(episode 1) Music and Politics in Bangladesh Part I

Hello, I am Elham Golpushnezhad, and this is Dhaka to Dakar: the Music of Discontent.

In this episode, I will explore the music of discontent in Bangladeshi music at times of turmoil and the connection between politics and music. Of course, we can’t go through all the protest music and all political and social uprisings in the country, but we try to unpack a handful of music produced in the most critical eras in Bangladesh. 

Imagine you lived in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1975; you had just turned 20, four years after your country had declared independence from Pakistan after a bloody war of nine months. Then, as if the war wasn’t enough, a famine hit your country. In all this chaos, you hear a song that is different from all the music you have heard before, made in Bangladesh, “Ami jare chair” by Azam Khan. Your anger, grief, and anxiety find a place to be released.

Azam Khan, the legendary Bangladeshi rock star, defined what we now know as Bangla Rock. The rock star was more than a musician; he was a fighter for freedom during the Bangladeshi Independence War against Pakistan, or as Bangladeshi people would refer to it, the Liberation War. The rock guru, together with his band, was most of the time chased by the police after inspiring, revolutionary performances in factories and among labor unions from 1968 leading up to 1971, the year of independence from Pakistan. 

To understand the importance of early Bangla rock and rock’n’roll, we should first understand the political and cultural contexts of the country. 

So you see, Bangladesh has historically been a part of India, and India is a complex place culturally. Way before the British empire entered this vast place, there were Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Parsies (who were Zoroastrians who migrated from Persia around a millennium ago) living in the areas from present-day Bangladesh to present-day Pakistan as a part of a single land called Hind, Hindustan or later India. Once the British Empire entered this place, they started naming and separating different parts; then, this place began to be known as British India, which is the sections in present-day India plus Bangladesh and Pakistan. After colonial times, Bangladesh changed a couple of names; first, in 1947, Bengal – which was a part of British India – was divided into two separate regions. One was East Bengal – a Muslim-majority region – and West Bengal – mainly Hindus – which was and still is a state in India. Due to the partition, many areas in East Bengal joined Pakistan on the basis of shared religion. Then, in 1955, East Bengal’s name was changed again to East Pakistan and was ruled by the Pakistani government. Finally, in 1971, independence from Pakistan happened, and the name of the place was changed to Bangladesh.

There are various narratives around the partition of India and Bangladesh’s separation from Pakistan. One is the narrative of Irreconcilable differences. In the years leading up to the partition in 1947, Muslims and Hindus living in different parts of British India wanted their own country. This led to the establishment of three regions: India, with mainly Hindus; East Pakistan, and Pakistan, populated with Muslims. East Pakistan and Pakistan were joined together based on sharing Islam as a religion. But the problem was that the cultural differences between these two places were so much more than their similarities. The only thing connecting them was religion: Islam. Ironically enough, even in practicing Islam, they were again different. Islam in East Pakistan was more of a Sufi-inclined Islam. On the other hand, in Pakistani places like Lahore, Peshawar, and Islamabad, Islamic practice seemed to be more of a political gesture and doctrine.  

In the mid and late 1960s, the brutality of Pakistani-led governments in East Pakistan led to violent protests and, eventually, a war between freedom fighters in East Pakistan and Pakistan. The Independence war brought about freedom for Bangladesh as an independent nation for the first time in its history. A year after the Independence War, famine struck Bangladeshi people with shock. 

During this time, the voices of artist-activists like Azam Khan and Fakir Alamgir – a folk singer –  became the yearning sounds for freedom and peace. This is why the beginning of rock and rock’n’roll music in Bangladesh is interwoven with chants for freedom, peace, pain, and loss, and on top of all that, a sense of nationalism.

Azam Khan’s song Bangladesh and Fakir Alamgir’s Oh Sakeena have become anthems of suffering and pain, even relevant today. 

One significant feature or aesthetic of Bangla rock and rock-n-roll was that the artists combined instruments like drums, electric guitars, and synthesizers with Bangladeshi traditional instruments such as Dotara, Surbahar, and Tabla. This was so new to Bangladeshi listeners at the time. 

