Bengali Music and Musicians in the UK.
Summary of Oral History Project to date.
Our collection of oral histories and interviews is a collaboration between the Swadhinata Trust and the British Library Sound Archives.
We have set out to collect oral histories of people and examples of Bengali musical involvement that demonstrates the life of music in the community. This project is not just concerned with well-known performers, star artists, or emerging artists, although some of them are included. Neither is it research that is solely focusing on typical examples and genres of music. But it is a review of the culture that surrounds music, the influences of migration, and community involvement in music. To date we have collected 30 interviews and various musical recordings.
The participants in this collection represent many aspects of the life of Bengali music in the UK: from 1971, and the Bangladesh Independence struggle, to migration, teaching and learning in the UK, present day songwriting and musical composition, the annual Boishaki Mela, and theatre. The project is inclusive of all Bengali music whether this is from Bangladesh or West Bengal in India. Originally, before Partition, Bengal was one province, and these two areas share a common language and cultural heritage.
There are two interviews with Mahmudur Rahman Benu, one in Bengali and one in English, where he tells his story as the leader of a troupe of artists who sang liberation songs during the Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971, and subsequently his arrival in the UK in 1973 and his life as a teacher of North Indian Classical and Bengali music here. The history of 1971 is again reflected in an interview with singer/songwriter Moushumi Bhowmik who wrote the well known song Jessore Road (inspired by Alan Ginsberg’s 1971 poem September on Jessore Road). Other stories from 1971 come from two sisters, Yasmin Rahman and Rumana Khair, whose parents were activists in London during 1971 and who sang as children at meetings and rallies supporting the war effort.
Interest in Bengali music from those outside of the Bengali community is reflected in interviews and musical examples from three white British participants and a Sri Lankan participant. Bengali interest and involvement in non-Bengali genres of music in the UK is demonstrated in an interview with the Bengali jazz singer Arifa Hafiz. There are also reflections by participants at the annual Boishaki Mela, including a reflection on the nature of how the Bengali community has changed over the years. There are reflections on the Asian Underground and it’s significance for the younger generation of British born Bengalis in the 1970s and 80s. An interview with Mukul Ahmed, director of the theatre group Mukul and the Ghetto Tigers, demonstrates the integration of Bengali music and song into theatre. There is an interview with a ten-year-old performer, Anvita Gupta, and with the sound artist Abdul Shohid Jalil who composes Bengali inspired electronic music. There is also an important reflection by the practicing and devout well-known Bengali Muslim singer Alaur Rahman that music is given by God and is in no way haram.
From a historical perspective there is an interview with Tarun Jasani, the writer of the play, Gauhar Jaan: The Datia Incident, and the producer of this play, Mukul Ahmed. Gauhar Jaan was the first artist to be recorded in Calcutta in 1902. This is an important historical landmark in the history of music. The North Indian classical music sung by Gauhar Jaan was not specifically Bengali music, however, the recording took place in Calcutta where Gauhar Jaan lived, although she was not ethnically Bengali. Gauhar Jaan herself represents the diversity inherent in the music of Bengal from these early days onwards. From this time onwards recorded music became available in India and in the UK, and, along with musicians travelling more frequently between India and the UK, a two-way musical journey built up. Both the writer and the producer of this play have a deep involvement with music that is reflected in this as well as other of their productions. The history of Bengali music in the UK is thus brought to life through theatre.
However, reflecting on the place of North Indian classical music in this project it is difficult to say exactly if or where a line may be drawn concerning a definition of Bengali music. North Indian classical music is played throughout North India, including Bengal, and is a part and parcel of the traditions of folk and modern Bengali music. The region of Bengal itself has been home to many classical musicians such as the renowned artists Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and their Guru, Ali Akbar Khan’s father Allaudin Khan. An interview with Somjit Dasgupta in this collection gives a detailed description of these historic developments. The interview, and the history of Dasgupta’s family and his sarod Guru Radhika Mohan Moitra, and his work in collecting and playing old instruments and promoting a living tradition of classical music, is an important addition to the history of classical music in Bengal and in the UK. Somjit Dasgupta also describes the way in which the old Zamindaris of Bengal patronized folk musicians such as the Baul Lalon Sai and Hasan Raja. Somjit Dasgupta’s connections with the UK are very important in the development of this work, and he describes how it is essential to maintain such connections.
