Staying The Path: How Bangladesh’s Music Scene is Evolving with the Help of Dedicated Grassroots Movements

Image of Embers In Snow by Siam

If you’re looking for an institution that can help you trace the evolution of Dhaka’s independent music scene, look no further than Rainbow. Founded in 1982 by Abdul Kabir Murad, the small store served as a space for young musicians and fans to access catalogues of international and local artists, promote local shows, and according to one report in The Daily Star, get married to their significant others as well. In a state of flux post the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971 and with a population hungry to embark on their own cultural journey, Rainbow, and music stores like it, played a pivotal role in the evolution of the city’s music scene – helping introduce their customers to a wide range of western music genres that inevitably influenced young musicians alongside iconic local bands such as Uccharon, LRB, Naga Baul (fka Feelings) and others who were a part of the first wave of independent musicians in the country.

The rising digitization of the music business has impacted the way Dhaka’s music scene has evolved over the past decade – changing methods of music discovery and in-turn taste, how musicians meet and produce their art and the opportunities available to artists to create revenue streams both online and in the live space. These changes are mirrored in Rainbow’s importance as an institution amongst the city’s musicians. “Rainbow is still operating its business but massively struggling to keep its activity flowing due to this digitized music industry,” says Syed Zoheb Mahmud, co-founder of Qabar PR, one of South Asia’s finest public relations agencies. “Even ten years ago, you’d have found myriads of record stores all over the country where fans came together to discover new music or get updates about their favourite bands. Sadly, not even 2-3% of them exist today,” he says.

With a population of over 20 million people, Dhaka is the financial and cultural capital of Bangladesh, a country that is experiencing rapid economic growth. In a society that is deeply proud of their cultural heritage and a patron of more classical forms of music, the arrival and success of metal/rock bands in the 1980s forced even the most hardcore of naysayers to admit to a changing cultural landscape. “The late Azam Khan and his band Uccharon laid the foundation for our rock, heavier, and experimental sounding groups,” says Mahmud. “Before the late 90s, there was no other channel apart from the state-owned Bangladesh Television, and rock bands rarely appeared on television till the late 80s. Things started to change from the late 80s/early 90s when bands such as LRB, Naga Baul, Feedback, Souls, and Miles began to get more recognition from the fans, the media, and state-owned TV/Radio. Despite their initial resistance, Bangladeshi television and radio stations had no other option but to feature these popular bands due to their popularity.”

For live opportunities, artists had to rely on the stages available at five-star hotels and small auditoriums. However, the increasing popularity of the metal and rock bands in the late 80s/early 90s led to the formation of the Bangladesh Musical Bands Association [BAMBA] in 1987. The organisation, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2018, has played a pivotal role in creating a vital, albeit small infrastructure for the more established musicians in the country.

Image of Rakat Zemi by Muttakin-Islam

With the advent of the internet – Bollywood and international pop music have become a dominant force, leading to a decrease in the number of opportunities available to local bands in terms of live performance opportunities and even media coverage. “The number of venues has sadly been declining – many of the auditoriums are not allowing gigs anymore,” says Mahmud. “At the moment, independent DIY organizers have to go through hell to book a venue. No shows have taken place for years at two of the popular venues: Russian Cultural Centre and National Library Auditorium; the former has been inactive for the renovation purpose, and the latter has not been allowing any concerts.” Rakat Zemi, a multi-talented individual behind the console and also the man behind indie art-rock act Embers In Snow, concurs. “ Venues have always been an issue when it comes to hosting shows for independent acts,” he says. “There are certain venues like 3rd Space and Jatra Biroti which allows artists to pick a slot at a specific time between Thursday to Saturday and can choose a day and date to perform their set. It’s better than having nothing.”

However, a few venues have recognised an upwards trend in the consumption of electronic music and are creating opportunities for the country’s upcoming electronic producers to thrive. Artists and collectives such as Nafis, AKS, Dhaka Electronica Scene, Karkhana Collective, Delta Tribe, Polychrome Kollektiv, Deep In Dhaka and others have been pushing a diverse range of underground sounds – from experimental, highly politicised electronica to Berlin-influenced techno, psytrance and other, more commercial genres. The easy accessibility of technology and availability of social media networks has allowed budding young producers from across the country to interact, collaborate and push their music on an international scale.

The Dhaka Electronica Scene was a pivotal platform for many of the producers operating in the country’s electronic music space today. Founded by Khan Mohammad Faisal in 2012, the DES community helped cater to anyone who had an interest in learning about electronic music. “All the artist groups that are currently active came out of the DES community,” he says. Lately, with the formation of new cliques, it does not have the same momentum. The DES also used to run its own portal which is now defunct.” maliha mohsin, a former member of DES and co-founder of the Karkhana Collective, is spearheading a movement that seeks to carry on the work DES was doing but address issues surrounding accessibility, identity more in a more holistic manner. “A lot of the music that we consume is removed from the context in which it was born,” she says. “Addressing those issues, as well those surrounding accessibility and safety – who is allowed or able to come to your event? Do they feel safe there? Are there systems and processes in place which can help create an environment that fosters a long-term relationship between artists and their audience? These are the kind of questions we’re seeking to address on a grassroots level with the work Karkhana does.”