But after years, this form of music became a part of the popular music culture in Bangladesh and was identified as yet another mainstream music style in the country. 

This led some young artists to create alternative music that was influenced by Western metal and alternative rock music.

Along with the alternative metal scene came the use of psychedelic substances, the use of alcohol, and violence when some of the young people associated with this form of music got into fights regularly. Underground heavy metal music of this period was different from that of Azam Khan and his contemporary rock and folk artists; this time, the young people were not advocates of nationalist idealism or anti-colonial gestures. The young metal heads of the 1990s Bangladesh were overwhelmed by such idealist notions and instead found the underground to shout out their frustration and anger. 

As the country became more conservative under Islamist governments in the 1980s and 1990s, any display of Western culture became frowned upon. Being associated with the metal scene was seen as inappropriate and rather dangerous by families, practicing Muslims, and even established popular musicians. 

This is similar to the Iranian heavy metal underground culture in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Iranian authorities and news media usually use heavy metal music synonymously with satanism, and artists involved in underground metal music and its subgenres have constantly been walking on eggshells. They could quickly be jailed and sentenced for blasphemy, disturbing public opinion through music, and anti-Islamic statements. The underground heavy metal scene in Bangladesh also had similar reactions from the authorities and more conservative communities.  by the late 1990s, being a part of the underground metal scene became an indicator of rebellion against sociocultural norms, the commercialized music industry in the country, class distinctions, and, at points, political issues. 

 In a conversation with Andrew Bansal, who is a record label owner, music reviewer, and band manager, among many other occupations, members of the Orator – a death/thrash metal band based in Dhaka, explain that their song lyrics criticize the dogmatic religious practices and the mainstream socio-political climate and intentionally and provocatively blasphemous. 

Having said that, many of the heavy metal bands in Bangladesh do not expressively attack the government or religious beliefs. They try to make a music career out of their practice. But this is not an easy task. According to Shams Bin Qauder – a cultural studies researcher – the artists involved in Bangladeshi underground heavy metal music do not make money from their musical practice; in many cases, they do not even expect to make any money from their music. Many have day jobs from which they can afford to make the music they want. For these artists to secure a future in the music industry, one way is to make sure their content is not bluntly political or culturally offensive to the public, and it means constant, overwhelming self-censorship. 

In 2000, a Bangla heavy metal album was released by G-Series studio: “Chcharpotro.” This became a milestone in Bangladeshi music and marked the birth of the new Bangla underground. The artists who participated in this album were just saturated with traditional Bangla pop, rock, and rock ’n ’ roll, and they were looking for something that was not mass-produced or consumed plus in both Bangla and English. According to Shams Bin Quader, up until the release of this album, most of the works similar to metal music were mainly covers of American bands. Chcharpotro was the first attempt of Bangladeshi artists to create heavy metal music combining Bangla sounds and metal music but with mostly English lyrics as if they were addressing audiences outside of Bangladesh.

These artists created the underground to separate themselves from the vast budgeted music that almost sounded the same and were about the same issues over and over again. As opposed to the pioneer Bengali rock and political underground death/thrash metal artists, the contemporary musicians of the Bengali underground are not ‘head-on’ activists; instead, they just subtly reference sociocultural, religious, and political issues in the country. 

Saying all that, the country’s socio-cultural and political unrest never faded. Only this time did hip-hop become the most prominent vehicle for expressing discontent, anger, disappointment, and, of course, symbolic criticism of the politics and religion in Bangladesh. I should mention here that this was not how hip-hop was introduced to the Bangladeshi youth. In the early and mid-2000s, the popular hip-hop music made in Bangladesh was very similar to the hyphy culture in the Bay area in the late 1990s and the 2000s. At this time, the gangsta style of hip-hop made by rappers and bands like Deshi MCs, Black Zang, and Taurra Safa popularized rap music in the country. They mostly rap about partying, drugs, sex, and money. 

