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Dhaka’s dormant disco devils

  • Published at 07:19 pm July 29th, 2018
Disco isn’t dead
Disco isn’t dead Photo: BIGSTOCK

Turn off the lights and find the right song, to time travel to the disco days

Boney M was in town! Yes, here in Dhaka -- 38 years too late though. 

I cannot imagine what would have happened if the disco pioneers had stepped into Dhaka in 1980, when bell bottoms were all the rage, men looked like killers with their drooping moustaches, sideburns plus long hair, wearing clothes plastered to their body as if it was their second skin. 

That was Dhaka at the height of disco fever: Boney M, Eruption, and Donna Summer ruled the music charts. 

When people with extra-long hair moved about wearing dark glasses, the police did not stop them to ask: What is your business?

In fact, one of my uncles, a law enforcer in the 70s, also sported a funky moustache. Yep, his uniform trouser was also bell bottoms. 

In fact, if someone today decided to sport a 70s look, then he would surely be stopped, searched, and maybe detained at the first police checkpost on the road. 

And, if you are dauntless eough to don such a look and come out after 2:00am in the Gulshan area then be ready for a memorable episode in your life. 

I may be doing the top report the following day: “Mysterious man arrested, no weapons found, probe committee formed.”

Anyway, Boney M’s visit of Bangladesh evoked memories of a period when Dhaka’s placid evenings often turned boisterous with the stereo turned up high. 

Boney M became so popular that it was possibly the first Western band which shattered the notion that funky English numbers should only be enjoyed by the affluent. 

Boney M in the bazaars and in Bangla 

Till the late 70s, a lot of restaurants had old fashioned record players to entertain customers. A client could also choose a record from the small box holding a selection of songs. 

But with the “Middle-East remittance,” things changed. 

Back then, almost everyone coming back from work in a gulf nation brought home a cassette player, or a “changer” as they called it, because a cassette had songs on both sides and one could be changed as desired. 

By 1980, almost all restaurants in the city had stereo players and Boney M and Donna Summer were played loud to attract customers. 

Still recall Darul Kabab, a well-known kabab joint just opposite the spot where Sonargaon Hotel now sits. Perched on bamboos, the restaurant stood on the canal which flowed through Karwan Bazaar and Hatirpool. 

Darul Kabab’s evening song was almost always “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer. The number was released in the West in 1979, but came to Bangladesh in late 1980, which was the trend back then as prior to internet and computers, ideas percolated slowly into the idyllic semi-urban Dhaka. 

Coming back to Boney M -- the band and their songs were ubiquitous. “By the Rivers of Babylon” was parodied in a famous local magazine program, Jodi Kichu Mone Na Koren, where Hanif Sanket -- the current day undisputed magazine program guru -- appeared as the lead dancer. And, the lyrics in Bangla: “By the rivers of new khali, Noalkhali, Noakhali.”

Seriously, I am not joking! The “River of new khali” song was a nationwide hit.

The disco craze in our own music

The disco beat seeped into the local music scene and we found glamour, rhythm, plus sensual elegance in Nazma Zaman from Zinga Shilpi Gosthy. 

Wearing a sari and epitomizing the word “soigne” in every sense, Ms Zaman stole the sleep of millions. The dance beat started by Boney M was picked up and given a fabulous local feel with Zinga’s music. The most listened being “Tomari jibone elo ki aji bujhi notun kono obhishar …”

Of course, that was a time when most female singers sang like statues with minimal movement. Zaman shattered that conventional pose, delivering her own jaunty moves which terrified many puritanical parents. 

This is the beginning of social decay, they cried, using the expression “taoba taoba!”

The youth were mesmerized, senior brothers transfixed, and fathers and uncles waited with veiled impatience to get a glimpse of Nazma, daring to bring down the monotonous definition of entertainment. 

Disco enters Dhallywood

Dhallywood was quick to pick up disco, both local and foreign, to feature in local films. The most used were tracks from Cerrone’s Paradise, a 1977 musical album, which intertwined disco beats with sensual sounds in the back. 

While it was disco, the overall flavour was something mystical with an undeniable feeling of taboo. 

The album cover created social outrage, because it showed a woman without clothes lying over a refrigerator, and the composer sitting by the side with a wicked expression. 

Imagine a cassette with such a picture on the cover sold in the market in 1980. No wonder, at stores, the cassettes were hidden from sight. 

In the local movies, Cerrone’s music was used when a cabaret was shown usually with a sinister looking man walking in carrying a black briefcase, containing stolen diamonds or heroin. 

Anyway, this album was also a favourite in local bars. The seductive background sounds and the disco beats blended perfectly with the light and shadow of the pubs. It added a dash of piquancy. Or, as one of my poet friends put it: “Made sin delectable.”

Disco is dormant, not dead 

Is disco dead? For many, whose adolescent/teenage days are inextricably linked to, Boney M, Abba, Cerrone, Eruption, and Donna Summer, disco is very much alive, because when we feel the need to dive into nostalgia, we only have to turn off the lights, find music on the internet, and travel back in time to a lost era. 

Meanwhile, I know what to listen to. A 1982 song by Nazma Zaman called “Dhaka” where she vivaciously celebrates the enchantment (now lost) of this city: “Choto boro koto shohor dekhechhi, prithibir koto mohadesh ghurechhi … emonti ar pelamnaamar priyo Dhaka …” 

Towheed Feroze is News Editor at Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka.