A History of Bengali Music and Musician in the UK

By 31st July 2017Current Events


This oral history project will aim to document multi-generational experiences of Bengali music in Britain, and examples of the music itself.

Bangladeshis form one of the UK’s largest groups of people of overseas descent and are also one of the countries youngest and fastest growing communities. Bengali is the second most spoken language in inner London. In the 2011 the UK census recorded nearly half a million residents of Bangladeshi ethnicity. Large numbers of Bangladeshis immigrated to the UK, primarily from Sylhet, located in the north east of the country, mainly during the 1970s. The largest concentration is in London, primarily in the east London boroughs of which Tower Hamlets has the highest concentration. There are also significant numbers of Bangladeshis in Birmingham, Oldham, Luton, Burnley, and Bradford, with smaller clusters in Manchester, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Rochdale, Cardiff and Edinburgh. To date there has been no comprehensive study of Bengali music in the UK. (NB ‘Bengali’ music includes music from West Bengal, India, as well as Bangladesh)

Part One
In the first instance, the project will focus on music from ‘back home’ in villages and towns in Bangladesh and West Bengal. We will look at shared heritage and regional variations, and how this heritage has been sustained and how it has been threatened. We feel the need to document this experience, particularly from the older generation, before it is lost. We will include the music of Rabindranath Tagore, Kobi Nazrul Islam, Hasan Raja, Lalon Shah, Baul, Bhatiyali, Bhaoyaiya, and folk songs, film songs, and modern songs from various regions. We will explore the significance of Muktir Gan (freedom songs) from 1971 and the way in which music played an important role in the Bangladesh liberation struggle, and how music from 1971 still has the ability to unite people in solidarity.

Part Two
Against this background (part one) we will then explore musical migration. We will research this musical migration from the beginnings, as far back as possible. This will include the music of seamen and laskars who came to Britain firstly as a part of the East India Company. They were followed by Bengali people who came as soldiers in the first and second world wars, and then later on as merchant seamen after the Second World War. We will research the music brought by the Ayahs who accompanied families from various parts of the British Empire. We will follow migration patterns and look at why music mattered to these itinerant men and women. We will look at how they would have performed, sung and played their music, the different styles they would have used, and the different locations and contexts in which music was performed. We will research old recordings or film of these performances made by the individuals themselves or by organisations. We will look at the social, cultural and political context of the music.

We will include in our research the music of Indigenous communities in Bangladesh and influences of this music in the UK (such as Santal, Oraong, Manipuri, Chakma, Mro and Bawm).

We will look at the background and history of instruments and how these have evolved. This will include how instruments have been obtained in the UK. For example, instruments may have been made or adapted from existing ones.
(An example of this is from 1908 when Asadullah Khan came to perform sarod in the UK. His instrument was damaged en route, and he modified a banjo by shaving off its frets and adding a metal fingerboard. He later became attached to his new ‘Indian banjo’ and made some recordings of it).

We will look at the history of how music has been transmitted from one generation to the next. This will include a history of teaching and learning in the UK, and the part families, friends and relatives have played in sustaining musical heritage.

We will look at how music has changed over the generations. This will include the younger generation of Bengalis in Britain. We will look at how younger people have adapted music and worked with the influence of western musical genres to create sounds such as the Asian Underground.

We are also interested in regional variations within the UK itself. Has there, for instance, been a difference in musical development between Bengalis settling in London and settlers further north in the UK? We are also interested in how other UK citizens and musicians have experienced Bengali music, and the exchange that takes place between Bengali music and people of other backgrounds.

We will look at the future and what lies ahead for Bengali music in the UK.

(As a further step for the project in the future, we would like also like to consider how Bengalis in different European countries have expressed their cultural identity through music.)

The main bulk of the research will be through oral history. We would like to interview people from all generations, targeting equal numbers of men and women. We will not only interview musicians but listeners and music enthusiasts too, amateur musicians, those who participate in community music, and teachers and learners from across the spectrum. We will seek to include examples of their music.

Archive research in libraries and museums and other places where archives are held will also be undertaken.

All communication and publication of the project will be through a Facebook site, to enable project participants, volunteers and interested people all over the world to directly interact.