This reminds me of the underground hip-hop scene in Iran, especially in the early and mid-2000s. Similar to the case of Bangladesh, in the beginning, young people from upper-middle-class and middle-class families in Iran were exposed to a genre of music that was different from the mainstream music in the country, and they were drawn to the American West Coast gangsta style celebrating their wealth and glorifying their hyper-masculinity with sometimes racist, classist and most of the time misogynistic notions. But soon, the rebellious side of hip-hop music and rap poetry attracted rappers in both Iran and Bangladesh to shout out their frustration, anger, and discontent with the economic, political, and social conditions they were going through in their everyday lives. 

In 2010, Bangladeshi rappers Towfique Ahmed, who was based in England at the time, and Faisal Roddy released a song called “Bidrohi,” which means “the rebel.” The rap song immediately received public attention. 

 In Bidrohi, Towfique and Faisal refer to the iconic figures in Bangladesh’s history who fought against British colonialism and the Independence Movement of 1971 against Pakistan. In this song, they rap:

“I haven’t seen the war but heard of it. I don’t know how to make a revolution, but my blood is on fire”.

He also directly talks to the officials who see online monitoring systems such as the Information and Communication Technology Act as an act of Jihad. The ICT Act has been in practice since 2006 and turned into the Digital Security Act in 2018. This act was in place to fight cybercrimes. Instead, it became a tool for monitoring and censoring any online content that was not in line with the political views of the ruling government and Islamic culture. 

This led to resistance from different human rights agencies in Bangladesh as they saw it as a form of suppressing freedom of expression in the country. Many social media commentaries, blogs, and online Newspapers were affected by the act and had up to 7 years of jail as punishment. 

Towfique talks about this Act as a false Jihad, saying:

False Jihadi will be black Kalima

The world looked at you in surprise.

Razakar will turn his face in hatred!!

The use of the term razakar is very interesting to me. As I explained in my introductory recording, I am originally from Iran. As I was listening to Bangladeshi music for this podcast, I could recognize some words that sounded similar to Farsi words but pronounced, written, and even used differently from how we use them in Farsi. 

“rezakar.” is one of them.  In the contemporary Persian language, “Rezakar” means a volunteer who helps those in need. But this word that connotes such positive meaning is used by Towfique as if it is a swear word or as if he is talking about the devil. 

 In my research, I found out that the East Pakistani paramilitary force -opposed Bangladesh’s independence-  adopted the term in the 1970s  and called themselves Razakar. During the Independence War in 1971, the Rezakar military group committed a plethora of war crimes to the point that now, in Bengali popular culture, the word Razakar is a political slur, and it has become a pejorative term synonymous with “a traitor.” So different from how we use it in Farsi!  Towfique and Faisal use Razakar to compare those who ran the Security Act to the Razakar military force during the independence war. The two rappers bluntly attack the government decisions that have affected the everyday lives of people in Bangladesh, especially the economic crisis of the 2010s. In June 2010, there were labor protests, demonstrations, and strikes in Dhaka and other cities due to low salaries and poor health conditions for laborers. These protests happened from June to August, ending in harsh crackdowns and arrests of the protesters.  Although this song was released a month before these protests, it pictures the daily struggles that led to the protests of 2010. Interestingly, Towfiqu’s political views have drastically changed towards the political right after moving back to Bangladesh. Now, his artistic work primarily supports Bangladesh’s Muslim conservative ruling power. Other than expressing discontent focused on the political decisions in the country, some hip-hop artists criticize the politicization of religious beliefs and faith in Bangladesh. In his song White Democracy,  Matheon – a rapper based in Dhaka -addresses the problems that rigid and strict religious laws cause in the country.

