Track One 00:44:15. August 3rd 2016.
Arifa Hafiz, also known as Mitti, is a fifty year old jazz singer from a Bengali background. Recently performed at The Ship in Holborn. She started singing about nine years ago. She went to a fair in Mile End, and she asked a jazz band performing there, who she had previously met, if she could join them. Even though she was an older person then (age forty), she felt she had the courage and audacity of a younger person. She was invited to sing at The Lamb and Flag (00:05:00).
When she arrived for her first gig she thought the band looked old and funny, from a different generation, and they were all white. She spoke to her brother who is a musician and he said “is that all you saw” !! i.e. what about their music?! Then she thought they are incredible musicians. She became a part of the jazz community. The band leader became like her mother and father. They had a blues singer called Mary Wilkinson who she admired (00:09:20).
When Mary became ill she was replaced and Arifa was not so happy with her replacement. She had learnt how to differentiate, and had learnt to know what style of singing she liked. Arifa is not trained, and learnt through listening to jazz music – Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and others (00:11:50). The new generation of singers she meets now come through university, trained at Guildhall or Trinity. They read music and compose. They started learning when they were young (00:12:50).
Arifa started listening when she was young, but it is a different ear when you listen as a non-musician and then start singing yourself later. She started listening to music in the 1980s (as a young adult) – Alison Moyer, Nina Simone. Then while working in France she was given a complete set of recorded Billie Holiday albums by her employer. She also had an aunt who was deported from the UK and left her vinyl albums behind – Ella Fitzgerald, some Irish singers, Sunny Stitt, Marvin Gay (00:17:20).
She learned Louis Armstrong songs. Rock music passed Arifa by, and she did not identify with it. She listened to The Smiths and Bow-Wow-Wow. She had albums of The Police and Bob Marley. But Billie Holiday was her favourite (00:19:20). As a child she learnt Indian harmonium and singing with her mother in Bangladesh (she sings Rabindrasangeet) (00:19:50).
She was married to Pablo who was a pianist, but she never sang with him. He knew Baul musicians. At one point she was going to learn with a teacher in Chittagong but this never happened. She came back to the UK. She was friends with the Bengali singer/songwriter Moushumi Bhowmik (also on this website). Her cousin’s husband taught her some music in Bangladesh, and she had some lessons from a teacher who came to their house and taught Nazrul Geeti (00:24:15). She feels Bangla music is not available to her in the same way as if she had always lived in Bangladesh (00:25:40).
It is strange singing in english and playing with white people (00:27:20). She feels she has authenticity issues – “is this ‘my’ music?”. But she says “I don’t know about all of this (authenticity) – I just do it “. She met the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective and found a North Indian Classical singing teacher who she valued highly and who said you can train to sing classical but then sing anything – this is a ‘yoga’ for the voice. This has been a great help (00:31:40).
She aims now to generate more gigs. She is fifty years old now and time is running out. Sometimes work (as an english teacher) takes over and you have to make a conscious effort to practice (00:40:00). Currently she likes performing at The Jamboree, its a colony of artists. Things have changed – older musicians used to earn a living through playing and there were networks which are no longer there now. Younger people do not always understand the dynamic between the musician on stage and the audience (00:44;15)
Date: October 31st 2016. Track One (00:04:33).
Alaur Rahman is a British Bangladeshi singer and composer. He also works for social services. He explains that since returning from Haj his proper name is now Mohammed Alaur Rahman. Alaur Rahman (AR) arrived in the UK on the 13th of August 1977 at 12.30pm at Heathrow Airport. He came with his family and was nearly 14 years of age at the time (00:01:00). He grew up from 0-14 in his village in Bangladesh, with nature around him – cows, dogs, fields, water, birds. When he arrived in this country he felt like a caged bird. He was frustrated and homesick (00:02:30).
He had sung back in Bangladesh and everyone enjoyed his voice. His uncle bought him a harmonium and he started to sing here. His family lived in Tower Hamlets at no.10 Everett House, Brady Street. Politicans and singers from back home came to stay at their house (00:04:33).
Track Two (00:07:38). Their house was jokingly known as Number Ten Downing Street. His uncle was popular and helped people fill in forms etc. In 1979 AR started learning music with Pundit Haridas Ganguly from Kolkata who lived in Brick Lane and had been a student of Badam Ali Khan. Patiala Ghurana. He taught raga through the thaat system. AR explains his teachers approach to music (00:04:48). In 1984 AR sang on a BBC programme “Make Yourself at Home” which promoted Asian music (00:05:35). After this programme the Asian community got to know him and he was invited to sing around the country. When he reached the age of 25 he felt he must leave something of himself to this country and he started composing. His singing and compositions then became very popular with the Bangladeshi community. (00:07:38).
