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Bangla’s Hungry Stones

It’s Bangla rock’s second coming. But unlike in Bangladesh, it’s still to become a viable financial success in West Bengal.

Bangla’s Hungry Stones
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Don’t call it hard rock. Don’t call it acid. Don’t even call it neo-fusion. Some of them say they play ‘band’ music. Others sneer saying ‘band’ music sounds infra-dig, and they play folk rock. They also insist the Rolling Stones are a folk-rock act. Never mind. A few others say they play neither rock, nor grunge, nor folk. Just something indefinably "different". What it is, straight up, is ‘Bangla’ rock: spirited callow vocals belting out homespun lyrics about life, love, lollipop and loneliness set to a smorgasbord of largely borrowed - or inspired - sounds. It’s also the current rage in Bengal.

The ‘genre’ transcends borders as well - Bangla rock is now the reigning sound in Bangladesh, where listeners share a common language and long-haired flashy musicians in leather jackets and long boots belt out anything from robust rock to river songs set to salsa. Love, spirituality and harmony are what they sing about. Nearly two dozen Bangla bands with such funky names as Love Runs Behind, Miles and War Phase, outsell Tagore music effortlessly. Says 34-year-old Ayub Bacchu, a hugely popular rock musician of Dhaka: "Bangla rock is here to stay in Bangladesh."

Across the border, in West Bengal, young audiences seem to be warming up to the music too. This is Bangla rock’s second coming. When Mohiner Ghodaguli (a phrase from a poem by Jibananda Das), the first of such bands, began playing in 1976 there were few takers. The scene now, however, is a stark contrast. Today, there are a dozen-odd young and not-so-young bands rocking around the state. Most started out as college bands and managed to sustain for more than five years. A revival of interest in Bengali music, fuelled by recording opportunities and promotion, has led to a deluge of such bands - some from Calcutta’s decrepit suburbs.

Mahua Lahiri, owner of Asha Audio, a seven-employee five-year-old recording shack which has recorded some 16 Bangla rock albums, receives demo tapes from "two to three" new bands every month. Says she: "It seems every young Bengali out of college wants to pick up a guitar and form a band."

The result is a happy mix of chain-smoking musicians who often work nine-to-five jobs by day, rehearse in stuffy, rented rooms by evening, and do weekend gigs at college auditoria and suburban halls. Take Chandrabindoo, a quintet that has taken its name from Bangla script’s nasal marker. Two of its members work for state government departments, and a vocalist works for a local television channel. A vocalist of the Cactus band attends to emergency wards in a local hospital by day (and often nights) as a part of his masters in medicine. At other times he rocks aloud.

The result, therefore, is music steeped in quintessential Bengali urban middle-class ethos, possibly the most eclectic in Indi-pop today. A regular Bangla rock song could be a Salil Chowdhury or a Simon and Garfunkel tune set to Chuck Berry riffs and Jerry Lee Lewis’ wild piano rolls with a dash of Sly Dunbar-inspired percussion. "It’s a decently melodic blend and sometimes even the lyrics are smart," says Judhajit Sarkar, a filmmaker who checks out the music from time to time.

So does Bangla rock jell? Well, going by hordes of delirious school and college kids who turn up faithfully at the gigs every week, it sure seems to. At least, there is one audio company in the city, however small, which is recording the music. There is some FM radio play as well and one Bengali cable television channel has a weekly half-hour slot to showcase the bands lip-syncing to their numbers in garish studios. A few shoddy videos pop up occasionally on Doordarshan.

Last winter, the Calcutta-based Gramophone Company of India (gcil) sponsored a Bangla rock festival, where a host of bands played to a 3,000-strong audience in an open-air arena. For the past two years, even the culture-sick Marxist government has given the nod to Bangla rock by allowing a curious Sunday morning slot for the bands at its yearly musical jamboree. Says Ayan Banerjee of Parash Pathar (Touchstone), which began with English rock covers eight years ago: "We started out as a kind of fun and idealist college band. Now we smell some success. Things look better."