Working alongside a small, dedicated team – the Karkhana Collective is creating training programmes and hosting listening sessions in order to address these issues and allow artists and audiences alike to fully explore their identity in a safe manner. “We don’t want to come into a community and impose our will upon them,” she says. “It’s important to provide people with the resources – whether that be equipment, funds for emergencies, spaces to practice, etc. – that they can use to figure it out themselves. An individual’s agency in choosing how they engage with art is incredibly important to us.” By organising events in alternative venues that provide them with a significant amount of control over the conditions under which people attend their events i.e the establishment of house rules on consent, photography, etc. – allows them to reach out to a wider community that feels safe in exploring their identity and experiencing the music that the Karkhana Collective creates.

Image courtesy of Aks

Projects such as the Border Movement backed Sound Lab: Dhaka and venues such as the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Goethe-Institut and Jatra Biroti have also aided in the development of Dhaka’s electronic music community and sound. DES gradually evolved into an award-winning start-up that organised affordable gigs for its members and fans across the country. Another important player in the emergence of electronic music is producer/DJ Aks and his Deep In Dhaka property. The Dhaka-born, Dubai-raised musician was signed to Universal Music India and worked with regional heavyweights such as Neha Kakkar, Jal and many more. “I was inspired by the Boiler Room and other similar IPs which are rooted in the energy of club culture and their ability to bring people together,” he says. “Boiler Room started broadcasting from a warehouse in London, opening a keyhole to the city’s underground while connecting club culture to the wider world. When I moved to Dhaka in 2017 I found a gap in the nightlife of Dhaka city. Deep In Dhaka was founded to bridge the gap between international electronic music and Bangladeshi local electronic music scene including various styles of Electronic genres including deep, tech, and afro-house music. It is a platform to help electronic artists to exchange ideas, produce, collaborate, perform, and express themselves. Every act is also accompanied by subliminal visuals to add to the complete experience.”

During the current lockdown, Deep In Dhaka celebrated the World Music Day on 21st June featuring local DJs from Bangladesh featuring AKS, Tanmoy, Sonica, Xayana and Tawsif, and International DJs from around the world including New York, Colombia, Dubai, Brazil, Germany, England, Argentina and many more, bringing Aks vision to life. In 2017, he also started Reaks Records, an open format label catering to artists from all genres, thus creating an ecosystem where musicians could gradually develop from performing on Deep In Dhaka to releasing music on the label.

The rise of social media has also enabled artists to circumvent the space they’ve lost on national television and radio airwaves and still maintain healthy growth in audience numbers – allowing them to market themselves abroad and even get signed by niche international underground labels that have a cult-like following across the world. “Social media has had a major impact on the spread of music over the course of the decade,” says Zemi who released his debut album titled ‘Solstice’ last month. “It’s a lot easier to showcase our work now than it was 10 years back, and the easy accessibility has also helped in changing the mindset of our audiences and make them more open and willing to give different sounds a chance.”

Despite a rapidly evolving scene that is brimming with opportunity, artists and other entities involved in Dhaka’s music industry are still struggling to create regular sources of revenue. Venues such as 3rd Space and Jatra Biroti have been experimenting with gate-share revenue models which have enabled artists to make a small earning from their shows but are yet to reach a level where one can consider it a stable income. Most shows rely on the support of non-governmental organisations such as Bengal Foundation, Drik Picture Library, Pathshala South Asian Media Institute and others as well as corporate sponsors such as Pepsi. Khan Mohammad Faisal, who now owns and operates Akaliko, a Dhaka-based electronic label, was planning to host the second edition of his label’s artist residency program before the pandemic hit, and is keen to develop close relations with arts festivals such as the Dhaka Art Summit, Birmingham Weekender and the nascent start-up communities emerging in the country. “Without the close alignment of developing internet technologies and the music community in the long run, our objectives of creating a financially viable and scalable scene and developing local music journalism culture which is proactive and unbiased will not be achieved,” he says.

 Image of Dhaka Metal Fest courtesy of Zoheb Mahmud

Musicians either need to don multiple hats as sound engineers/producers/TVC composers/teachers or rely on a day-job to earn a living wage. But Qabar PR’s Syed Zoheb Mahmud believes that one of the biggest hurdles facing bands in selling their music and merchandise is the regulation on the distribution of cassettes and CDs by the government of Bangladesh. “PayPal is banned in Bangladesh, and this closes off a lot of international markets and platforms such as Bandcamp for local artists,” he says. “Further, the shipping of cassettes and CDs abroad is banned as it is considered a national security threat – they think that in 2020, someone will use a cassette to leak national secrets. It’s absurd.” Faisal, on the other hand, argues about the ability of a platform such as PayPal to bring about real change, citing the low-number of debit and credit card users in the country. “Digital distribution for any music has never been easier as well as monetizing content,” he says.

