It has been a while since I attended a Bengali concert or show in London that I have enjoyed so much. The last one I enjoyed was a concert arranged by William Dalrymple at the Barbican with Paban Das Baul and a number of other baul, sufi, and south indian singers bringing their blend of mystic and esoteric philosophies to London. Yesterday, I went to watch a concert put on by Sohini Alam and her band Khiyo and I have to say it was an equally rare (I guess I need to attend more) and beautiful experience. I've known Sohini since 2006 and have always been impressed and moved by her talent at taking classical Bengali songs and reinterpret them in a manner relatable for the current generation of Bengalis at home and abroad. And yesterday, did she deliver! It was a full house with many standing, clapping vigorously for more at the end of each piece. I was also surprised to see quite a varied audience as I had not expected non-Bengali speakers to be interested in songs all sung in Bengali. I think part of it might have to do with the eclectic accompaniment of western instruments as well as the tremendous charisma of the lead singer, Sohini. I'm very curious about what brought everybody together on such an occasion and at the same time am happy that a part of our cultural DNA has evolved and is now transcending language and cultural boundaries. I'm not one for national pride but yesterday the feelings the performance engendered could be mistaken for pride in being bangali although for many reasons I feel like I don't deserve to be. My favourites of course were the songs I recognised and could mouth the words along to (Doyal, Barir pashe, Amar shonar bangla, etc) but all the songs on the album (and one sneak peek) were performed with such exquisite precision and panache by the whole band that I was tapping my feet and swaying my head along with each one.
Having grown up abroad since I was four, my only contact with Bengali music would be my parents playing them at home or my begrudgingly accompanying them to the occasional concert put on by the expatriate Bangladeshi community. The tapes (and later CDs) my parents would play were recorded by traditional artists with very traditional instruments and would sound rather scratchy and archaic to my ears. I honestly did not know whether they were for the record player age or what but I do remember I could not quite share my parents' enthusiasm for the voices or the arrangements they would tell me about with such pride. Of course, being around 6 or so could have had something to do with it. However, the melodies somehow must have seeped into my subconscious and made a home there as they started surfacing years later with nostalgia when I heard these same songs in university at various functions or on albums released by "new age-y" artists such as Bangla (Anushe et al) and Arnob. By that time, luck would have it such that I returned to Bangladesh for 3 years and that re-introduced me to a whole host of old music. Of course, my poor memory and even worse stock of Bengali vocabulary made it difficult to ask people about such and such a song or even appreciate the full meaning. That being said, I felt tugs at the heart strings from something ancient in these melodic ballads that I could not explain. My wife, who also grew up abroad for most of her life, doesn't understand why I like these traditional songs and melodies despite not fully understanding the words. The only explanation I can give is what that the music transcends these barriers and has allowed me, as well as the western audiences, to enjoy these. They just needed a different package with the right spice and seasoning that appealed to a wider audience. Of course, by that, I don't mean the auto-tuned monstrosities of these same songs that came out in the last decade (not mentioning names).
The evening ended on a high I felt all the way home as I hummed different songs. I especially enjoyed the encore of "dhono dhanne pushpe bhora" volunteered by the enthusiastic Oliver (I do think it might have been a bit) and taken home excellently by Sohini. I really need to remember to attend more of these. Congratulations to Khiyo for releasing their first album!