Success is a relative word in the world of Bangla rock though. And the pickings remain pretty pitiable. Parash Pathar, one of the more ‘successful’ bands, charges a paltry Rs 15,000 for a gig in Calcutta. Bhoomi (Earth), another talked-about septet which fuses native folk with largely Latino rhythms, has earned upto Rs 25,000 for a gig. Most of the bands hire equipment and soundmen, and after paying them off, there is very little left for the musicians themselves. "There are no bread and butter bands in Bengal," says Patrick Ghosh, an advertising executive who also manages Bhoomi. The route to some money is through live performances. Parash Pathar, which counts Salil Chowdhury and Pink Floyd among its influences, toted up a dozen gigs last winter, travelled to Bangladesh to set music to a play and jointly performed with Euphoria, the hot Indipop combo, last week.

But the grey area is music sales. By all accounts, Bangla bands are paid little or no royalties by small avaricious audio companies, and the contracts they have to sign are sometimes outrageously unfair. gcil contends that if a Bangla rock album crosses 500 copies it is considered a success. Asha Audio’s Lahiri is fuzzy about sales. A bestselling Bangla rock album, she says, "can sell above 10,000, maybe around 15,000 copies". One such group she has recorded with some success is Parash Pathar. But band members insist that their album has "easily sold four times more". Bhoomi was sent a contract by a recording company that laid down a three-year three-album contract for Rs 25,000 without a single paisa in royalties. With such a murky, one-sided relationship between the artistes and recording companies, it’s unlikely that Bangla rock will ever get professional in West Bengal.

One reason could be that the big record factories don’t believe in the music much. In their opinion, Bangla rock’s euphoric hype simply doesn’t match up in sales. Truly, sometimes there is a numbing sameness in sound. According to a gcil estimate, Bangla rock has an infinitesimal share of the five million copies - tapes and compact discs - of Bengali music sold annually in India today. With a lion’s share of 60 per cent of the market belonging to old Bengali film and adhunik Bengali popular music represented by such angsty soloists as Suman Chatterjee and another 30 per cent of the market mopped up by devotional and folk music, there is very little left for Bangla rock. Argues Jyoti Shankar Gupta, regional manager (east) of gcil: "It is a segment alright, but very negligible. Bangla rock is not our priority."

However, the Bangla rock scene, just 250 km away, in Dhaka, is a study in contrast. It outsells Rabindrasangeet handsomely - 80 per cent of the 7.5 million copies of music sold in Bangladesh is Bangla rock. At Soundtek, the country’s biggest recording company, Rabindrasangeet accounts for a piddly 5 per cent of music sales. Says Soundtek managing director Sultan Mahmood Babul: "The demand for Bangla rock is alive and growing by the day." But then why does it fail to touch a similar chord across the border? "The Bangladesh bands are musically more adept, while lyrically the bands in Bengal are better. Maybe, that is a problem," feels Siddharta Shankar Ray, a Cactus vocalist. The other reason is possibly the larger and unilingual market in Bangladesh.

But you must admire the spunk of Bangla rock in West Bengal. They keep their faith and play on, regaling their audiences on potholed streets, crummy college auditoria and run-down district halls. With the audio-companies refusing to splurge on promotions and sponsors for making music videos difficult to come by in an economically ruined state, the bands are trying to beat the odds. Groups like Bhoomi and Parash Pathar have taken on full-time managers, usually well-connected professional friends, and a few now hire their own sound engineers and equipment for a proper mix.

Chandrabindoo’s Upal Sengupta says: "The problem with Bangla rock is that the music is too loud and drowns the lyrics. So most of us are toning down our sound with a proper sound mix." Whether all this will finally rake in the moolah for these sprightly young musicians will eventually depend on whether they can develop an original sound of their own. That alas, is still elusive.

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