The British-Bangladeshi singer speaks to Alexandra Petropoulos about discovering a new freedom in the songs of a Baul saint
Shapla Salique sings the lyric ‘O Baul songs how you have captured my soul… when you awoke my deepest soul and gave me blessed inspiration, I finally found the path to express myself.’ For the singer those words couldn’t ring truer. Struggling to find her own musical identity, she finally found her creative freedom in the music of the 19th-century Baul saint Lalon Shah, resulting in the release of her first solo album No Boundaries.
Salique was born in the Sylhet region of Bangladesh and by the age of two she was already singing with her father. “Mum and dad always say to me, ‘you couldn’t speak, but you used to sing by saying ‘la, la, la, la’.’ I did my first performance in baby language,” she laughs. Aged five, shortly after her family settled in East London, she started performing with her dad’s group, Dishari Shilpi Ghosthi, the first British Bangladeshi ensemble, and when she was 14, her dad sent her to Bangladesh for just over a year to learn nazrul songs – the music of Nazrul Islam, Bangladesh’s national poet. “I’m so glad dad took me because I think if that hadn’t happened, I would not have fallen in love with nazrul songs and been exposed to so much music out there and learning the culture.”
She returned to the UK and continued to perform with Dishari Shilpi Ghosthi until she was 19, but the lack of musical freedom was starting to wear on her. “It’s almost like I didn’t have an identity when I was [doing music]. My dad made all the decisions; the songs were chosen by my dad and I just sang them.” So she took a break.
Ten years later, when revisiting a recording of songs by the Lalon Shah, Salique found herself drawn back. “This music just blew me away. It was almost like soul-searching, deeply spiritual… It was then that I thought this music is doing something to me. I don’t know what it is and I need to do something with it.”
While considered to be a dialect of Bangla, Sylheti, which Salique speaks, is almost an entirely different language to the Kushtia dialect of the songs, so she found she couldn’t understand the lyrics. “I found peace in these songs melodically and I wanted to know the meaning. Dad gave me some books with English translations. Even then it was quite difficult to understand because everything was in riddles. And riddles never get solved, so you’ve got to find your own interpretation.”
That freedom of interpretation offered her an outlet for her musical creativity that she had been unable to find before, which led her to record No Boundaries. “I’ve been singing all my life, but this album is something that I created. It’s complete musical control.”
Backed by a diverse line-up of instrumentalists on everything from tabla and sitar to saxophone and djembé, Salique is able to sing Lalon’s songs as she felt them – “Lalon’s music is something that you don’t hear, it’s something that you feel” – mixing Bangladeshi folk and jazz. “I think you should be free to experiment. And there were a lot of restrictions with me growing up, in terms of expressing myself as an artist. Now I’ve found that, and if people like it, it’s a bonus.”
But more than just an outlet for her creatively, this project reflects her deeper desire to expose a wider audience to Bangladeshi music. “Bangladesh is not rich in wealth but it’s so rich in culture and heritage,” she says. “I would love to get people to hear this kind of music. And if anyone hears my music and says something positive about Bangladesh, I’ll be so proud.”
ALBUM Shapla Salique’s album No Boundaries is reviewed in the current issue (December 2016, #123)