The soul sings folk

Dhaka has proudly hosted three folk festivals of international standard as of 2017. Previously unchartered performance territories were presented in their full glory to the audience and the welcoming response has been tremendous. As this platform is reaching more and more listeners and performers, it's not too difficult to look into the true folk songs of Bangladesh.
Bangla folk songs

Bangladesh's folk songs are as unique as its geographical location and climate. After language, the next element of a culture is revealed thorough the lyrics and melody of its folk songs. The sheer variety in the types of folk songs in this area is itself staggering. Scholars have listed nearly a hundred folk song types in this delta. Then again, each are of their own minds when sub dividing these under broad categories. From a simplified standpoint, listeners today can view these songs under the sections of region, functionality, ritual, love, humour and work.

All sections aside, ask any person about the folk song he or she is familiar with, the answers are bound be Bhatiali, Bhawaiya and Baul. If you pose this question in a group, other answers too will pop up like Jari, Shari, Pala, Gambhira, Gajon etc. Prized nuggets of insight too are bound to come up to clearly differentiate one from the other.

The most mentioned folk song styles, Bhatiali and Bhawaiya, are miles apart in terms of region, tune and lyrics. Dry regions like Rangpur and Dinajpur are the birthplace for Bhawaiya. Bhatiali hails from the areas of greater Mymensingh and Sunamganj. Bhawaiya embraces the vibrations of vocal chords while Bhatiali takes in the calm waves of the haor areas.

Shari is a type of active song style, specifically associated with Nouka Baich. A contrast from Bhatiali's slow tempo, Shari Gaan stands out with its fast, active tempo. Also, while Bhatiali is the song of a solitary boatman, Shari is a chorus for unified boatmen heading towards one goal.

While the people are forthcoming with the names and types and may even churn out a tune or two, folk songs from this region can be made into a standard study for scholars. Performers may spend a lifetime trying to perfect their art of performance of a specific variety or try to learn as many as they can.

Folk songs and classical pieces have existed as parallels and crossed over since the pre-Mughal era in this delta and surrounding regions. While the classics enjoyed widespread patronising by the ruling side, the folk songs stayed with the common people — from the farmers to the boatmen to the common house people. Also, folk songs retained their core characteristic of being passed down orally without any specific notation.

This is where fusion, the art of mixing the old styles and the new tunes to make a single seamless melody, comes in to change the musical vista. Fusion is opening new frontiers for folk songs to reach newer audiences. Of course, up to a point, the purity of melody may seem a bit off to the seasoned listener, especially with modern mixing and added wordings. But fusion, with its added nuances, has touched the people, as seen from the successful folk fests. With the advent of far reaching digitisation, regional performers too are able to reach out to more people through the social platforms. Radio, which has had an immense comeback over the last few years, has been offering audiences with a mix of modern songs and folk songs.

The term 'folk song' itself was coined much later in the nineteenth century, but that does not mean that the folk songs themselves did not exist before the term! On the same note, folk songs are the heralds of the people of said region and its quirks. No matter how urbanised and modernised a country becomes, the folk songs have the singular appeal that can, without losing a beat, make the soul weep or draw it into pure ecstasy. Instead of focusing on being right or wrong, one of the best practices for enthusiasts should be to attend performances in their specific regions.

Folk songs are as unique as a planet's motion. Just as the solar system's many rocky elements have their own orbits, folk songs too are tied to the people of region and its climate. They are shaped by the joys and the struggle as well as the turmoil of the people. At the same time, it contains desires and loss, while incorporating dance. Audiences need to be aware of these back stories to fully delve into the melody that is born of this land.

All discussions and talk aside, the impact of folk songs on the young and old eventually boils down to two things — is it fusion that will keep this art alive or will it be the original form that needs preservation to continue? While a binary answer is absent in this context, vigorous arguments and discussions naturally go a long way.

From a modern and open standpoint, singer, writer and composer Syed Waqeel Ahad shared his insights on fusion and folk songs. He states that he is in fact a pro-fusion individual. Fusion is itself an 'always-in' aspect of music from his perspective.

