistan was cut from India along religious lines and then in 1971 the two Pakistans fought a bloody war over cultural and political differences, resulting in the formation of Bangladesh.
The larger-than-life music of the Bauls is the most celebrated part of Bangladeshi folk culture, but there’s a lot more besides. Rob Fakir is just one member of a superb group of Bangladeshi performers, the Shikor Bangladesh All Stars, who are coming to Kings Place for Songlines Encounters Festival in June.
‘Shikor’ means ‘roots’ in Bengali, and with hypnotic grooves driven by the barrel-shaped dhol drum, they exude a vital, earthy sound.
In Bangladesh, unlike India, people are still familiar with their folk music – even in the swarming capital Dhaka, with over 14 million people. The songs sung by Shikor’s singer Baby Akhtar come from different regions of the country, but they are widely known and appreciated, although there are few people that perform them with such panache.
Baby and her husband, dhol drummer and harmonium player Nazrul Islam, form the core of the group. At their home in Dhaka I get to hear a sample of their songs, ranging from spiritual and philosophical songs like those of Lalon Fakir to romantic bhatiali boat songs, very typical of Bangladesh, a country with over 700 rivers. Baby Akhtar’s voice is coloured with a sunny smile and her hands spontaneously outline the contours of the melody she’s singing. These songs are in her blood and she sings them with love and pride. Nazrul and his brother come from a family of dhol players going back at least as far as their great-grandfather. The drum gives a real punch to the music.
One of the other secret weapons of the Shikor group is flute player Jalal. The bansuri bamboo flute is one of the most characteristic instruments of Bangladeshi music, often connected with the river songs. The flute is often a metaphor of love and longing and Jalal is the most sought-after bansuri player in the country, making the instrument glide, agile and smooth as a bird in flight, weaving its way through the coconut palms.
‘Shikor are the real deal,’ explains pianist Kishon Khan, who has hand-picked the group. ‘Without having to go anywhere they can take you on a thrilling trip across Bangladesh.’ Kishon leads the London-based Anglo-Bangladeshi group Lokkhi Terra and has come to Dhaka to work on a collaboration with Shikor that will premiere at Songlines Encounters.
‘Bangladesh – as opposed to East Pakistan – has had to define itself through its language and culture rather than its religion,’ Kishon continues. ‘Music is integral to this identity, and there is a culture of song found in every village across the country.’
On the world stage, Bangladeshi musical culture is overshadowed by that of India. But hearing the Shikor Bangladesh All Stars, you realise that Bangla music is a distinctive force which deserves to be heard in its own right. ‘Whenever I play the dhol, I am back in Bangladesh,’ says Nazrul, who was recently performing in New York. ‘It’s the living heart-beat of our country.’
This article has been reproduced from the Spring & Summer 2015 Kings Place What’s On guide. Please click here to view the guide in its original format on Issuu.
London, 6th June 2015: Simon Broughton talks to pianist Kishon Khan and members of the Shikor Bangladesh All Stars about the traditional sources of the music and their collaboration with Lokkhi Terra.
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