The King of Bangla Rock
He was a quiet rebel against injustice, an unassuming war hero and a modest pioneer of bringing a new sound to a war-torn country, trying to stand on its feet. It was his raspy voice and bold lyrics that captured the hearts of thousands of young people thirsting for a true expression of their liberation. Azam Khan, the pop-guru who died at age 61, on June 5 at the Combined Military Hospital, after a long battle with cancer, will be remembered by his fans as a legend who left behind a legacy of music that will remain timeless because of its refreshingly honest take on the human experience. Here we reprint an edited excerpt of a cover story of The Star magazine, on Azam Khan in July, 2002.
The year was 1973, the day, April 1st. The auditorium at an official building was filled with youngsters waiting in anticipation. A little known band led by a tall, thin, long-haired bard was about to perform. An inexplicable excitement permeated the room as some in the audience had already witnessed the intensity of this singer through a show on television. With his raspy, bold voice that reached out emotionally to the audience, the lead signer gave all his heart to the four songs he sang. Among them was 'Ore Saleka, Ore Maleka, Ore Phul Banu Parli na bachate' lyrics, which fans hum even today. The youngsters screamed with delight at this new, unconventional sound, the cynical lyrics that brutally stated reality. At the end of the performance, there were cries for an encore. "One more, one more" they implored. The band had only the same four songs to offer so they played them again and again. The singer who produced such spontaneous appreciation was Azam Khan. With his original Bengali lyrics, powerful voice and impassioned rendition, coupled with his own blend of rock and roll, he began a new trend in Bengli popular music, one that has been kept alive by innumerable bands of today.
Almost thirty years later, he is still passionate about music, about stirring up a storm amongst the young and undoubtedly still retains the title of being king of Bangla rock.
As we enter Kazi Jasimuddin Road in Kamalapur, it is surprisingly easy to find Azam Khan. All one has to do is to ask at the little stores on the street. Everyone knows 'Azam Bhai', from the telephone and fax shop owner to the schoolboy walking along the road with whom he has played many rounds of cricket. We approach the narrow gate where his name is boldly written along with his credentials as a freedom fighter of the Liberation War. Tall, lanky, hair closely cropped and wearing sneakers, he comes down to greet us looking more like a school teacher or sports coach than a legendary rock star; without showing a trace of irritation at our arrival about an hour late, he leads us to his modest flat where a remarkable story unfolds.
Singing and listening to whatever music was available was part of Azam's teenage years.
Azam Khan's interest in music began at a very early age. Since they were about 10 to 12 years old Azam and his neighbourhood buddies used to go to Old Dhaka to listen to records at people's homes. This was in the late fifties and early sixties and the youngsters listened to whatever they could lay their hands on – Bengali folk songs of Abbasuddin or Abdul Alim, modern English songs and popular Hindi film songs. This provided the background for Azam to use his own voice and even during his school days he become quite a celebrity among his peers for his perfect rendition of Kishor Kumar songs.
By the time they were in their late teens, Azam and his gang were getting together each evening and having informal singing sessions for their own pleasure. A cultural group called Kranti Shilpa Goshthi approached Azam and his friends to join them and use their talents for stage shows. Among his closest fiends was Fakir Alamgir who was to become one of the most loved folk-pop singers in the years to come.
The year was 1968 with rumblings of Bengali discontent at the existing oppressive regime. Azam and his co-performers become cultural activists, singing rebellious songs at factories in Dhaka, Tongi, Chittagong, inspiring workers to fight for their rights, often being chased away by police.
In 1971, when the liberation war broke out it was not a matter of choice for Azam and other young men of his age, but an overpowering sense of duty, to join the liberation struggle. When Azam told his father he was surprised at his reaction: "Don't come back before liberating your country." Azam is still very proud of his late father Aftabuddin Khan a gold medalist from Calcutta University who later became an Administrative Officer at the home department of the secretariat.
At the Mela Ghar training camp for Muktibahinis, Azam and his fellow freedom fighters could not keep the muse hidden. As far as singing was concerned he was a natural and now it was accentuated by patriotic fervour. "We used to take up our tin plates, grenade shell etc. and tap on them to make music with our songs," say Azam sitting benignly in his small living room where hangs a rare picture of him in battle in '71. "People from all over the barracks including the teachers of the refugee camp schools came to listen or sing with us," he adds.
Soon Azam had to face the actual battlefield. He even became Section Commander of Sector 2 and fought alongside Sadeque Hossain Khoka, Dhaka's present mayor and the country's Minister for Live-stock and Fisheries.
After 31 years, Azam vividly recalls his war experiences. "In Shaldah, Comilla, when we were fighting, the strange thing was that I never felt any fear, even when I was holding a gun with an enemy soldier only a few feet away. I used to sing even at the time I was fighting. Others used to think I was crazy. Now when I think about it, I feel quite scared. I guess at that age and at that time, we didn't realise just how close we were to death.
"Later from Agartala we again went to fight. We fought in Jatrabari up to Cantonment. Sometimes we did not have any food and Muktibahini from other camps would share theirs with us. It was an amazing feeling of camaraderie, to be fighting together for one cause."