Track Three (00:32:45). AR salutes his teachers who taught him about life. He talks about the lessons he has learnt from his music teachers and from a social service client he works with (00:02:08). He thanks his community for their support. Recently AR started singing with Tony Haynes’s Grand Union Orchestra. He enjoys this and loves the way GUO brings cultures together. This is the first time he has had the opportunity to sing outside of the British Bangladeshi community. AR talks about the importance of learning a wider range of repetoire other than your own local songs from your village. AR sings patriotic songs, sings for his mother and father and daughter and for the whole world. He sings spiritual songs, and ghazal, adunik, folk and village songs and modern songs.
Only Rabindrasangeet he has not yet completed. He sees Rabindrasangeet as pure classical. There is a discussion about classical music, and Rabindrasangeet being like western music. Some of AR’s compositions are semi-classical, some light, some folk, and he uses western tunes as well. AR explains how people like a mix – he sings examples of Arabic, English, Bengali and Indian styles (00:14:45). He works in his studio to do sound mixing. AR’s favourite singer is Mohammed Rafi (00:16:18). He then talks more about his own compositions – a song about someone looking for a letter from his mother back home, and spiritual songs “when the soul falls out of the body then you die – the body is saying to the soul “you have no love for me ”
(00:19:59) (the asin pakhi, the unknown bird which flies away from the body at the time of death). He tells the story of a man from Bangladesh on a train to Glasgow who asks him to write the music for his lyrics. Many people send him lyrics (00:23:58). He writes in Bengali and Urdu. When he composes he listens to the raga root. He records 5 or 6 versions and asks his family members which they like best. He blends different types of instrumental background (00:27:48). He also teaches singing. AR explains that some people think music is ‘haram’ (forbidden). He believes it is not. If music gives peace to the heart how can it be ‘haram’? God knows best – “I feel nothing wrong” (00:32:45)
Bollywood Brass Band workshop
Charles Hare – Tagore Song
‘Song by Rabindranath Tagore in Raag Deepok, Jaaptaal (10 beats) performed by Charles Hare. Bengali language. Sung in traditional style with voice and tabla accompaniment
Kobi Nazrul Islam song in Raag Jogiya, Jaaptaal (10 beats) performed by Charles Hare. Bengali language. Harmonium accompaniment, with electronic tabla and tanpura. Charles Hare is British born and a long term student of Mahmudur Rahman ‘Benubhai’ in the UK. Mahmudur Rahman’s oral history interview is recorded in this collection.
Track One. 00:09:35. July 31st 2016. Delwar Hussain was born on Sept. 11th 1979 at the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel. He is an anthropologist and author of Boundaries Undermined:The Ruins of Progress on the Bangladeshi-India Border. His interview here is recorded at the Boishaki Mela (Bengali New Year Spring Festival) July 2016 in Weavers Fields, Tower Hamlets.
The interview focuses on the Mela and its significance. Delwar Hussain (DH) describes the Boishaki Mela as an annual tradition amongst friends, seeing familiar faces, people he went to school with. The Mela itself (celebrating Bengali New Year) is less important, it is the people and sociality that matter, the reconnection of people who may have left the East End and moved to other parts of the country or abroad (00:01:49). DH now lives in Edinburgh. He no longer lives a ‘Bangladeshi’ life. He lives a middle class British life. This is one of few opportunities he has to reconnect with the British Bangladeshi community (00:02:51).
People talk about the British Bangladeshi community as if it is a homogenous lot, however the community is changing. A while ago it used to be working class, 2nd/3rd generation Bangladeshis/Sylhetis, but that has changed. A large component of people now 3rd/4th generation are more middle class (00:04:55).
DH grew up in Spitalfields and went to school in the neighbourhood. DH hopes it is not just Bangladeshi music which is heard at the Mela, because the only way the Mela will survive is if those who organise it allow space for musicians who might not be Bangladeshi themselves, but may produce music influenced by it (00:07:23). We lead more complicated lives now. Many of DH’s friends are married to non-Bengalis who have their own music traditions. There is a fusing of music. Rap. Hip-Hop. Massive things going on amongst young British Bangladeshis – “I hope we get to see stage space”(00:08:31)
Gamini Abayawrdana (Santiniketan Song)
‘Hey Jaga Traata Vishwa Vidhaataa’ (Hail Protector and Ruler of the Universe). A song by Rabindranath Tagore. Words in Sanskrit language. Sung by Gamini Abayawrdana who also plays tabla, and accompanied by Ross Smith on guitar. The song is a dedication to Tagore’s abode in West Bengal, Santiniketan. This devotional song by Tagore was introduced to Gamini Abayawrdana by his uncle Dr. Lionel Edirisinghe. Dr. Edirisinghe was a student of Ustad Allaudhin Khan, who taught him this song.
He studied with AK for over ten years and also studied at the Bhatkhande University of Music in India and went on to become the founder of the music faculty at the University of the Visual and Performing Arts of Sri Lanka. Gamini Abayawrdana is a student of Mahmudur Rahman in London, UK.
Track One. 00:04:50. July 31st 2016. Jasminder Daffu plays Dhol with the Bollywood Brass Band. This interview took place at the Bengali Boishaki Mela in July 2016 where the Bollywood Brass Band had been invited to play for the first time. Jasminder Daffu (JD) was born on Dec. 29th 1973 in Taplow, Buckinghamshire.
His family are Sikh Punjabi. He has played Dhol for 25 years plus, and enjoys it very much. He learnt from his father. He joined the Dhol Foundation, originally founded by the famous Dhol player Johnnie Kalsi. JD started playing at local council gigs, clubs and weddings (00:00:59).
He now has 5-6 albums out. Has played with the Bollywood Brass Band now for many years, the BBB have been going for over 22 years. Other members of the band bring their influences, some bring jazz influence. Bollywood music itself is a fusion of different musics. The BBB were running drumming workshops at the Mela as well as performing on stage and touring the fairground. JD was enjoying the Mela.
Today a 5 piece band attended, usually they are 10 piece. BBB does workshops in schools, colleges, festivals and sees educational work as part of a growing repetoire (00:03:41). JD comments how the word Mela means ‘meeting point’ (see also interview with Delwar Hussain). It brings the whole community together and it does not matter where you come from.
Mela in England not only brings the Asian communities together but also English and European communities. JD emphasises the importance of good food and non-alcoholic drinks (00:04:50).
Julie N Begum:
Track One 00:24:55. July 18th 2016.
Julie Narjahan Begum is a community activist, teacher, archivist, and Chair of the Swadhinata Trust (a Bengali heritage organisation), and intiated the Bengali Music and Musicians in the UK project with Val Harding in 2016. Julie Begum (JB) was born in London, UK, in 1968.
Her parents had migrated from Sylhet, Bangladesh in the 1960s (in those days East Pakistan, prior to Bangladesh independence in 1971). The family lived in Tower Hamlets and JB grew up on a council estate. Her father worked in a factory, and her mother was a housewife. Her parents primary concerns were earning a living. Music was not an important part of their lives. Her mother had never been to school and does not read or write Bengali – she came to London in her teens, as a married woman. JB’s father was in his early thirties. Although not disinterested in their cultural heritage there were few opportunities in those days (00:04:30).
It was a hostile time with racial violence and harassment. There was a turning point in the late 1970s when young people and community organisations got together to resist racism. Music became more important at that time as a mark of cultural identity (00:06:00).
People shared music around weddings and family events. JB’s experience of music started when she was a teenager with the Asian Underground which included bands such as Joi (00:08:00), Asian Dub Foundation, State of Bengal. Starting out in underground venues, factories and warehouses, this movement grew until bands got bookings in more mainstream venues such as the Bass Clef in Hoxton or Shoreditch Town Hall (Whirligig). In the beginning musicians (from families where they had learnt Bengali music) mixed traditional music with dance music to create a new sound. JB experienced hearing music from her Bengali background, which she had not previously heard, being presented in a way she and her contemporaries could relate to (00:10:45).
Asian and British culture was brought together. There was solidarity amongst this group of young people. For the first time, it was OK to be Asian (00:17:30). There were some political messages in the music (00:22:30). The Swadhinata Trust was set up in 2000. Until then there was no place where Bengali people could go to find out about their cultural heritage (00:24:55).
Mahmudur Rahman Benubhai
Track One. 00:42:38. July 8th 2016. Recorded in Bengali language. Mahmudur Rahman “Benubhai” was born in East Bengal, India in 1942. He is a musician and Freedom Fighter from the Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971 and founder of the Bangladesh Mukti Shangrami Shilpi Shangstha (Liberation Team of Artists).
He settled in the UK in 1973. Before retirement he worked as a Maths teacher in a secondary school in Dagenham, East London. He describes his ‘dak nam’ (nickname) Benu, and those who are younger than him call him ‘Benubhai’ (brother). He studied at Dhaka University. His first attendence at University ended in him leaving his studies prematurely (he later completed his studies). His sister attended Chhyanat Music School in Dhaka and he accompanied her there and started learning himself in 1970 (00:04:35).
