A eulogy to Ayub Bachchu
(Thanks to Faizul Khan Tanim and Tanzeen Doha for the long discussions.)
Here’s my favorite joke about Ayub Bachchu:
Bachchu Bhai hurts his hand at the annual BAMBA arm-wrestling competition. He goes to the doctor and says, “Boss, I think my hand is broken.”
The doctor says, “The X-Rays seem fine. Can you drive?”
AB says, “Yes I can.”
The doctor says, “Can you write?”
AB says, “Yes I can.”
The doctor says, “Why do you think it’s broken then?”
AB says, “Arre bhai ar boilen na, when I play guitar it sounds like a human is playing!”
I met Ayub Bachchu for the first time in 1991. LRB, then still called Little River Band, was new. I was in Class 5, part of the new movement that had risen out of the release of the mixed album Hurray! The biggest hit of that album was Azam Khan’s remake of “Bangladesh”, which had Ayub Bachchu on guitars. I had been a die-hard Feedback fan before, but that cassette made me crave the yowling sounds of distorted guitar and the thud of pounding drums. My father took me to a concert at the Engineering Institute Auditorium, unaware that he was feeding what would become a lifelong obsession. Aces were there. In Dhaka were there. Winning may have been there. The showstopper was a curly-haired man with a silver guitar, singing about a hawker.
As Ayub Bachchu was fond of pointing out, Guru Azam Khan was the father of Bangladeshi rock music. He formed the skeleton around which other bands came together to build a body. Extending that metaphor, if Azam Khan formed the skeleton, then Ayub Bachchu gave it muscular structure. He was a leading light in what I consider to be the golden age of Bangladeshi rock music. He was the first rock star. And he made it possible for others to become rock stars after him.
During the first few LRB albums, Ayub Bachchu’s songs followed traditional blues rock structures. His lyrics were about middle class realities—“Retired Father”, “Unish Kingba Kuri”, “Dhakar Shondha”, “Madhobi”, “Gotokal Raate” work as poems and short stories as well as they do as rock songs. Supported by the mighty bass of Saidul Hasan Swapan, the nimble earworms of Shahidul Islam Tutul, and the sledgehammer grooves of Habib Anwar Joyy and Milton Akbar, Ayub Bachchu sang about everymen while his fingers ran frenetically up and down the fretboard. I can’t imagine the ingenuity—and the sheer audacity—involved in debuting with a double album in Bangladesh’s untested rock market. It was a statement saying, “We are here. Rock music is here”. Wielding his guitar like the protesters of the early 1990s wielded hockey sticks, Ayub Bachchu led the revolution we live and breathe. As its chief architect, he wrote and performed the biggest hits of a generation. Aside from the first (and perhaps only) double album by a Bangladeshi rock band, LRB also produced the first unplugged album. LRB headlined every major concert. Bathing in strobe lights like an ancient shaman, Ayub Bachchu set our souls on fire with his guitar.
I met Ayub Bachchu again in 1996, once more as a rabid fan rushing backstage to pay respect. There was a concert at the Aga Khan School and people were getting unruly. Fights had broken out. The crowd was trying to decide whether it wanted to turn into a mob. Ayub Bachchu came on stage alone while his band LRB, by then Love Runs Blind, was setting up. He played a guitar solo. Rising anger gave way to bliss, then reverence. He didn’t say a word for ten minutes. Then, when he said, “Hey!” his fans shouted back as one. He brought music with him and we were ready to rock.
I can’t imagine the ingenuity—and the sheer audacity—involved in debuting with a double album in Bangladesh’s untested rock market. It was a statement saying, “We are here. Rock music is here”.
In the late 1990s, Ayub Bachchu was the unquestioned king of rock. LRB’s albums were cultural touchstones. The split albums with James allowed both guitar players to spread their wings. These songs were eagerly awaited by anybody with Bangladeshi blood flowing hotly in their young veins. Fans measured their lives by which LRB album was popular when you were sixteen. He had created a new system.
By the time my friends and I were in our late teens and learning to play our own instruments, Ayub Bachchu was the system we rebelled against. Obsolescence is an inevitability of artistic success. Our passion for rock existed because of him. For this reason, our fashions, songwriting tropes, our attitudes were formed in opposition to him. This was not personal. He was the established face of rock music in Bangladesh and, like all rebels, we wanted to tear down the establishment.