After the country gained independence in '71, Azam and other like-minded young men spent long hours in adda and jamming sessions. "At this time some 26 or so kids I knew put up a cultural show on T.V. and it was terrible. I felt very bad. Then I decided that I would take up music as a challenge."
Azam had, by now, composed quite a few songs in folk tunes, "mainly to get people mad".
The Beatles mania had reached even Bangladesh and Azam was gripped by it too. The Rolling Stones and Shadows were also his favourites and often Azam would mimic the seducing notes of the electric guitar with his versatile voice. "I used to keep my hair long and was very conscious of my style, changing clothes a few times a day," laughs Azam.
With his 70s hippie look and throaty voice that seemed to come out from the depths of his soul, Azam and two other friends put up a show for Bangladesh Television. With Neel Mansur on the guitar, Sadeque on the drums and Azam as the vocalist, the group performed a few catchy numbers.
Azam and his group had intensely rehearsed for the show but on the day it was aired, they could not watch it and so had no idea about its quality. Nevertheless, the reaction among the viewers was extremely positive and soon Azam was asked to perform live at the WAPDA auditorium on April 1, 1973, which marked the beginning of the singer's phenomenal success. Many offers came after this debut performance and Azam realised that there was no turning back from what he had started. "We realised that we had to form a proper group in order to be more effective," says Azam. With a stroke of luck says Azam, two talented musicians from a band called Ugly Face, Ishtiaque a lead guitarist and Idu a drummer, decided to join Azam's band.
What was so special about Azam was the pure honesty of his songs and the abandon with which he sung them. He sang about real things -- poverty, death, society's hypocrisy, unrequited love as well as about spirituality. Some of the songs were written by Fakir Alamgir, his childhood friend and often, fellow performer. A combination of folk elements and western style rock and roll made Azam as irresistible to young Bangladeshis as perhaps Bob Marley or Bob Dillon was to the western world.
Azam was also influenced by another childhood friend, Firoz Shai. "We used to sing together and invite people to listen," recalls Azam, "He was a very good organiser and excellent person". In the mid seventies Firoz Shai introduced a young university student and budding singer called Ferdous Wahed who also became quite famous as a singer. Together with Fakir Alamgir, Firoz Shai, Ferdous Wahed and another popular singer Pillu Momtaz, Azam performed on stage and TV creating quite a sensation among the public.
Remarkably, Azam's own songs were never written out. "They just came out of my mouth all of a sudden," explains the singer, "If I remembered them later they would become songs". Many of the songs reflected the thoughts and emotions of the singer, or whatever was going on in his life.
'Bangladesh' was inspired by Azam's shock at the stark poverty of people after the country had gained its freedom. In 1972, only a year after independence, Azam was witness to the horrors of famine that devastated millions of his people. "I used to watch the main road from Kamlapur Station," says Azam. "It was black with people, families coming from villages to Dhaka to find work and a way to survive. Even the fairly well-to-do of the villages were starving. They used to come to our doors asking for phan (water drained from cooked rice). There was so much hunger everywhere. Mothers abandoned their babies or sold them, sometimes their babies died in front of their eyes from starvation". For Azam, a freedom fighter, this was a bitter experience and led to the soulful song 'Bangladesh':
Rail Liner oi bostite
Jonme chilo je ekti chele
Ma tar Kade
Chele ti more geche...
(In the slums of the railway line,
A boy was born
His mother cries, the son is dead...)
Some of Azam's songs were inspired by events in his personal life. An incurable romantic, Azam faced rejection at a very early age, something that provoked a number of songs on unrequited love. Hariye geche (Lost) came about when, as a teenager, Azam fell in love for the first time, with his pretty cousin who lived in the same neighbourhood. "When she started giving me the cold shoulder, I went to meet her after school and asked whether anyone had said anything about me. She said 'no' and her tone told me everything. I told her I would never brother her again but inside I was devastated." Azam channeled his pain with songs like Ashi Ashi bole tumi are le na (You said you would come but never did) and Jala, Jala (Burning).
Not all his songs had such passionate stories behind them. His famous Ore Saleka, Ore Maleka, for example, was composed during one of the many adda sessions Azam and his friends engaged in on the terrace of Tower Hotel, a favourite spot for young men. "We were sitting on the water tank," says Azam "When Nilu, my friend and a very talented musician, started playing drums with the construction rods from the terrace and the tank cover, when the words just slipped out of my mouth. Another popular song of Azam was 'Alal O Dulal', which is a parody.
But there has always been a much more serious, spiritual side to Azam who can just as well be called a modern mystic. Songs on the mysteries of creation and life are very much part of his musical repertoire. These include Ato Shundar Duniya (This beautiful world) and Ami Jare Chaire (The One I Want).
The lyrics of the latter are particularly powerful:
Ami jare chaire
She thake mori antare
Ami tare peye o harai re.
Ey ache ay nai
Antare niyeche thai
Biraj kore ay bhubone
Janle e Shotty
(The One I Want
He lives in the deepest part of my soul
Even when I find Him I lose Him
Here He is, then He is gone
He reigns the Universe
Devotion brings Freedom
If you know this as True
Your desires will be complete
Through your spiritual commitment).
