Bengali Music and Musicians in the UK
Our collection of oral histories and interviews is a collaboration between the Swadhinata Trust and the British Library Sound Archives.
We have set out to collect oral histories of people and examples of Bengali musical involvement that demonstrates the life of music in the community. This project is not just concerned with well-known performers, star artists, or emerging artists, although some of them are included. Neither is it research that is solely focusing on typical examples and genres of music. But it is a review of the culture that surrounds music, the influences of migration, and community involvement in music. To date we have collected 30 interviews and various musical recordings.
The participants in this collection represent many aspects of the life of Bengali music in the UK: from 1971, and the Bangladesh Independence struggle, to migration, teaching and learning in the UK, present day songwriting and musical composition, the annual Boishaki Mela, and theatre. The project is inclusive of all Bengali music whether this is from Bangladesh or West Bengal in India. Originally, before Partition, Bengal was one province, and these two areas share a common language and cultural heritage.
There are two interviews with Mahmudur Rahman Benu, one in Bengali and one in English, where he tells his story as the leader of a troupe of artists who sang liberation songs during the Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971, and subsequently his arrival in the UK in 1973 and his life as a teacher of North Indian Classical and Bengali music here. The history of 1971 is again reflected in an interview with singer/songwriter Moushumi Bhowmik who wrote the well known song Jessore Road (inspired by Alan Ginsberg’s 1971 poem September on Jessore Road). Other stories from 1971 come from two sisters, Yasmin Rahman and Rumana Khair, whose parents were activists in London during 1971 and who sang as children at meetings and rallies supporting the war effort.
Interest in Bengali music from those outside of the Bengali community is reflected in interviews and musical examples from three white British participants and a Sri Lankan participant. Bengali interest and involvement in non-Bengali genres of music in the UK is demonstrated in an interview with the Bengali jazz singer Arifa Hafiz. There are also reflections by participants at the annual Boishaki Mela, including a reflection on the nature of how the Bengali community has changed over the years. There are reflections on the Asian Underground and it’s significance for the younger generation of British born Bengalis in the 1970s and 80s. An interview with Mukul Ahmed, director of the theatre group Mukul and the Ghetto Tigers, demonstrates the integration of Bengali music and song into theatre. There is an interview with a ten-year-old performer, Anvita Gupta, and with the sound artist Abdul Shohid Jalil who composes Bengali inspired electronic music. There is also an important reflection by the practicing and devout well-known Bengali Muslim singer Alaur Rahman that music is given by God and is in no way haram.
From a historical perspective there is an interview with Tarun Jasani, the writer of the play, Gauhar Jaan: The Datia Incident, and the producer of this play, Mukul Ahmed. Gauhar Jaan was the first artist to be recorded in Calcutta in 1902. This is an important historical landmark in the history of music. The North Indian classical music sung by Gauhar Jaan was not specifically Bengali music, however, the recording took place in Calcutta where Gauhar Jaan lived, although she was not ethnically Bengali. Gauhar Jaan herself represents the diversity inherent in the music of Bengal from these early days onwards. From this time onwards recorded music became available in India and in the UK, and, along with musicians travelling more frequently between India and the UK, a two-way musical journey built up. Both the writer and the producer of this play have a deep involvement with music that is reflected in this as well as other of their productions. The history of Bengali music in the UK is thus brought to life through theatre.
However, reflecting on the place of North Indian classical music in this project it is difficult to say exactly if or where a line may be drawn concerning a definition of Bengali music. North Indian classical music is played throughout North India, including Bengal, and is a part and parcel of the traditions of folk and modern Bengali music. The region of Bengal itself has been home to many classical musicians such as the renowned artists Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and their Guru, Ali Akbar Khan’s father Allaudin Khan. An interview with Somjit Dasgupta in this collection gives a detailed description of these historic developments. The interview, and the history of Dasgupta’s family and his sarod Guru Radhika Mohan Moitra, and his work in collecting and playing old instruments and promoting a living tradition of classical music, is an important addition to the history of classical music in Bengal and in the UK. Somjit Dasgupta also describes the way in which the old Zamindaris of Bengal patronized folk musicians such as the Baul Lalon Sai and Hasan Raja. Somjit Dasgupta’s connections with the UK are very important in the development of this work, and he describes how it is essential to maintain such connections.