In 2000, I met Ayub Bachchu for the third time. He was a judge at the Benson & Hedges Star Search competition. I was seventeen, having used falsified records to participate in the 18+ event. My band, The Watson Brothers, came second. (Steeler came first. Their drummer, Golamur Rahman Romel, later joined Nagar Baul and then LRB.) I got the Best Drummer award. I was excited to rub shoulders with people I had admired my whole life. In one single night, I met my two Gurus: Azam Khan and James, as well as the members of Feelings (now Nagar Baul), Renaissance, Feedback, Souls, Miles, and LRB. I tried to act nonchalant. I believed that this contest was a stepping stone to our becoming the biggest band in Bangladesh, supplanting the old guard. Bachchu Bhai said, “Hey crazy drummer! Keep playing!” I said, “Thanks AB” My friends and I watched him jam with the stars, first on drums, then guitar. Man, he just loved to play guitar. We looked at each other and said, “Jai bolish na keno, Bachchu Bhai guitar dhorle kintu shob shesh.”
By this time, LRB’s star was falling. They were still the biggest draw in shows, but their studio albums weren’t selling as well. In the early 2000s, the mixed album Charpotro did to a new generation what Hurray! did to me and my friends. The guys I had grown up playing with were accosted on the streets. Girls asked for Jon Kabir’s autograph (or at least he told me they did). To me, an old-school fan of LRB, their new style wasn’t as appealing as what they did in earlier albums because it sounded different. I believe that several factors contributed to this. First, no true artist wants to tell the same story every time. Rivers must flow, and so must the Little River Band. Second, at some point in the mid-90s, Ayub Bachchu reached apotheosis as a guitar player. In the early albums, he was a songwriter, lyricist, working as part of a team. But his talent and his love for the instrument was so intense that he transformed from a member of a band to a living, breathing guitar. It didn’t matter whether he was playing to many, or to few, or to none. Look at his YouTube clips. He always has a guitar in his hand. That is his soul. It is everything. You may as well criticize the sun for shining.
LRB may have lost its cultural cache, but Ayub Bachchu remained ever-present. He branched out and wrote music for films. The sardonic wit of “Ami to preme porini, prem amar upore porecche” remains one of his all-time highs. He became a ubiquitous presence on television, always with a guitar in his hand, jamming with stars, promoting young and unknown musicians, always saying the same thing—keep rocking and listen to the greats who came before us, whether it’s Jimi Hendrix or Guru Azam Khan. He was the elder statesman of Bangladeshi rock.
In the last few years, there was a rift in his relationship with the group of musicians who call themselves The Underground. (Side note: radio titan Daniel Rahman coined that term when we were playing friends’ birthdays in lungis, and that, my friend, was underground; what we have now is anything but.) Now that Ayub Bachchu is no longer with us, we rush to sing his praises. But there was a misunderstanding, and it became fashionable to disparage him as outdated and passé.
LRB may have lost its cultural cache, but Ayub Bachchu remained ever-present. He branched out and wrote music for films. The sardonic wit of “Ami to preme porini, prem amar upore porecche” remains one of his all-time highs.
This conflict began when he called into a talk show on television where a young musician was the guest. Ayub Bachchu called in and implored the musician to listen to the roots of Bangladeshi rock music. Listen to the cool, current bands, no problem. Just don’t ignore the musicians who started the movement, who played on broken, borrowed instruments and wrote about the truth they saw on the streets. They sacrificed themselves to bring the revolution of rock music to Bangladesh. Once they had done their job, they too were sacrificed, because progress is inexorable. The wheel must turn. The show must go on.
Ayub Bachchu, the man who played lead guitars for Souls, Feelings, Azam Khan, and countless others, who formed the band that defined rock music for an entire nation, who reinvented himself for cassettes, TV, radio, the Internet, knew the price of fame.
Stardom was not his main objective though, just a nice by-product. His true love, his guitar, never left his hands. He died on Thursday, October 18. The Tuesday before that, he played a show in Rangpur, supported by musicians from all over the world, with tens of thousands of fans singing along to his greatest hit, “Cholo Bodle Jai”:
Tumi keno bojhona
Tomake cchara ami oshohaye?
The last time I met Ayub Bachchu was at a BAMBA (Bangladesh Association of Musical Bands Association) event in 2008, just over ten years ago. We ran into each other at events but never spoke for long. Though he had not seen me play since 2000, he remembered my drumming. He said, “Hey, rocking drummer! Ian Paice’s groove in “Fireball”, can you play that?” I said, “Janina sir, hoytoba practice korle.” He said, “Keep playing Arafat, rock ‘n’ roll!” That night, my band, The Watson Brothers, joined BAMBA just before we went on an indefinite hiatus. True to form, at the end of the night, there was a jam, and Ayub Bachchu—AB, our beloved Bachchu Bhai—played the whole time.