He then describes the conflicts between West and East Pakistan and the slaughter of 20,000 Bengali people on March 25th 1971 (00:15:06). He witnessed these atrocities. He joined the ‘Mukti Bahini’ Bangladesh Army and trained to fight, although previously he had “never even killed a fly”. He was 30 years old (00:23:13). He could not stay in the army due to a family situation when his nephew was imprisoned for joining the resistance. He left the army and set up the Bangladesh Mukti Shangrami Shilpi Shangstha (Liberation Team of Artists) (00:27:56).
They toured the refugee camps and war zones of Bangladesh singing songs of freedom. He describes their activities and sings samples of their songs (00:29:38, 00:30:03, 00:32:35, 00:33:11, 00:34:10).
The Pakistan army were very well trained and Bangladeshis could not hope to defeat them except through their own spirit of freedom (00:36:31). In 1995 Benubhai’s cousin Tareque Masud made a well known film ‘Muktir Gaan’ based on original footage from 1971 telling the story of the War and of the Liberation Team of Artists (00:39:33). This film remains one of few valuable resources and documentary history of 1971.(00:42:38)
Mahmudur Rahman Benu (Second interview)
Mahmudur Rahman Benubhai 2nd
Track 1. (00:36:18). Date: October 11th 2016. Mahmudur Rahman “Benubhai” was born in East Bengal, India in 1942. He is a musician and Freedom Fighter from the Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971 and founder of the Bangladesh Mukti Shangrami Shilpi Shangstha (Liberation Team of Artists).
He settled in the UK in 1973. His first interview describing his life in 1971, recorded in Bengali language, is on this website. In 1973 Benubhai came to the UK to study at Leeds University. He later became a maths teacher in secondary schools. He explains his “dak-nam” (nick-name) “Benubhai”. He talks about the two sides to his life, in Bengali known as Jibika (survival) and Jibon (life). Statistics and maths was jibika and his music is jibon(00:02:44). After ten years of living in the UK he realised his life in music had been “left behind”.
In 1983 he was asked by Leeds Community Development to host an all-day demonstration of Indian music and exhibit instruments (00:07:38). There were 15-20,000 people of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin living in the area at the time. “Surprisingly, and shockingly”, no one attended, even though the event was well advertised.
He felt many people may think they have now left India/Bangladesh and must leave their language and culture behind in order to integrate into the UK (00:10:12). He immediately set up free music lessons in his home in Leeds. People started coming and the word spread. He called the school Chhyanat after his music school in Dhaka (00:14:42). His class attracted english students too. Discusses Tagore’s use of english folk tunes and sings “Phuley, phuley, dholey, dholey” (00:15:41), and sings the original Robert Burns song “Ye banks and braes” (00:16:17), and sings Auld Lang Syne and beginning of the Bengali version “Purano shey diney” (00:16:54). Explains rhythm pattern. Talks about successes of the class.
He moved to London and continued his classes. As well as teaching Bengali and North Indian classical music his class celebrates annual events such as Bengali New Year, New Year in the UK, and Bangladesh Independence Day and Language Day. Class also serves the purpose of “preaching” Indian music (00:21:48). In Sheffield he was involved in introducing indian music, and bengali language, into local schools. Discusses the value of multi-culturalism (00:25:48). As well as teaching the basics of Indian classical (Thaat and Raga) he introduces different styles of music – Tagore, Nazrul, Atul Prasad, dhrupad, khyal, thumri, dadra, ghazal (00:33:42).
He did not want to specialise as is the custom back home in Bangladesh. He aimed to teach an understanding of all genres of Bengali music and their derivation. He continues age 74 to teach music, although still regretting he can no longer teach Maths in school. He loves teaching. He now develops his performance, again singing in different genres and not specialising. (00:36:18)
Mahmudur Rahman Benu (India Tour)
Track One 00:13:38. August 30th 2016. Mike Sherriff is a white British teacher and community worker. He had recently been performing a Bengali song at a fundraising event in the UK for a Dhaka based street children’s project.
He sang a Tagore song and a Lalon song (00:02:50). MS recalls how his first contact with the Bangladeshi community was in Birmingham in 1980. Then in 1987 he worked in Bangladesh. He remembers lying in bed listening to a group of men singing on their way home at the end of the day. That memory stayed with him (00:04:40).
Then back in the UK he worked in the East End and became involved with the Kastabir (educational) project in Bangladesh, and travelled quite frequently to the country. He started learning Bengali language in 2006. When studying for an ‘A’ level in Bengali he chose Bengali music as an essay topic. He enjoys modern Bengali music (sings 00:07:15).
He says everyone in Bangladesh likes him to sing. Sings (00:08:15). Sings (00:08:57). He did not find learning Bengali easy, and learning songs helped (00:10:08). He learnt piano as a child in the UK. Has a wide taste in music. Bangla music appeals to him. He has been to many concerts and music festivals in Bangladesh, including Radha Ramon festival, and Baul concerts (00:13:38).
