From Azam Khan to Laisfita: Tracing the history of pop music in Bangladesh and where it stands today
While music from Bangladesh is historically seen to have grown from classical strains, Rabindra-sangeet and Baul folk music to Bangla rock and even a bit of film music, pop has also regularly had its time in the limelight.
It didn’t take very many years after the birth of Bangladesh for music to flourish and become part of the country’s identity right from the 1970s. While music from the region is historically seen to have grown from classical strains, Rabindra-sangeet and Baul folk music to Bangla rock and even a bit of film music, pop has also regularly had its time in the limelight, even if it’s edged out by rock.
In multiple nostalgic interviews with Bangladesh’s veteran pop artists, you can trace some sense of purpose. Ferdous Wahid started out in the early 1970s, right around the time they became independent. “I wanted to introduce western music in Bangladesh, so after the Liberation War I decided to do pop music for our country’s people,” Wahid told The Daily Star. He gained national fame in 1975, when his heartrending song for mothers, 'Emon Ekta Ma De Na' aired on TV.
The best-known precursor to Wahid was Azam Khan. Between the 1970s until his death in 2011, Khan went from freedom fighter to pop (and rock) singer with his band Uchcharon, channelling equal parts Kishore Kumar and The Beatles. Although still clubbed in with the rock band history, artists like Souls, Khan and Fakir Alamgir balanced the line between Bengali folk, pop and rock with revolutionary songs like the disco-rock of 'Ore Saleka Ore Maleka' and more. Firoz Shai, too, sang with the aim of blending folk and pop styles, the exuberance best heard on songs like 'Ek Second-er Nai Bharosa'.
Film music was still in vogue, launching careers of singers such as Sabina Yasmin (in the 1970s) and Asif Akbar (in the early 2000s), but the next wave of pop only hit when the world was into Spice Girls, Westlife and later, Backstreet Boys. While India was having its “IndiPop” movement, by the late 1990s and the start of the millennium, rock and pop in Bangladesh remained inseparable as ever.
Voices such as Mehreen launched their careers with jazz-flavoured pop songs like 'Anari' in 2000 and followed up with soul-leaning romantic songs like 'Tumi Acho Bole', while fellow female pop artists like Kaniz Suborna and Alif Alauddin kept listeners hooked. Composer and troubadour Bappa Mazumdar became a household name as well, for stirringly arranged pop songs with the acoustic guitar at the centre, including 'Bondhu Tumi' in 1997.
Where rock and even heavy metal was thriving as a counterculture through the years that Bangladesh survived autocratic rule right up to the 1990s, pop seemed to provide an escape. Over the years, a secure music infrastructure grew around artists across genres, giving birth to platforms ranging from D-Rockstar to Bangladeshi Idol (2012), CloseUp-1, Seylon Super Singer and Sunsilk Divas.
Speaking to one of Bangladesh’s newest pop groups, Laisfita – the winners of the first season of Sunsilk Divas in May, a band hunt for the country’s first professional all-female act – the genre is now getting enough importance to reflect the global trend. Laisfita released their vibrant debut song 'Swapno Akhon Aamar Haatey' (Dreams Are in My Hand Now) just last month, but it was written and composed entirely by singer-composer Hridoy Khan, known for his work in pop, electronic and film work.
One of the four singers from Laisfita, Mustarin Ahmed Sheetal says that as things stand, Bangladesh’s film music holds much less weight compared to its love for rock, classical and now, pop. “The film industry’s music in the Nineties was quite rich. The songs today can’t be compared to Bollywood, though,” she says. While Sheetal is a big fan of Bollywood, the other members of Laisfita draw from rock, mainstream pop, Bangla folk and more to present varied voices. Apart from pop-rock band Chirkutt (starting out in 2002, led by singer Sharmin Sultana, a judge on Sunsilk Divas), the female pop space remained somewhat vacant throughout Bangladesh’s music timeline. Previously, there were the Bluebirds in the 1980s and the Angels in the 1990s, but neither remained in the spotlight for long.
Perhaps it’s also to do with the stereotypes and social expectations from women and even women singers in the country. Shunanda Sharmin from Laisfita says, “There are very negative connotations attached to the music industry. It’s a very male-dominated industry, let’s be honest. We don’t have very many prominent music composers who are women. We work with male and it’s very easy for it to become exploitative. This platform is very safe and it has boundaries.” Antora Rahman, also part of the band, adds, “A lot of people don’t take you seriously. They think, ‘Oh she’s fat, what is she going to do?’ There was some body-shaming (faced along the way).”
Put together by corporate company Creinse’s ArtistSpread program, their chief operating officer Kazi Faisal Ahmed is a veteran rockstar in his own right, now part of metal veterans Artcell. He says about Laisfita, the latest addition to Bangladesh’s pop scene, “They’re working towards women empowerment so I think if they’re successful, other women will join them.”
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