The Strange World of Audio Engineering in Dhaka – Part 2

Image: Karkhana Collective meet at Studio 6/6 Image Credit: Siam

I ended the first part of this article with a few essential questions that shift our attention from training to the practice of audio engineers and music producers, neither of which can be understood in isolation of each other. To answer them, I have to look at the spaces that audio engineers occupy and need, and the markets that they practise in. I also focus on the need for structured programs and initiatives that understand local challenges and gaps not just in the way we produce music, but also in the way our audiences are evolving their tastes and demands as we consume music globally and digitally. 

I do this with the hope of understanding why we have continually, over time, failed to establish an adequate music industry for musicians to practise and thrive. Perhaps, the same factors do not apply for more technical practices of audio engineers. But what I cannot deny is that artists, producers, labels, entertainment platforms, and audiences feel loose grounds beneath them due to a lack of an adequate ecosystem that connects them all.

SPACE & PRACTICE: The gaps in knowledge for those who practise

In Bangladesh, live performances for large audiences has predominantly been facilitated by campus culture and university programmes where students organise concerts for themselves; this speaks volumes about how much the urban youth enjoys live rock music in this city. Beyond these campus performances that invite popular bands, however, there is a notable lack of accessible venues where young and aspiring artists can perform and practise. A good example is a series of ticketed rock concerts called RockNation, organised by LiveSquare Entertainment, which were hosted in various halls rented out from luxury hotels or convention centres, none of which specifically cater to music performances and can be very expensive for communities to access. Various venues and restaurants are used in make-shift arrangements and so it is hard to find a space that is actually designed and equipped for hosting live music. Shafayat Faisal Nahid, the systems engineer of Blues Communications complains, “There is no pre-planning surrounding an average program or event here.” And for the lack of venues that actually dedicate themselves to music, most of the technical support which comes from the sound companies that rent out the equipment for live acts are quite inadequate themselves, as discussed in the first part of this piece.

Image: taraga’ Naked Music in the Concealed City – 28 June ’19, performance at 3rd Space / Photo: 3rd Space

However, over the last few years, a few venues like Jatra Biroti and 3rd Space opened with the intention of hosting musical acts. Founded by musicians Anusheh Anadil and Seth Panduranga Blumberg, Jatra Biroti originally started by informally hosting local folk talent which soon evolved to become a happening weekend-spot for live performances, art shows and community events. Shoummo Saha, who also actively trains and mentors new and aspiring engineers, is the audio engineer of Jatra Biroti and brings in new acts to perform in and use the space. His aim is to make the space as accessible as possible to new artists of various styles and inclinations. Jatra Biroti is located in the shinier and more upscale part of the city, just rightly perched between Banani and Gulshan, mostly appealing to people who occupy more expensive parts of the city famously known as the ‘tri-state’. So, how accessible the space really remains to the people of Dhaka is a matter that can be debated. But one glance at their calendar over the last 6 months, and you will find that they have hosted events ranging from simple open-mic and poetry nights to blues shows and hip-hop battles. 

3rd Space, too, is part of an ecosystem that is built around music but also extends itself as a community space for young people in Dhanmondi. 3rd Space is the sister concern of new music label ‘Tugboat’, and it appropriately offers a venue for the musical acts that are signed with the label. Rakat Zami’s act Embers in Snow, is signed with Tugboat. As someone who works as an audio engineer and producer for other acts, he decided to stick with this label for the resources it could offer as part of a well-designed plan to build a sustainable ecosystem for the musical acts it aims to represent. Spaces like these which dedicate themselves to music offer opportunities for audio engineers to work and practise. Most recently, Saha worked with the US-based sound artist Teerath Majumder to host a MIDI-programming workshop at Jatra Biroti. He is also able to accommodate electronica acts and performances in Jatra Biroti every once in a while, and it offers an alternative venue for electronica acts that break out from expensive, exclusive club nights in hotels that aren’t too publicly favoured here much either. 

As the audio engineer for 3rd Space and Tugboat, Adittya Arzu can now practise live-mixing and work with artists of various styles to produce music. While audio engineers remain essential for music labels, Arzu also believes that many artists have very little idea about what audio engineers actually do and have the potential to do for their records. Sinjan Sadat (who is also self-taught), is an audio engineer for a label called The Mothership Records. While Sadat is more radical in his practice by resorting to independent arrangements and finds expensive studios rather redundant, he too mentions that working with artists can be a challenge as it is important for them to understand what engineers can do to craft the sound of a record. This gap in knowledge remains while there are no education programs for recording, song-writing and composition.

Apart from these few venues and labels, audio engineers and producers are often working for media production houses, and catering to the commercial needs of the growing and rapidly digitising entertainment industry. Marketing and ad campaigns are evolving fast to occupy more non-traditional internet-based social media channels and streaming platforms. More and more media content is being produced for television, radio, film and advertising. Audio engineers are needed to make jingles, design scores, and record live sessions for marketing campaigns that piggyback off independent musicians for outreach and also provide an alternative platform for them to perform. A very good example is the Klub Sessions, a series of performances presented by the fashion brand Klubhaus, of which Zami was also the recording engineer. 

But play the average television show or film or advert, and you can tell that the sound work is only subpar, barely polished, and rather unoriginal. The same can be said for theatre and drama productions. And relying on commercial opportunities and the entertainment industry for the training and practice of sound artists is like relying on advertising agencies to train visual artists. One cannot speak of the contemporary visual arts and photography scene in Dhaka now without giving due credit to the art and photography schools that lead discourse in arts that were far more rooted in the country’s local contexts and political realities. Even Dhaka’s contemporary art scene has little to no interest in sound, even though sound is often an accessory added to various shows and art work here. A rare example of a digital art project centred on sound is the sound-generative art installation produced by Saha, Arzu, and the visual artist Rafi Nur, for the Chobi Mela X Fellowship program

There is no critical discourse around sound in Dhaka; no place where one can go for an education on the technology, business and social studies of music. For example, events like the Dhaka International Folk Fest are run successfully here and pop remixes featuring token folk artists can make good business for urban musicians, but rural and traditional folk musicians can barely sustain themselves in the current landscape. 

The industry is also almost exclusively, dominated by men, and women remain largely subjugated to perform vocals and a few traditional instruments like the harmonium and sometimes, the guitar. When an industry is mostly made of a few men who were self-taught or trained abroad, it makes one wonder how one really does access these resources to enable a career in audio engineering, and what factors determine this access. While we would like to think that the internet is available to all, not everyone has the privilege, language, or the upbringing to explore unconventional career paths like audio engineering. And the track can be challenging even for the privileged man in this city, let alone women and other genders, who face more challenges culturally and politically when it comes to mobility and access. Researchers like Brown (1996) and Smith (2009) have further argued that the technology and practice itself is often rather gendered when it comes to music technology in the context of their own industries. It’s not that women do not succeed in education in engineering and technology here though. There are rare cases like that of Sonica who made their fame as female DJs but their work too, remains largely unacknowledged especially in a local context that does not entertain club or dance culture. The failure to integrate audio and sound engineering into mainstream academia has left this field largely unexplored, misunderstood and unpopular. Structured programs surrounding music technology have become absolutely essential to create more access to this field, and discuss even the business, ethics and politics of practising sound art in an industry where music has largely become a very intangible, easily borrowed and saleable commodity.

Image: Artists featured in Ghurni: Listening Session 1, at Jatra Biroti / Image Credit: Shoikot

Keeping these things in mind, a few people like Saha and myself are working towards building a collective of artists and practitioners who want to engage with sound critically, called the Karkhana Collective. Our starting point has been Ghurni, a series of listening and DJing sessions that does not limit itself to pure electronica and dance culture, so that we can slowly explore how urban communities listen to music collectively here and also explore the idea of the ‘dance floor’. When a listening session can be based on various genres, technologies, and sensibilities, it helps us to remove ourselves from imitating electronica and dance cultures that remain largely irrelevant and have previously failed to enable the growth of the electronica scene here. With researcher and academic Parsa Sanjana Sajid, the Karkhana Collective, is also exploring the development of introductory programmes for women, femmes and queer communities on the basis co-authorship and through which we can also address questions around access and collaboration.

And right away, our challenge remains that there are a lack of community spaces and studios that can host such a program. The facilitators and teachers are all urban middle-class men, and will they be attuned to understanding the challenges that people of other genders and socio-economic backgrounds face? For people who have access to fewer resources, can we build programs that rely on homework if they don’t have access to a computer and equipment at home? 

I think of all these questions and challenges, and sometimes, I do not know where to begin. And yet, here we are. 

Written by maliha mohsin

Read ‘The Strange World of Audio Engineering in Dhaka – Part 1’ here.

NEWS - 31. January 2020   CITY - Dhaka

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