Also, there are religious conflicts in the region in general. He raps: “For how long religion would be subject to big politics … maybe I am a Christian, but I understand your corruption.” In the song, D Jay Matheon mourns a handful of tragic catastrophes in contemporary Bangladesh. Matheon reminds the audience of the still unsolved murder cases of Sagar and Runi – two well-known journalists- in 2012; the collapse of Rana Plaza – a garment factory in Dhaka District – in 2013; and Felani Khatun – a 17-year-old girl who was shot while passing the Indian- Bangladeshi barbed wire border. In the song, Matheon asks the politicians to be more sympathetic and responsible towards these economic, sociocultural, and international issues. He addresses the issues within the political system and criticizes the hypocritical politics of the Islamic government in Bangladesh.

It is worth mentioning that the tendency towards ultra-orthodox Wahhabi and Salafi versions of Islam in Bangladesh has been strengthened recently. Similar to theocratic leaders in countries such as Iran, the Islamic leaders of Bangladesh fear what they call Westernization or Americanization. One way of resisting such fears for these countries is to grasp a political interpretation of Islam that enables them to establish cultural and political identities separate from those of the so-called Western countries. 

It is interesting to know that places like Bangladesh initially embraced Islam through egalitarian traders and Sufis. So, the Islam that the general public knows and practices has been more toward distinctive faith, literature, and arts. This reminds me of how things work in Iran. The state, similar to that of Bangladesh, insists on observing a form of fundamentalist/conservative-literalist Islam, with which the general public does not conform. 

 I found out that most of the rap songs that I call resistance hip-hop or conscious hip-hop in Bangladesh address political corruption, economic difficulties, and Islamic conservative-literalist laws and policies. Still, as Mubashar Hasan, a researcher and author, explains, many rap artists had to self-censor as a result of the Information and Technology Act and the Digital Security Act in fear of becoming a target by the government. But this has not stopped rappers like D Ruthless or Nizam Rabby from criticizing the oppressive rules and policies. In his song “Bhrast,” which means “wrong/corrupt,” released in 2020, Nizam Rabby, in collaboration with Azad Forward Bloc, a rapper from India, openly points out the culture of fear and lack of freedom of expression in Bangladesh, religious wars between Bangladesh and India, along with the arrest of journalists and violence against women.  

In this episode, I tried to explore some bits and pieces of the resistance music culture in Bangladesh from the 1970s to the present. Like many music cultures around the world, the resistance music subcultures in Bangladesh are also predominantly male-centric. But this does not mean that women do not exist in the scene. The next episode will be dedicated to women’s music of discontent in Bangladesh. 

Thank you for accompanying me on this journey!

(episode 0) From Dhaka to Dakar: The Music of Discontent 

Hello. I am Elham Golpushnezhad, and this is Dhaka to Dakkar: the music of discontent.

I am a cultural studies researcher and ethnographer. My area of interest has been hip-hop politics and cultures in Muslim-majority societies for the past fifteen years. 

In this series of podcasts, I like to explore the world of resisting music in Islamicate societies. But before we delve into it, let me begin with what this podcast is not about. This is not a pan-Islamist podcast, nor is it an anti-Islamist one. And this project is not intended to feed nationalist ambitions of any kind. I am not going to paint the vast area between Dhaka and Dakkar with the same brush. Simply, I want to picture how cultural exchange through music shapes the collective memory of hundreds of millions of people. 

In 2003, I saw the film Color of Pomegranates by Sergei Parajanov, the Armenian-Georgian filmmaker. It was stunning; I was lost in the poetic beauty of the film, which had minimal dialogue. But the most pleasing experience for me was that I did not feel it was a non-Iranian film. The imagery, poetry, symbolism, and even the mundane chores like dusting and washing the rugs and then hanging them under the sun – all of it – felt like home. The film is furnished with symbologies I recognize, especially cinematic shots that look precisely like Persian miniatures.  I was perplexed; this film was made in 1969 in the Soviet Union and is a poetic take on the life of the 18th-century Christian Orthodox Armenian poet Sayat-Nova. I was so stunned by the film that I began to look into why I felt so familiar with everything in it, as if it was made by an Iranian in Iran. Well, Sayat-Nova lived in the 18th century and wrote his poems in multiple languages, including Armenian and Persian. Although he was a practicing Orthodox Christian, his poetry and philosophy also merged with those of the Sufi poet he was fond of: Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhi, also known as Rumi. From this point, I got familiar with the term Persianate societies. It became even more interesting. 