Mukul Ahmed :
TrackOne 00:28:00. August 3rd 2016. Mukul Ahmed is director of the theatre company Mukul and the Ghetto Tigers. MA talks about the Boishaki Mela 2016 where his theatre company were giving a performance. He talks about the cultural connections.
The Mela is a point of reunion for many families. When the Mela took place a few years back in Victoria Park there was a psychological barrier, but now it is back in Weavers Fields it is better (00:03:26). MA’s grandfather lived in this area and he recalls going to Sunday market with his father. The Arts Hub was set up for the first time this year at the Mela,and the Ghetto Tigers performed their play Abhijan (Travellers to a New Destination)(00:05:15).
It included the songs and poetry of Kobi Nazrul Islam. It includes songs of hope for the future. MA is inspired by this message of ‘hope’. It is not only the external journey but the internal journey that matters as well. MA comments this production is not only for the Bengali community, it is for everyone, we are all displaced. It was performed at the Festival of Immigrants in Spitalfields this year, and at the Idea Store. They performed at WOMAD too this year and people enjoyed it (00:11:50). MA listens to music morning and evening. Music is an integral part of storytelling (00:13:40). Music is memory.
MA was born in Bangladesh and grew up in Dhaka, post liberation, at a time of nation building (00:17:05). He went to singing and dance lessons. He was the only boy at the dance lessons. He was educated at home by his mother till the age of 10. This traditional Bengali home education was very helpful, and gave him a rounded education (00:20:45). MA did not feel he learnt anything after the age of 10 at school. Before coming to the UK he studied in Bulgaria. This was a cultural arena. He came to the UK in 1993 and got a role in a production of Romeo and Juliet at the old Half Moon Theatre (00:22:44). From 1995-97 he worked for the London International Festival of Theatres.
He trained as an actor at City Lit. He worked with Tara Arts. He formed Mukul and the Ghetto Tigers in 2011 (00:25:20). Last year they produced the Altab Ali story. This year they are producing (1) Silent Sisters, a play about Partition; (2) an opera based on Nazrul’s life; (3) and a play about Gauhar Jan, India’s first recorded artist at the start of the 20th century. (00:28:00)
Track One 00:31:44. October 2nd 2016. Moushumi Bhowmik is a singer/songwriter from Kolkata,West Bengal, India. She lived in the UK from 1998 to 2003, and currently lives in Kolkata and comes to the UK every year. Moushumi (MB) has worked in many places.
When she first came to the UK she worked in publishing and was a journalist. Her first album came out in 1994 (00:02:04). She has known Bangladesh since 1995/6. When she first came to the UK in 1998 with her eight year old son she found adjustment very hard and was unable to sing (00:04:15). She had walked out of a contract with HMV for her 2nd album and was afraid one of her most popular songs might be reproduced in someone else’s name. She sought medical help for her voice loss (00:06:42). To lose this gift was traumatic. She then began to discover the UK through music, with the help of a child’s computer game where you search the world and each place you come to has a piece of music. She would write down the name of the music and go to the library for a cassette (00:09:50). MB talks about her first connections with Bangladesh.
The filmmaker Tareque Masud was a close friend. Tareque and Catherine Masud were making their first film, Muktir Gaan (songs of freedom from the 1971 war of independence). (see also interviews with Mahmudur Rahman on this website). MB describes how at that time her first album had recently come out and had a song about Ekushey February (21st Feb. Language Martyrs Day) (musical illustration 00:14:37). Tareque then invited MB to write a song based on Alan Ginsberg’s poem Jessore Road for his next film Muktir Kotha (words of freedom), a sequel to Muktir Gaan (00:16:57). She wrote and sang this song in Bangladesh before coming to the UK, but then found she could not mentally and physically sing it here.
Tareque encouraged her. She met some Pakistani female musicians in Spitalfields, and went to record the song with them, and found her voice again, although she was not used to the jazz style of accompaniment by these musicians (00:23:05). It was a new experience. Her relationship with London changed (00:24:27). In 2003 her marriage broke down. She returned to Kolkata and started work on the Travelling Archive (a website of recordings and history of bengali music).
She started researching songs of biroho gaan (songs of separation). She experienced separation as going beyond that of people to that of ‘home and dislocation’ (00:26:30). In 2006 she started work on a project with the British Library called Migration and the Real Music, interviewing people in the UK, mostly Sylhetis. In 2002 she met Oliver Weeks, a British guitarist with an interest in Bengali music. They formed a band and started performing together (00:31:44) Track 2. 00:03:28. MB met more people with Oliver Weeks i.e. Sam Mills and Shushila Rahman. MB explains how she lives between two unequal worlds (UK and India). She does not feel she is a part of the West Bengali Bhadralok (middle classes) in London. She is never invited by them to give concerts. (00:03:28)
Nadia Lodhi Wahhab:
Track One. 00:38:15. 20th August 2016. Nadia Lodhi Wahhab was born in East Pakistan (before it became Bangladesh). She is a singer and a student of Mahmudur Rahman Benubhai (see oral history interviews on this website). Her early childhood was in Sydney, Australia where her father was studying for a PhD. Her father was then posted to West Pakistan where she went to school.