Mahmud also believes that bands are failing to convert their social media fans into actual paying customers by not getting the economics of their physical sales and merchandise right. “Most of them are not able to convert those digital numbers into paying customers for merchandise or show tickets,” he says. “If you look at our contemporaries abroad, physical sales on platforms such as Bandcamp offer a huge opportunity to earn some income and our artists must capitalise on that. Only begging on the internet for support is not going to help this scene grow.” A rise in religious fundamentalism and bureaucratic red-tape has also restricted opportunities for the scene to grow, as the access to non-traditional cultural opportunities remains available only to the rich and privileged and helps create a division and anger between the different classes.

With the advent of increased internet access, Bangladesh has not escaped the impact of hip-hop’s emergence as a global cultural phenomenon. Since the late ‘00s, multiple crews have emerged and played a pivotal role in popularising the genre, even leading Colours FM 101.6, a local radio station, to include a dedicated one hour segment called ‘Planet Hip-Hop’ through which it aimed to promote all aspects of hip-hop culture. Crews such as Deshi MCs, Uptown Lokolz and Jalali Set have succeeded in creating a localised hybrid of hip-hop and urban Bangla culture which has been immensely popular with the country’s young population. The Karkhana Collective, which primarily advocates electronic music, organised a listening session that catered to the city’s hip-hop artists in an effort to bring together local electronic musicians and MCs. Titled beats/verses, the event saw a huge turnout thanks in parts to the large number of aspiring rappers that showed up. “This was a space that was completely new to me,” says mohsin. “I was blown away by the response and the size of the community and now we’re motivated to engage with that side of the city’s artists and help connect them with our group of producers so that they can create something together.”

Dhaka’s music community has undergone a rapid evolution and, as we enter a new decade filled with a new set of socio-economic, political and cultural challenges, what obstacles must Dhaka’s independent scene overcome and how are they planning on doing it? What kind of sonic aesthetic will come to define this city post-COVID? Dhaka-based Nafis, in an article for this publication titled Ten Artists & Producers From Bangladesh to Watch Out For, dove into the treasure trove of forward-thinking, warped productions coming from distant corners of the country. Collectives such as Karkhana, who aim to bring together artists who wish to engage with sound critically and help address the gender gap in the country’s music scene, will also play a significant role in introducing newer artists over the next decade. Mahmud believes the development of a local and consistent music press is a must for the development of the music scene. “Right now, the standard of music journalism in the country is quite poor,” he says. “A few of the local newspapers and magazines cover established commercial acts, but very rarely is there any coverage of the independent music scene. As a publicist, my current focus is on international publications such as Noisey, VICE, Metal Hammer, etc. and I’ve enjoyed a fair bit of success getting local artists coverage in those publications. But we need a few of our own to doggedly cover the scene.”

Image of Xayana courtesy of Aks/Deep In Dhaka

Khan Mohammad Faisal agrees: “Even with publications such as Border Movement and Wild City, there is a minimal focus on what’s happening in Dhaka,” he says. “Compared to Karachi, Kathmandu and other South Asian capitals, Dhaka has lesser international exposure than those cities and this can be seen in the priority it is given by music publications in our region. We need to increase cooperation between Bangladesh and its neighbours and give our artists access to the markets and audiences at our doorstep.”

Karkhana co-founder maliha mohsin argues for a greater pool of shared resources and the creation of a music education program. “With the collective, we try to pool our resources together and help artists who might not be able to afford the equipment necessary to create the art that they want to,” she says. “Along with that, the lack of a music education program that looks beyond traditional or classical music is extremely frustrating.” One of the other issues that mohsin hopes to solve is to create a licensing system for local artists that can help provide them with some form of income for their work. “Right now, I have to approach local artists in order to get their tracks instead of buying them on a digital store,” she says. “Most of the time they’re just happy that someone is playing their music, but we need to create a legitimate process through which we can remunerate artists for their work.”

So what’s the best way to describe the current state of the music industry in Bangladesh? Perhaps we can find answers in the lasting endurance of Rainbow. The store’s loyal customers refuse to let it shut down – regularly placing orders and making sure the owners know the value of their establishment. Similarly, in the face of government overreach and multiple obstacles placed by the authorities, a few dedicated people are ensuring that spaces exist within which the city’s underground music community can develop – hoping that one-day circumstances exist under which they can truly thrive.

written by Uday Kapur

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of Border Movement and its partners.

NEWS - 11. October 2020  

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