So, I dug into it more and was shocked to see that Iran, the country that I feel so sorry for all the time, the Persian language I feel obliged to use to communicate with my niece living in Bulgaria so that she knows of our place of origin, was once an imperial cultural enforcement in such an extensive area: from present-day Bangladesh to India, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Armenia, Georgia, and all the way to Bosnia. 

The collection of these countries is usually referred to as the “Persianate” or Turko-Persianate societies. These terms were first proposed by the American Historian and Islamic Studies academic Marshal Hodgson. 

But, when we are talking about such multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multicultural places, I prefer using what Shahab Ahmed – another Islamic Studies scholar- more recently calls the “Balkan to Bengal” complex. This complex includes geographical regions extending from the Balkans (present-day Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, the Republic of Kosovo, Bulgaria, and Slovenia) through Anatolia (the Asian portion of Türkiye), Persia (present-day Iran), and Central Asia down and across Afghanistan and North India to the Bay of Bengal. Such a vast area!

In my research, I learned that one of the things that connected these places was the influence of the gunpowder empires. The three powerful and brutal empires between the 15th and 16th centuries: 1. the Ottomans, which originated in present-day Türkiye; 2. the Safavid dynasty in present-day Iran; and 3. the Mongol empire, which ruled in India and present-day Bangladesh. Historians Marshall Hodgson and  Willian  McNeill call these three ruling powers the gunpowder empires. These empires used and advanced what China had invented: gunpowder. 

The cultural importance of the gunpowder empires is because all 3 of them ruled over a wide variety of places at the same time, and they were advocates of Islamic beliefs and faith, which Hodgson calls Islamdom. In the 1500s, the common era, Islamdom was expanding over the northern hemisphere as a cultural and political order. The Christians (for example, in Spain, Bulgaria, and Serbia), Hindus, and Buddhists, mainly in India, were ruled by Muslims or enclaved by them. It was a time when Islamic empires impacted the culture, literature, and arts in many sectors of the world. Also, these empires were in close relationship with each other, so Turkish, Arabic, and Persian languages were used in courts and cross-empire interactions as the lingua franca of the time. 

As a result, became the communicating languages among a variety of societies. So, at these times, a Christian from Spain might understand Persian or Turkish and even communicate with people from those regions using these languages. In a sense, these three languages became the languages of the everyday or the ordinary. In many cases, Islam was not even the practicing religion of the place, for example, in parts of Bengal, Armenia, or  Bulgaria. But we can see the fingerprints of Islamic culture, literature, and philosophy in the arts and even architecture of these places. 

Individuals constantly moved along well-established and protected trade routes that were linking Istanbul in Türkiye with Isfahan in Iran and Delhi in India. Merchants, poets, artists, scholars, religious vagabonds, military advisors, and philosophers all moved with relative ease along these caravan routes and across political boundaries; the history of these empires illuminates a shared, complex culture. So, it is understandable that the film color of pomegranate may paint a familiar image for a wide range of people from Tajikistan to Iran, to Türkiye, Egypt, and all the way to Morocco and beyond. 

This complexity shows itself even more in resistance music. Resistance in music in these areas, especially in the last two centuries, has sometimes been against the imperial powers, sometimes colonial administrations, and at times, the totalitarian regimes. My focus here is on resistance music in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. For example, Baul music in Bangladesh against colonialism in the 1940s, or hip-hop and punk music in Afghanistan against totalitarian regimes and the turn to Persian traditional music resisting the forceful modernization of the country in the early 20th century.

Resistance music questions not only the ruling power but all institutions of power, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class. In this series of podcasts, I plan to take you on a journey to various places, from Dhaka to Dakar, to hear the sound of discontent in culturally connected places.  

The next episode, which will be episode 1 of my journey, will be on the music of discontent in Bangladesh. 

Thank you for being on this journey with me!