Folk songs are the closest things to the people of a region and people are bound to change and transform. Ahad believes that this change is incorporated through the folk songs and fusion makes it easier to blend into the ever-shifting times. As people are the creators of folk songs, alterations should be accepted as a natural process, he adds further. Focusing solely on the pure performance can only end up in pushing the folk songs into a corner.

Ahad of course emphasises the need for preserving original forms. Recording performances is as easy as it can be in these days, and the process is getting simpler as time passes. He agrees that while melody or presentation can change, the core emotion can never be altered. Sometimes it is necessary to reach for the originals to better understand the key thought.

Coming back to fusion, Ahad pulls in references from performances.

Adding a guitar to a traditional piece depending on the tabla is fusion. He mentions that even with classic Rabindra or Nazrul Sangeet, every singer has a personal touch that adds a bit of fusion. After all, we do prefer one singer over the other, specifically for these personal touches even though it is the same song that they sing.

As he mentions performances, he also shares his high optimism with the folk fests that have been taking place in recent years. The cultural exchange that takes place through these fests are essential in making music truly globalised. From his perspective, Ahad calls this a 'revolutionary development' as people are seeing professional international performers right here on the home turf!

Ahad also mentions that it is fusion, which ultimately makes the younger generations interested in the original folk songs. Their tastes have changed greatly in the last couple of years. He hopes that these youths will be inspired not only as listeners, but eventually as performers and connoisseurs, but to do that, they need to be interested first, and this is where fusion plays the important role.

Folk music or songs, are the embodiment of nature, climate, heritage and lifestyle of the people. Ahad emphasises on these as the ingredients of folk songs and brings in cooking as a relatable example. Just as there are special recipes that require using an exact process, there is also the scope to add local ingredients into a typical western dish to make it a fusion dish.

Folk songs too are like that; an artist can take local lyrics to a western ensemble or take western lyrics to mix it with local musical style to create fusion.

Ahad finally says that folk songs left by the masters like Lalon are actually spines that need the flesh of fusion to carry them through the ages. If the true tune is preserved, then no matter the fusion, generation after generation can enjoy the best of the art. 

Syed Waqeel Ahad is a baul lover and a gifted artist. While he received institutional training on Nazrul Sangeet and classical Bangla songs in his early years, he has explored other genres of music to the best of his abilities.



As YouTube videos and channels are overflowing with various performances and interpretations of Bangladeshi folk songs, some may wonder where the true roots lie. While many will scoff at the idea of reading up on folk music, interested people often do not find what the right read should be. If you are looking to brush up on folk music and its roots, here are some suggested reads.

Bangladesher Lokosongeet (Folksongs of Bangladesh) by Saymon Zakaria

This is a compact and insight-filled book for those who are looking to get the modern concise take on the various styles of folk songs of Bangladesh. A must-read chapter in this book is on folk songs and technology with a very relatable piece on mobile phones! 

 Bangladesher Lokagiti: Eki Samajtattvik Adhayan (Folksongs of Bangladesh: A Sociological Study) by Dr Abdul Wahab. For those who want to go into details of the folk songs of this region with information on geographical and historical context, this three-part selection (compiled in two books) is a must-read. Filled with quotes, observations and well researched insight into the various facets of folk songs, this is essential for anyone looking to start with a good grasp on local folk songs.

 Bangladesher Lokosangit Samikha (Folksongs of Bangladesh — A Fieldwork-based Survey) Edited by Shamsuzzaman Khan. Coming from Bangla Academy, this is a detailed book that upholds the modernisation of Bangladeshi folk songs. The compilation includes description of performances as seen during the survey and information on artists and singers of various districts. The most attractive segment of the book is the part with English translations and western staff notation plus pronunciation guides for the folk songs.

The mentioned books are available from online book sellers with many more titles. Do bear in mind that you will not be reading to be an expert on folk songs, but rather develop a deeper sense of appreciation and see the connecting lines that were previously absent from your musical perspective.


Photo: LS Archive


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