Another important aspect of musical integration is reflected in an interview with the tabla maestro and teacher Yousuf Ali Khan who also works with the Grand Union Orchestra, and directs a series of performances with the GUO “Bengal to Bethnal Green”. The GUO seeks to provide a multi-cultural approach to music through performing music from a wide range of the diverse cultures of migrants to the UK, and director and composer Tony Haynes rearranges traditional music to be played by his orchestra in a variety of styles. An interview with Tony Haynes is also in this collection. Yousuf Ali Khan’s contribution to the GUO project includes a wide range of music from Bengal, including north Indian classical and folk tradition.
The two-way flow of music from Bengal to the UK and back is the backbone of this exploration into Bengali Music and Musicians in the UK and the culture that surrounds music. We therefore see musical developments in Bangladesh and West Bengal themselves as an important dimension. This collection includes two interviews from the younger generation in Bangladesh that demonstrate exquisitely how musical developments take place, and how progress and change is important to the younger generation currently living in Bangladesh. Links with the UK and modern British Bangladeshi music is an essential part of this story. Musical developments in Bangladesh in the genre of folk fusion and rock has a separate identity and continuity of it’s own. These differences between musical development in the UK and in Bangladesh are important. Although following similar routes into music, and although Western popular music is essential to this development, the music of the younger generation in Bangladesh has a distinct identity of its own.
Thus we see a picture of an essential core of Bengali music, traditional forms being kept alive, but also a wider application in fusion, theatre, and new songwriting.
This is the current picture to date and it is our hope that we may continue to build on this project and reflect this varied life of Bengali music and musicians in the UK, the growth and understanding of this music, and the importance of music being a path by which we all get to know each other whatever our backgrounds, a path where we cross boundaries, integrate, and enjoy and celebrate our lives.
Our research continues and this collection will be added to over the coming months and years.
Julie Begum, Ansar Ahmed and Val Harding.
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)
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.
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.
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:
Chair of Swadhinata Trust, who is responsible for promoting Bengali heritage to a wider audience.
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
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)
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 have given us over the last two years for our project “Bengali Music and
Musicians in the UK” are now downloaded onto the Swadhinata Trust website and are available for listening.
Your contributions are immeasurably valuable, and we thank you for them.
Please find your interview on this website under Latest Recordings, ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEWS (2nd set). 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. Email email@example.com
For those of you who gave us interviews previously (see 1st set) you can now view our latest recordings, and catch up with our progress.
We are still waiting for the British Library Sound Archives to upload our interviews, and will let you know when this is completed.
Please get in touch with us with any queries, and also you are welcome to leave a comment below.
Thank you all once again for your very valuable contribution and participation in this project.
With best wishes
Val, Julie, and Ansar
Interviews to date November 2019
Charles Hare ( vocal recording only)
Gamini Abayawrdana (vocal recording only)
Mahmoud Rahman Benubhai x2 and 2004 tour recording
Tanasree Guha (vocal recording only)
Mukul Ahmed re. Gauhar Jaan
Tarun Jasani re. Gauhar Jaan
Jawad Choudary (in Bangladesh)
Mohammed Mobasshish Choudury (Bangladesh)
Boishaki Mela 2017 – Dillu (Delwar Hossain), Nasrin Begum
Yousuf Ali Khan
Abdul Shohid Jalil
Boishaki Mela 2016
Maanusher Gaan – Mukul and the Ghetto Tigers
Storytelling at Boishaki Mela – Rez Kabir
Somjit Dasgupta – sarod
Charles Hare – vocal
Gamini Abayawrdana – vocal and guitar
Tanasree Guha – vocal
India Tour 2004 – Mahmoud Rahman
Bollywood Brass Band
Bauls of Bengal concert Waterman’s July 2018
Anando Gopal Das Baul and group – home recordings in London July 2018
Yousuf Ali Khan – tabla bols
Rafa Haque – vocal
GUO – Lalon Ki Jat and Red Soil
Bangladesh Liberation War 1971
Migration and musical development in the UK
Gauhar Jaan – Mukul and the Ghetto Tigers (music history)
Music history from Bangladesh and West Bengal
Younger generation in the UK
Younger generation in Bangladesh (linked to music in the UK)
Community learning in the UK – Udichi Shilpi Gosthi and Chayanot School of Music.
Music and Theatre – Mukul and the Ghetto Tigers
Saudha, Society for Poetry and Music
North Indian classical
Songwriting and present day composition
Click on the link below you will access the recordings