He opted to return to Bangladesh in 1974. She was exposed to music by both parents who sang. Her mother thought she had a good voice and aunt nick-named her “Radio Bangladesh” (00:02:22). She learnt classical, ghazal and Bengali song in Dhaka from various teachers. She studied for a degree in Economics and then came to the UK. She did not continue music for a while due to the pressure of adjustment (00:03:53). Previously in Bangladesh she had sung to fulfill her mother’s dream, then after a bit of a struggle she then started singing purely for herself and pleasure, not competing.
She started classes at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, then again stopped through work pressure and family life (00:06:35). She then returned to study when her children were old enough (trained as a psychotherapist). She then got to know Benubhai through her family and started to “sit with him” (i.e. attend his class). Exploration of the concept of “sitting with the teacher”. She sees the relationship with the teacher as very important, providing nourishment (00:10:07). She also learnt western piano in the UK. She has never integrated western and indian music in her practice. She identifies mostly with the music of Kobi Nazrul Islam. She has not learnt Rabindrasangeet in depth. She enjoys singing Bengali and Urdu ghazals most (00:17:07). She loves Lalongeeti (Baul song), and took some lessons from a Fakir, but finds it hard to sing Baul song. Comparison of relationship with guru and relationships in psychotherapy (00:25:46).
She emphasises the importance of learning the Thaat system (00:31:48). She mainly performs to Bangladeshi/Indian audiences in informal community settings. She has not performed to many ‘westerners’ except family members, and discusses people of Bangladeshi origin born here as ‘westerners’, this includes her husband and sons. She taught her husband Bengali language, and translates the words of songs for him. She gets encouragement from her family for her singing.(00:38:15)
Rez Kabir :
Track One 00:03:23. June 25th 2016. Rez Kabir was born in Chittagong, Bangladesh 1.1.1959. He came to the UK age 6 years. He is an actor and storyteller and Artistic Director of Tamarind Theatre and Executive Producer of Mukul and the Ghetto Tigers.
He is artist-in-residence at Stanley Park Infant School, Wallington. His theatre productions include music, song and dance, and hence his career as an actor and storyteller is closely linked to Bengali music and musicians. His grandfather was very interested in books, was a flute player and loved music and culture (00:01:44). His parents wrote poetry and produced plays. His father came to the UK to train as a doctor, and the family lived at first in Southport where Rez went to school and enjoyed acting and singing. In 1970 the family returned to Bangladesh for 6 months where Rez learnt Bengali and became more in touch with his cultural roots (00:03:23). Track Two 00:14:13.
His interest in stories came from his grandfather. Comic books in the UK were also a source of inspiration (00:00:56). He has always been interested in the correlation between music and storytelling – the pattern of rhythm (00:01:45). As a child he moved around with father’s job living in hospital accomodation, in the company of many other Asian families, supported each other in keeping culture alive. The family went back to Bangladesh and he learnt Bengali. back in the UK went to university to train as an engineer, but got involved in theatre. Worked with Tara Arts (00:06:18). More on correlation between music and storytelling performance (00:09:05).
After marriage worked in normal jobs – kitchen work, telephonist etc and developed theatre and storytelling work in his free time. His role models were Shakespeare, Tagore and Kobi Nazrul Islam (the national poet of Bangladesh). Started developing work in the East End. (00:14:13)Track Three 00:06:03 – went to primary school in Mitcham (after moving from Southport). Developed a posh voice ! Was Head Boy at primary school (00:00:39). Felt there was more freedom in those days for children to persue arts and enjoy arts at school. From age 11 – discovery of society and his own family. Bengali families together kept their culture alive (00:02:00). From 2002 based in East London with a growing number of cultural centres i.e. the Brady Centre, Toynbee Hall, Rich Mix. From 2007/09 developed Tamarind Theatre (00:06:03) and joined Mukul and the Ghetto Tigers. (See also interview with Mukul Ahmed on this website). Track four 00:12:18 – today we watched Abhijan (Travellers to a New Destination) which included Nazrul poems in English translation and Bengali songs. Season of Bangla drama now in it’s 13th/14th year and has made connections around the country (00:02:20). The first show Rez did with Mukul was called ‘Londoni’. Rez played an angel that came down from heaven to save a brother and sister. The play had a parellel in East London with young people’s search for identity, and choice of identity (00:03:55). Rez sees much hope in terms of the future, with more knowledge of music than ever before, and more interchange between cultures. Theatre bridges cultures and is political and educational.