We aim to create a musical archive that represents the diverse nature of Bengali music in the UK. This will be in the form of an online website, audio recordings, and written material.

The material will also be presented at an exhibition, workshops, and a live concert performance.

The project is supported by the British Library Sound Archives, where all recordings will be documented and stored, with permission of the participants.

Intended Audiences
The aims of this project are firstly to document intangible cultural heritage for the benefit of present and future generations. We would aim to engage young people with the material collected. The various styles and genres of Bengali music are a part of an important aesthetic heritage to be valued by arts lovers, Bengali and non-Bengali alike. Some of the musical genres are on the edge of becoming endangered, which means they will be lost forever. Members of the Bengali community in the UK have also created or co-created new musical expressions, which now form a part of British ‘mainstream culture’. We therefore see this project as contributing to a history of music in the UK for the benefit of all citizens, and for the promotion of intercultural dialogue and exchange between communities. Furthermore, there is a wealth of knowledge and skills which has been transmitted from one generation to another, and it is crucial that this knowledge and these skills are recognized and respected by the mainstream culture, allowed to flourish and grow, to influence, and to play a major part in mainstream culture.

This will be a volunteer led project with the support of the Swadhinata Trust.
The profiles of the five founder members of this project are as follows:
Julie Begum
Chair of Swadhinata Trust, who is responsible for promoting Bengali heritage to a wider audience.

Val Harding
Ethnomusicologist (MMus Goldsmiths) with special interest in the music of Bengal and long term (since 1971) association with the area in other contexts such as health and social care.
Publication : Children Singing: Nurture, Creativity and Culture. A study of children’s music-making in London UK and West Bengal, India. In the Oxford Handbook of Singing 2016 online. www.oxfordhandbooks.com

Rolf Killius
Consultant (museums, exhibitions, and media), exhibition curator, ethnomusicologist (MMus SOAS, London University), sound recordist, film producer/editor and radio journalist. Areas of specialization – India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and the Arabian Gulf.
Presently he is a guest curator for non-European musical instruments at the Musical Instrument Museum Markneukirchen, Germany.
Until recently he was the Curator of Oral and Musical Cultures at the British Library – Qatar Foundation Partnership (http://www.qdl.qa/en/search/site/killius)

Mukul Ahmed
Theatre Director of Mukul and the Ghetto Tigers.

Ansar Ahmed Ullah
Member of the Swadhinata Trust.
Lecturer in Community Development and Housing, London Metropolitan University.

We will also take advice from various academics, oral historians and others.

Dear Friends and Participants in our project,

We are very pleased to tell you that the interviews you gave last year for our project “Bengali Music and Musicians in the UK” are now downloaded onto the Swadhinata Trust website and are available for listening.

We still have a few improvements to make to the website i.e. giving everyone’s full name and also adding the written summary of your interview. The summaries are all prepared, they just need to be added to the website.

Please go to swadhinata.org.uk/music/ and find your interview. We would like you to listen to your interview and let us know if you are happy with it. We can change anything if necessary.

You can also see information about our project on the main page of the website under ‘current projects’.

We are still waiting for the British Library Sound Archives to upload our interviews, and will let you know when this is completed.

We are currently taking more interviews and also more recordings of performances of interviewees. Last summer we recorded the Boishaki Mela and that will be added to the website.

This year we will be recording interviews and music for the Altab Ali Story to be performed on May 4th at the Rich Mix. Please note this date – May 4th. For those of you who may not know about this excellent  and important play it has been written by Julie Begum, and this is its second production with Mukul and the Ghetto Tigers. Please come if you can !

Another concert we will be recording and interviewing for is on July 5th at Waterman’s Arts Centre, Brentford. This is a concert of Baul musicians from West Bengal, including the musician Ananda Gopal Das, who I have contact with and visit regularly in Santiniketan. The concert is organised by the Asian Music Circuit. Please note this date. This promises to be an excellent concert – a one off – so please come if you can ! Go to AMC website for details.

Please get in touch with us with any queries, and also you can leave a comment on the Swadhinata Trust website if you wish.

Thank you once again for your very valuable contribution and participation in this project.

With best wishes

Val and Julie



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