Another important aspect of musical integration is reflected in an interview with the tabla maestro and teacher Yousuf Ali Khan who also works with the Grand Union Orchestra, and directs a series of performances with the GUO “Bengal to Bethnal Green”. The GUO seeks to provide a multi-cultural approach to music through performing music from a wide range of the diverse cultures of migrants to the UK, and director and composer Tony Haynes rearranges traditional music to be played by his orchestra in a variety of styles. An interview with Tony Haynes is also in this collection. Yousuf Ali Khan’s contribution to the GUO project includes a wide range of music from Bengal, including north Indian classical and folk tradition.
The two-way flow of music from Bengal to the UK and back is the backbone of this exploration into Bengali Music and Musicians in the UK and the culture that surrounds music. We therefore see musical developments in Bangladesh and West Bengal themselves as an important dimension. This collection includes two interviews from the younger generation in Bangladesh that demonstrate exquisitely how musical developments take place, and how progress and change is important to the younger generation currently living in Bangladesh. Links with the UK and modern British Bangladeshi music is an essential part of this story. Musical developments in Bangladesh in the genre of folk fusion and rock has a separate identity and continuity of it’s own. These differences between musical development in the UK and in Bangladesh are important. Although following similar routes into music, and although Western popular music is essential to this development, the music of the younger generation in Bangladesh has a distinct identity of its own.
Thus we see a picture of an essential core of Bengali music, traditional forms being kept alive, but also a wider application in fusion, theatre, and new songwriting.
This is the current picture to date and it is our hope that we may continue to build on this project and reflect this varied life of Bengali music and musicians in the UK, the growth and understanding of this music, and the importance of music being a path by which we all get to know each other whatever our backgrounds, a path where we cross boundaries, integrate, and enjoy and celebrate our lives.
Our research continues and this collection will be added to over the coming months and years.
Julie Begum, Ansar Ahmed and Val Harding.
Interviews to date November 2019
Names of interviewees
Charles Hare ( vocal recording only)
Gamini Abayawrdana (vocal recording only)
Mahmoud Rahman Benubhai x2 and 2004 tour recording
Tanasree Guha (vocal recording only)
Mukul Ahmed re. Gauhar Jaan
Tarun Jasani re. Gauhar Jaan
Jawad Choudary (in Bangladesh)
Mohammed Mobasshish Choudury (Bangladesh)
Boishaki Mela 2017 – Dillu (Delwar Hossain), Nasrin Begum
Yousuf Ali Khan
Abdul Shohid Jalil
Boishaki Mela 2016
Maanusher Gaan – Mukul and the Ghetto Tigers
Storytelling at Boishaki Mela – Rez Kabir
Somjit Dasgupta – sarod
Charles Hare – vocal
Gamini Abayawrdana – vocal and guitar
Tanasree Guha – vocal
India Tour 2004 – Mahmoud Rahman
Bollywood Brass Band
Bauls of Bengal concert Waterman’s July 2018
Anando Gopal Das Baul and group – home recordings in London July 2018
Yousuf Ali Khan – tabla bols
Rafa Haque – vocal
GUO – Lalon Ki Jat and Red Soil
Bangladesh Liberation War 1971
Migration and musical development in the UK
Gauhar Jaan – Mukul and the Ghetto Tigers (music history)
Music history from Bangladesh and West Bengal
Younger generation in the UK
Younger generation in Bangladesh (linked to music in the UK)
Community learning in the UK – Udichi Shilpi Gosthi and Chayanot School of Music.
Music and Theatre – Mukul and the Ghetto Tigers
Saudha, Society for Poetry and Music
North Indian classical
Songwriting and present day composition