But ultimately theatre must be good enough for people to enjoy. There are some rules in drama, but ultimately no rules (00:07:03). Rez keeps a foot in both cultures – Bengali and British (00:07:50). Goes to Bangladesh and/or India every two years or so. Keeps in touch with film and theatre industry out there. His last contact there was a performance with Mukul and the Ghetto Tigers at Jadhapur University, Kolkata. They performed in the style of Balagaan, storytelling from Bangladesh where one storyteller and several actors play multiple parts. Rez believes in keeping cultural identity alive but allowing difference and development and new identity. Mukul Ahmed is looking forward to the Ghetto Tigers becoming Global Tigers! (00:12:18)
TM Ahmed Kaysher
TM Ahmed Kaysher:
Track One 00:32:45. August 28th 2016.
TM Ahmed Kaysher is the director of Saudha, Society for Poetry and Music. TM Ahmed Kaysher (AK) starts by thanking the Bengali Music and Musicians Project for doing this research. He notes that no one till now is recording all the activity which is going on, so this project is serving a useful purpose.
At an event yesterday In Wimbledon Saudha performed a show called Memory of Love and Shadows. This show-cased the art form of Indian classical music. AK comments “we are starting our journey where Ravi Shankarji left off” to widen the appreciation of Indian music in the UK(00:02:40).In order to attract a non-Asian audience the production combines Indian music with romantic Western classical forms, for example Western Troubadour (00:03:40). They also combine music and Indian and Western poetry – Keats, Lorca, Tagore, Hafiz. They are finding commonalities in the melody of Troubadour and Indian classical music. In last night’s performance used Raag Kalabati (00:10:54).
Saudha formed 5 years ago. AK experienced an emotional crisis and found solace through western classical music, including Bach and Beethoven. Then a friend sent him a composition of Indian music. AK wrote poetry, and the idea for Saudha was developed. He had to persuade his friend that this combination of western and Indian music and poetry would work (00:15:30).
Discusses developments of this concept (00:19:15). AK came to the UK as a student from a chemical engineering background. He found integration hard. Then he developed sympathy for the fairness in the UK and the quality of life offered here. His background is in poetry. Also involved in film (00:23:30). In Bangladesh he was not encouraged to study literature and had to study engineering. Saudha established the Radha Ramon Festival in the UK (coming up). The aim is to portray a secular ideology that was practiced not so long ago in Bangladesh (00:26:15).
Secular politics has now been pushed away. The festival explores the landscape of the North of England (including the Lake District) through Bengali music (00:29:45). Bengali music is on a journey of secularism (00:31:55). Baul music from a thousand years ago is secular. This is the aim of the Radha Ramon Festival. (00:32:45)
Valentine Janet Harding:
Track One 00:32:05. July 18th 2016. Valentine Janet Harding was born in the UK in 1947 and comes from a white British background. Her career has been in nursing, community mental health, counselling and psychotherapy, children’s music (for 0-5 year olds) and ethnomusicology.
Val Harding (VH) initiated the Bengali Music and Musicians in the UK project with Julie Begum in December 2016. Both were interested in this topic and had previously worked together in voluntary organisations including the Rocket Trust, a project working with street children in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the Daneford Trust, a project organising volunteering opportunities in developing countries for local young people in the Tower Hamlets area (00:03:22).
VH was brought up in a musical family and played music from a young age – piano, cello and recorders. Piano was/is her favourite instrument. As a teenager started listening to the music of that era – Dylan, folk, rock (00:07:38). First heard Indian music in 1970 attending a Ravi Shankar concert. From 1971-1972 travelled overland to India and stayed for a year and eight months (00:10:10). She had first felt inspired from school years during history lessons about the Indian Mutiny of 1857 to discover more of the true history of India and colonialism (00:13:30).
She worked as a nurse in the Bangladesh Refugee Camps and travelled to other parts of India and Nepal. Listened to Archbishop Trevor Huddleston preach about the anti-aparteid movement in a church in Calcutta in 1971. First Bengali song she learnt was the national anthem of Bangladesh, Amar Sonar Bangla (00:18:15). She regularly listened to Rabindrasangeet and other Bengali follk music while living in Calcutta in 1971. She had heard about the Liberation Team of Artists, a cultural troupe led by Mahmudur Rahman Benubhai, which toured the refugee camps and war zones in 1971 singing Muktir Gaan (songs of freedom) (00:20:26) but never met these musicians until years later when she started learning Bengali and North Indian Classical music with Mahmudur Rahman in London in 2002 (00:21:11). (see also interviews with Mahmudur Rahman on this website).