From '73 to '93 Azam devoted his time entirely to music performing on stage, recording and doing television performances. Frequent tours outside the country, ensured a country wide fan following of this mystical rock singer. Azam and his band Uchcharan were constantly invited to perform which they did with heart and soul.
The new, westernised songs with sometimes, mocking lyrics were often criticised by intellectual big wigs as being too decadent and unBengali, but Azam continued to sing them, undaunted.
The gruelling hours of practice, constant touring and exhausting shows, however, eventually took their toll. In '93, completely drained out a physically very weak, Azam became very sick and was hospitalised for one and a half months. Although ordered to take rest by the doctor, Azam could not contain his restless soul. This time, however, he decided to stay away from his first love music for a while. As he needed to get back his stamina, Azam decided on cricket. Being a sports enthusiast since childhood, Azam at age 43 started playing. "I used to play with the neighbourhood kids and then for the Gopibagh team. But during matches they never called me and I felt bad." Soon however, Azam proved his worth in the field and started winning trophies. This time people started to take him seriously which led to Azam being selected to play with the First Division Cricket Team. He was even Captain of the team for one of the matches.
In 1993, Azam was invited by expatriate Bangladeshis to perform in LA and New York. Thus Azam's provocative songs created fans even outside the country. In fact Azam has many fans who are expatriate Bangladeshis in their thirties or forties who listened to him when they were teenagers.
From 1994, Azam started to record songs for cassettes according to the whims of production companies. Often the lyrics were not his own and the songs quite contrary to Azam's original style. The compromise was for survival. Azam was raising his three children, daughters Ima and Rima and son Hridoy. His marriage to his much younger wife Shahida had ended in 1993 and Azam was left to bring up his children all on his own.
"Since the divorce, I have been both father and mother to my children," says Azam, "They are like my friends. I do everything for them, sometimes I even cook." My main concern is for them to be educated." Azam's own education could not be completed. Azam was born on February 28, 1950, and in 1956 when Azam's family moved to Kamlapur, he was admitted to Motijheel Provincial School, where he studied up till class six. Later, he went to Siddeswari School and then completed his SSC and HSC from TNT College. Azam did try to get into Dhaka University to study Bangla. This was foiled by one of his acquaintances who maliciously stole his certificates, putting an end to Azam's dream of higher education. "If I had gone to university, I probably would have done so much more." Thus, Azam's advice to younger people has always been, "even if you cannot eat, you must study. Education is that important.” In fact, although his daughters have shown a natural inclination towards music, Azam does not want any of his children to pursue music at this stage. He wants them to be educated first.
Apart from the money he gets from cassette royalties and recordings, Azam also teaches swimming to young people at the Dhaka Stadium's Musharraf Swimming Pool six days a week. Agile and athletic, Azam swims for an hour everyday to keep fit. At 52, Azam feels far from being old. "If a cassette can be rewound, why not me?" he asks, "I can be 21 if I want to."
Fans and relatives bid a sombre love farewell to the pop guru.
His youthful energy, in fact, is something quite palpable, his enthusiasm for life, contagious. Youngsters warm towards him instantly. He is friendly, funny and full of positive energy. This he tries to infuse into young people, once again the target of his efforts. His latest project is to launch another musical movement, to inspire young people and explore their talents. Last year, he brought together a few young musicians and helped record twelve songs in Sound Garden. One of them, Azam himself sang. The album Natun Projonmo (New Generation) is yet to be released.
This kind of experimentation to bring in new talent is just the beginning. "I plan to have shows on stage, on TV channels, and albums with more young people. Many of them are very serious about their music, and I am hopeful that they will do well."
Azam Khan has sung 168 solo songs and about 30 songs with other singers. So far 14 cassettes of Azam's songs have been released.
Meanwhile, Azam is still writing songs. His original band Uchcharan is still in the music scene with younger members. Once in a while, Azam performs with them.
But, it is the new band Ekattur (Seventy-one) he plans to form that he is really enthusiastic about. "I will start with my old songs, and then include the ones I'm now writing. If things work out, I will do stage shows." Like before, his new songs, says Azam, are based on real circumstances, on a creation, romance, folk themes, as well as songs for children. "Nowadays most bands are too concerned with the commercial aspects of music or their own egos. Some bands also have a tendency to copy others rather than create their own music. We don't think this way. My idea is to use original music to make people more forward looking and modern. If we are mentally and spiritually strong, there is no reason why we cannot establish a modern Bangladesh," says the pop legend.
As a person, Azam Khan, is just what his songs are about. Full of humility and a childlike innocence that makes him both endearing and approachable. In a world gripped by greed and power, Azam is untouched by materialism. He his content with his modest possessions, proud of his three children and is still passionate about his music.
At times, however he becomes pensive, tuning out of the present to take refuse in his thoughts. "I love the colour blue," says Azam looking out of the window. “When I find reality too overwhelming, I just go to an open space, lie on my back and watch the blue sky. It is the most soothing, reassuring feeling."
– AASHA MEHREEN AMIN