Simon Broughton talks to the musicians of Shikor Bangladesh All Stars and Kishon Khan from UK-based group Lokkhi Terra about the art of mixing up their myriad musical styles
Shikor Bangladesh All Stars will be teaming up with Lokkhi Terra at this year’s Songlines Encounters Festival on June 6.
Deep in the earthy music of the Shikor Bangladesh All Stars, there’s a curious sound. How to describe it? Imagine the sound of a monkey burping after swallowing a jumping frog… Blagger-blagger-bop, blagger-bop. The instrument is the khomok and it’s a tension drum with a string that’s simultaneously pulled and rhythmically plucked. It’s a talking drum meets an elastic band and used a lot by Bangladesh’s mystic Baul musicians.
Of course, it’s the vocals of Baby Akhtar, dressed in a swathe of yellow, and Rob Fakir, with his peacock-headed lute, that are centre-stage and the drive of the dhol drum that gives the music its rhythmic punch. But watching them rehearse in Dhaka, it’s the khomok that adds the special spice that makes the music distinctive. Shikor Bangladesh All Stars will be making their UK debut at Songlines Encounters Festival in June, where they’ll also collaborate with the UK-based band Lokkhi Terra. They will also play WOMAD in July.
“We wanted to make a band that says ‘Welcome to Bangladesh’ musically,” says Lokkhi Terra’s pianist Kishon Khan, who has pulled the group together. “It’s not regional in flavour, but features repertoire that is heard all over the country. The folk tradition is still popular and widely-known here.” Kishon has called on Dhaka-based dhol player Nazrul Islam to lead this group of top traditional players. “He’s my guru for all this stuff,” Kishon continues, “and he’s one of Bangladesh’s busiest musicians. If you go to Brick Lane [in London’s East End], you’ll find half the pirated tapes feature Nazrul on dhol.”
Shikor means ‘roots’ in Bengali and the All Stars include vocalist Rob Fakir, representing the mystic Baul tradition, folk singer Baby Akhtar, who is married to Nazrul, and from the next generation, Labik Kamal Gaurob, who sings and plays the khomok under his left arm. The other essential instrument for Bengali folk music is the bamboo flute, played by Jalal Ahmed, which weaves like the country’s many rivers through the traditional melodies of Bangladesh. Shikor apparently stole the show at Dhaka’s Sufi Sutra Festival in January.
The traditional music of Bangladesh is little known in the West. It’s overshadowed, of course, by that of India with its own diverse folk traditions, plus Bollywood and classical, which are also hugely popular in Bangladesh. The Bengali population and language is shared between Bangladesh and the state of West Bengal in India with the Baul and fakir music, in particular, being common to both.
But while the Indians are largely ignorant and uninterested in their folk music, the Bangladeshis love theirs – performed either by traditional acoustic bands like Shikor or in souped-up versions by commercial singers. “In a place where there’s so much illiteracy, literature is taken very seriously,” explains Kishon as we inch through Dhaka’s traffic-choked streets. “You can ask any tuk tuk driver and he will be able to recite poetry and sing songs. It shows how important this music still is.”
Nazrul, Baby and their six children live in Badda, “the poor, rich part of town” where I’m invited into their two-room apartment to hear the raw heart of the band. Nazrul is from a family of dhol players that goes back at least as far as his great-grandfather. His father played in a jatra band, accompanying popular folk theatre performances, which Nazrul also does from time to time.
While I’m watching in comfort from the bed, Baby sings and plays violin, Nazrul plays harmonium, while his brother Mubarak and cousin Barek, play dhol and mandira, the little finger cymbals. Baby begins with a bhandari, a song about one of the Muslim saints of Chittagong in the south-east. The exuberant music sounds thrilling in this small room with household possessions on display.
Unlike many parts of the world, where bands like Shikor would be preserving a disappearing repertoire, these are songs that are widely known. But it’s not a question of the folk tradition having simply persisted. In Bangladesh there’s also been a folk revival, in the city at least. “When I was growing up, it was rock and heavy metal that was the popular music,” Aanon Siddiqua tells me in a Dhaka coffee bar. She’s Dhaka-born, but moves between Bangladesh and the UK and is one of the vocalists in Lokkhi Terra. She talks of the hugely popular singer Arnob, who founded the folk-rock band Bangla in 1999. They became one of the most popular groups in Bangladesh and Nazrul was their dhol player – and still is whenever they reform. Their second album Protutponnomotitto (2006) was a tribute to the 19th-century Baul musician Lalon Fakir. “They really revolutionised folk music for young people,” she continues, “they brought in new instruments and everybody listens to folk music now.”
Having grown familiar with Bangla’s updating of the tradition in Bangladesh still didn’t prepare Aanon for Kishon’s approach with Lokkhi Terra in London. “I found it very strange at first,” she admits. “A lot of people here would find it very shocking, but it’s a matter of getting used to what Kishon is trying to do.”
At home in London, Kishon outlines his vision of Lokkhi Terra. “People think that London isn’t an exotic place, particularly if they live here. But London is exotic and I can see that when we travel. People are fascinated by what we do. The term ‘world music’ sounds very colonial, but let’s reown it and sell it into other places.”
Despite being born in Bangladesh and growing up in London, Kishon’s overriding musical love is for Cuba and he spent a couple of years there between 1995 and 1998, really getting inside the various Cuban styles. He started Lokkhi Terra about ten years ago and the band includes Cubans (Javier Camilo and Oreste Noda), a Turk (Tansay Omar on drums), a Nigerian (Dele Sosimi is a regular guest), Brits (brass players Justin Thurgur and Graeme Flowers) and Bengali vocalists Aanon Siddiqua and Sohini Alam. But they’re not simply a fusion band: “Lokkhi Terra is not just about mixing music, but is about expertise from many traditions. If I play with Osvaldo Chacón, everybody has to think I’m Cuban; if I play with Bukky Leo, everyone has to think I’m Nigerian; or if it’s with Cornell Campbell, people have to think I’m Jamaican. Everybody brings their musical language to the table but the food we create together is in lots of different languages. That language of mixing is my trade as a Londoner.”
Kishon’s sessions in Dhaka were for recording the debut album of Shikor Bangladesh All Stars, and rehearsing together with Lokkhi Terra members to start that “language of mixing.” They were playing a reggae track and another track in 13 beats based on an Indian rhythm. “Nazrul has never played in 13 before,” explains Kishon, “but if you can improvise that’s the reference, because that is an international language.”
Nazrul isn’t remotely phased by it, of course. Like so many great musicians he’s global and local at the same time, which is what Lokkhi Terra are all about. “Wherever I play the dhol,” says Nazrul, “I feel I’m back in Bangladesh.”
ALBUM Shikor Bangladesh All Stars’ album will be reviewed in the July (#109) edition