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How Can He Keep From Singing?

An anthropologist rediscovers the power of folk music

Amitava Kar
Photo: Dr Mahbub Alam
Photo: Dr Mahbub Alam

He wears the expression of a midcareer lighthouse keeper, one who has seen a lot of shipwrecks and is expecting more. Right now Mahbub Pial is dealing with wreckage of a more human sort with, well, folk songs.
He has been immersed in folk music since his childhood succumbing to its beauty and the ethos associated with it. Because he is so interested in so many different aspects of folk music, like a sponge he has been sopping up more than two hundred genres of folk songs from disparate cultures all over the delta.  A tireless missionary for that cause, he has prodigiously collected about 7000 songs in different forms during years of fieldwork. “My job,” he says, “is to show folks there is a lot of good music in this country, and if used right it may empower the powerless.”

With an omnivorous appetite for folk songs, he documents musical expression at its most local and least commercial like fishermen in Tangail, farmers in Netrokona, boatmen in Kishoreganj and adivasis in Thakurgaon, Dinajpur and Chittagong Hill Tracts.  

Mahbub Pial works both in academic and popular circles, appearing on radio, television and concerts, posting songs in his YouTube channel, organising festivals, and writing books, articles and essays prolifically. With his band Loko Rang, he sings songs that had previously not been presented in the media. At a time when there is a strict divide between high and low in Bangladeshi Bengali culture, and traditional, rural music is especially scorned by the so-called urban elite, he argues that such vernacular styles are the greatest contribution to Bangladeshi music.

With his band Loko Rang, Dr Mahbub Pial sings songs that have previously not been presented in the media. Photo: Dr Mahbub Alam
With his band Loko Rang, Dr Mahbub Pial sings songs that have previously not been presented in the media. Photo: Dr Mahbub Alam

By profession he is an anthropologist with a PhD from Durham University, UK. An associate professor at Independent University of Bangladesh, he teaches a number of courses on anthropology, ethnomusicology and development studies. “My PhD was in indigenous knowledge which is often not recognised by development agencies.  For example, some communities of fishermen in Tangail use a fishing gear that allows small fish to escape. Once a week they refrain from catching fish. They have grown this respect for nature from their religion and culture.”

Although he has recorded four albums, Dr Pial distrusts commercialism and is not comfortable with the idea of stardom. “I am not a star nor am I good looking.” When he sings, he may not have screaming fans but his songs remain with them like a far-off hymn that hails a new realisation.   

He was involved in the popular theatre movement, composing musical dramas on fishermen's riparian rights in Brahmanbaria and Netrokona. “I collected elements of folk songs from different communities to make people aware of their rights.”  

Dr Mahbub studies ethnomusicology which emphasises the cultural, social, cognitive, biological, ecological and other dimensions of a song.  Every song has a cultural context, a distinct meaning and a story.  Songs are their meditation. It's their ritual. They use distinct accents and intonations. “When that song is remixed, the essence is gone. Reggae was originally sung by the poor of Trench Town, Jamaica. Bob Marley and Peter Tosh polished it up and took it to the western audience. Similarly, Shachin Dev Burman introduced Bangla folk tunes in many Hindi film songs.  The non-Bengali audience loved them without having the slightest idea about where the songs originated.”

There is a song by Sheikh Bhanu, the legendary folk singer from Sylhet: Nishathe jaio fulobone re bhromora. Noy doroja koira bondho loiya fuler gondho ontore loyio bondher naam re bhomra. (Take His name with a purity of a heart that knows how to listen to the voice of divine in human.  “Poet Jasimuddin changed it to Nishithe jaiyo fulo bone re bhromora nishithe jaiyo fulobone. Jalayia chander baati jege robo shararati. Ami kobo kotha shishirero shone re bhomra. (I will wait for you all night while talking to drops of dew).  Thus Jasimuddin had adapted a spiritual song to a romantic one to suit the middle class urban population. My job is to capture this transformation.”

He uses his radio programme, Haoa Badal in ABC Radio (FM 89.2) to do just that.  The programme has been hugely popular among urban youths, often stereotyped to be into western music only. “Once in a while when something genuine comes around, the silent majority always appreciate it.”
The transformation sometimes is inevitable, argues the ethnomusicologist who sings in his class to educate students about this change.   “Society is changing. A song or a genre has to survive on its own strength; you cannot keep it alive on life-support.”  

Dr Pial sees himself as part of a continuing folk tradition, constantly recycling and revising music that had been honed by time. Currently, he is writing an academic article titled “Representation of Women in Male Voice.”
Professor Mabub posits that elements of folklore must be archived following proper methodology. “What they do is collect texts of some songs and publish a book. Contextual study is essential. They look at songs as an independent entity. It is an integral part of rural life.”

Every song has a cultural context, a distinct meaning and a story, says Dr Pial. Photo: Prabir Das
Every song has a cultural context, a distinct meaning and a story, says Dr Pial. Photo: Prabir Das

Many bands have gained popularity as well as commercial success remixing and singing folk songs like Shah Abdul Karim's. “I have no problem with that. But there must be a reference to the origin of the song. Intellectual property right must be established. Shah Abdul Karim died a very poor man. Media has to be more responsible.”
That's all well and good but what's wrong with liking 'urban folk'?  “Nothing, really,” says the ardent anthropologist.   “But if you want to understand a people, you need to understand its folklore.  Be it development work, journalism, science or business, you have to know the people. You have to know their identity.”

Interestingly, questions of identity and self-knowledge have been addressed in folk music more than in any other genre of art. “Folk poets have realised the verities of life long before academicians and scholars.”  Mona ki korlire bhobe ashiya, micha maya bhuila roili ki dhon paia. (Why such divisions, why such greed? We all will have to leave this place one day…)

Folk poets believe that all humans are equal in fundamental worth or social status.  They teach us to be tolerant and respectful of others. “They leave a space for dialogue. Nanan boron gabhire bhai eki boron dudh, jogot bhromia dekhi eki mayer put. (After travelling the world I found out that all men are just the same.) Society will be a lot more peaceful if we discern the meaning of these songs.”   

All said and done, how does an associate professor with a PhD from Durham end up travelling through villages picking up new tunes and techniques?  “In Brahmanbaria, I grew up in a multicultural society listening to songs of boat men and farmers whose simplicity and subtle use of metaphors and similes impressed me. I also listened to songs by Amar Pal who later on became a famous singer in India.”  

For a guy who has spent much of his career in folklore, professor Mahbub is surprisingly eclectic. “While I was in Durham, I was into reggae. I also admire Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd. Their music has genuineness that I can relate to.”   

This won him friends and fans in Europe. At a party in Newcastle, UK, someone was singing Chiquitita by Abba: Chiquitita, tell me what's wrong/You're enchained by your own sorrow/In your eyes there is no hope for tomorrow/How I hate to see you like this.

On impulse, Mahbub, then a PhD student, picked a few chords in his guitar and started singing it in Bangla: Chiquitita, amay bolo, duto chokh keno cholocholo? The audience erupted into cheers. He also sang it in Gothenburg, Sweden where he went to give a lecture.

The appreciation he values most, however, came from home. “In 1990, when I was an undergraduate student, I was returning from a village in Brahmanbaria after collecting some Sari songs. A man handed me a 10 Taka bill and said, 'I know you have a lot of money. But please accept it and buy yourself a cold coke.' How could I not be moved by this love?”   

And since Love is the lord of heaven and earth, how can he keep from singing?

Published: 12:00 am Friday, August 08, 2014

Last modified: 4:57 pm Sunday, August 10, 2014

TAGS: Mahbub Pial Dr Pial

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