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Ektara meets the guitar
Modern Bangla bands are drawing heavily from folk music in their search for a different sound. Baul can rock too, folks.
Bengal is rocking, and that too to the beat of its rich folk music. From the popular baul and bhatiali to even the littleknown bhawaiya and shaarir gaan, the entire galaxy of Bangla folk music is making its presence felt in modern songs that are hitting the top of the popularity charts, and staying there for months. So popular have such songs become that they have sparked a revival of interest in, and popularity of, the folk music that influenced them.
Bangla folk music, rich as it is in its heritage, is unique because every form is associated with a different group of people. For instance, bhatiali is the music of fisher folk, bhawaiya the song of cart-pullers and shaarir gaan that of boatmen rowing a vessel in unison where the music reflects the synchronised movement of the oars.
"With such a rich folk heritage, it is inevitable that modern Bangla music will draw from this vast reservoir and be influenced by it, " says Sutapa Roy Chowdhury, a postgraduate in music from Rabindra Bharati University. Roy Chowdhury, also a popular playback singer, points out that Rabindranath Tagore was deeply influenced by baul music from the time he started foraying into Silaidaha (now in Bangladesh, the area was part of the vast estate owned by the Tagore family) where he met many baul singers.
"The baul influence in many of Rabindranath's songs is easily discernible - the popular Amar sonar Bangla or Jodi tor dak shuney keu na aashey are virtual copies of baul songs Kothai pabo torey and Harinam diye jagat mataley respectively. In his writings, Tagore acknowledged the baul influence and even called himself Rabindra Baul. He was drawn by the melody and simple yet deeply moving lyrics of baul songs, " says Roy Chowdhury. The practice of drawing on baul continues to this day. "Baul has a tremendous appeal. It is also spiritual without being overwhelmingly so. Baul is about connecting with or surrendering to a spiritual power, and therein lies its appeal. Also, it is high-pitched, probably because folk singers had no mechanical amplifiers, and that allows baul to lend itself well to live stage performances and blend in with Western musical instruments, " Surojit Chatterjee, lead singer, lyricist and composer of the hugely popular Bangla band Bhoomi, says. Though the baul influence is strong in many Bhoomi numbers, Chatterjee points out that the group has borrowed from other folk music forms as well, including that of Assam and Jharkhand. "We are very experimental. Bhoomi tries a fusion of all folk styles and this is reflected in the name of our band, " he says. The group uses a wide range of instruments, including folk ones like ektara, dotara, matka, kanshar ghanta, conch shells, cowbells and madol, and blends different styles of music like rock 'n' roll, which they incorporated in their popular Sohag chand bodoni dhoni, a marriage song from Sylhet.
Other Bangla bands like Chandrabindoo, Parash Pathar and Dohar have also drawn from the reservoir of Bangla folk music to popularise their numbers. The group Krosswindz, most of whose work is in English, has shown that Bangla folk music can be easily incorporated in English numbers to churn out everything from lilting melodies to electrifying rock. "When I joined Krosswindz in 1999, I found its music could accommodate folk very well. So I started experimenting and received a very positive response, " says Chandrani, a member of the group. She started with Hastir gaan (" Songs of elephant mahouts" ) from Assam's Goalpara. "That was hugely successful and then I went on to Bihu songs, bhawaiya, baul and other folk music forms. Folk music fits in beautifully with modern songs because the lyrics are simple and so relevant, " she says.
The pioneer in incorporating Bangla folk music - especially baul - into modern songs was the unusual-sounding Mohiner Ghoraguli, a Bangla band formed by Gautam Chattopadhyay in 1975. It was also the first band that used Western instruments in India. Chattopadhyay, now a cult figure among musicians, imbibed a wide variety of influences, including baul and other Bangla folk music forms. His lyrics were radically different from the romantic, syrupy songs of the times;intensely personal or of a social nature, they were similar to Bob Dylan's folk movement of the 1960s. "Gautam Chattopadhyay's was a pioneering movement. The songs were in Bengali, some with heavy folk influences, but for the first time, bass and electric guitars, drums and other Western instruments were used, and the structures and chord progression of the music was Western, " musician Nondon Bagchi says. He points out that "the greatest strength of modern Bangla bands is that while the vehicle is international rock or pop, the melodies, influences and lyrics are indigenous and folk".
"A foreigner or non-Bengali may not understand the lyrics, but the music they perform is universal, " says Bagchi, now a drummer with a new band Strange Factory. Gautam Chattopadhyay's son Gaurab (or Gabu) keeps his father's tradition alive with Lakkhichhara, a popular Bangla band whose music is influenced by Bangla folk music forms.
The reason Bangla bands draw so much from folk, says Bagchi, is because Bangla folk is so vibrant and varied. "In no other province or country will you find folk music in so many forms encompassing so many vocations, beliefs (from Hindu bhakti and Vaishnavite music to Muslim sufi), seasons and occasions, " says Sutapa Roy Chowdhury.
Little wonder, then, that Bengal's rich past continues to influence its present.
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