At first learnt music with the Bangladeshi singer Lucy Rahman, then with Mahmudur Rahman. She studied for an MMus in Ethnomusicology at Goldsmiths College with John Baily in 2007- 09 and travelled to West Bengal to research Baul music (00:26:45). In 2013 undertook a research project supported by SEMPRE (Society for Music, Psychology and Education Research) on cultural issues and children learning music in the UK and in India (West Bengal).
VH has always felt inspired by Bengali folk and traditional music and Indian classical music, although feels it is hard to identify why this is. It feels like a ‘home’. It also connects with her experience of people and places. Music brings people together. (00:32:05)
Yasmin Rahman and Rumana Khair
Yasmin Rahman and Rumana Khair
Track One (00:28:20). November 12th 2016. This is a joint interview with Yasmin Rahman and Rumana Khair who are two sisters who have lived in the UK since 1967. They were age 12 (YR) and 6 (RK) when they arrived here from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) with their parents. Yasmin is also known as Shelly, and Rumana known as Swati. Yasmin is a social worker and lecturer in social work. Rumana is an architect. Yasmin (YR) explains how the family were always involved in music. Their mother was a graduate in Bengali literature. YR’s first teacher in Dhaka was a student of her father and was a radio artist. His name was Musharif Hussain. He had a very good voice. YR loved hearing him particularly sing Raag Bageshree (00:02:30). RK explains that her sister learnt to sing before she was born. Their mother did not have the opportunity to learn herself because her father was not keen, but he later regretted his decision. YR and RK’s parents married when they were very young, their mother was 14 years of age. Both parents were very keen on culture. Their father used to sneak out of the house in his village to listen to music when he was young.
But their mother was the initiator in them learning music. They also learnt dancing. RK recalls that her first teacher was her sister (00:04:54). Then they came to the UK. Every sunday morning at home was dedicated to listening to music on LPs, classical, semi-classical, Tagore, Nazrul, traditional Bengali music, but not Bollywood. Their mother always made sure they understood the Bengali language in songs. RK never learnt Bengali language formally, but spoke Bengali at home and writes basic Bangla and reads. YR recalls back in Bangladesh listening to Akashvani Kolkata, the radio channel from Kolkata. She recalls how her teacher in Dhaka taught her everything – Raga, Rabindrasangeet, Nazrul and folk (00:08:40).
She was going to take ‘O’ level music at school in the UK, her teacher also encouraged her to play indian harmonium at school, but she lacked confidence (age 12). RK recalls that teachers at school in those days were more accepting (of different cultures), but YR remarks there was also alot of racism, she hated school! In the UK their training in Indian music did not continue as there were no teachers. But they did not stop singing. YR had learnt enough songs in Dhaka. They performed at functions. RK performed at the Pakistan Students Association in 1968 when she was 6 or 7 years old. The family had intended to go back to Bangladesh after their father had completed his studies but when trouble started in East Pakistan in 1969 their grand-father warned them it was unsafe to return (00:11;28).
YR recalls how she hated it at first in the UK. She missed her friends and it was cold. In 1971 the whole family were deeply involved in the Bangladesh Liberation Struggle campaigning in the UK, which also involved singing patriotic songs etc. (YR sings the start of the Tagore song “amar deshe mati” (the soil of my homeland). (00:13:28). RK danced solo at the ICA during this time. The family were well known (00:15:56). After 1975 when YR went to college there was a gap in their music. Before that in 1973 they had found a teacher from Calcutta, Krishna Bhattacharya, who taught them both (00:17:44).
Then in 1985 they met Mahmuder Rahman Benubhai and attended his classes. His teaching was a revelation to them. He explained the music and its connections and he did not teach by rote. His style of teaching was more western. He also explained ‘taal’ (timing) which no previous teacher had done. 31 years down the line RK still enjoys his teaching (00:22:36). Music is therapeutic. RK also learnt western music at school and enjoys it too. Benubhai also teaches the links between Indian and western music. Benubhai has a very wide knowledge. YR explains how she felt nervous when she first went to the class as she was not used to learning in a group. In 1987 YR married Mahmudur Rahman ! Discussion about learning Indian music being an endless pursuit (00:28:20). Track 2 (00:05:10). YR and MR now have three children. YR’s son Yamin Choudhary learnt tabla from a young age and is now a professional player. Currently learns with Akram Khan in Delhi (00:01:59).
Their two daughters learnt singing, one started singing at the age of two. One learnt the flute. They do not sing now but love hearing their father sing. When they were little YR always took them to functions and classes. She hopes they’ll learn again one day.(00:05:10).