A journey back in time -- into the musical 80s
While Corona is mostly about sorrow, suffering, and death, there is one tiny side to it which can be deemed as positive. It has made us less conceited and more reflective.
While visiting Rainbow Recording Studio recently, the music recording place which goes back to the 80s, I was told that during the pandemic period, especially in 2020, music lovers had become more interested in blues and jazz.
A thrill of the 80s
For those who grew up in Dhaka in the 80s, Rainbow, Shur Bichitra, and Rhythm occupy a very special place because, in those times, one of the few excitements of life was going to New Elephant Road and hanging around at the music studios which recorded western music albums on blank cassettes.
As I went to Rainbow last week, I found that there was still a stable demand for high quality music. Once, Rainbow and the other stores were famous for vinyl albums, but now only the CDs are available.
These are not for sale; one can come and choose a CD(s), and then Mukul bhai, the current recording maestro, copies them onto blank CDs. In the 80s, albums were recorded onto blank TDK, Sony, and Hitachi cassettes.
Actually, Rainbow was the most snobbish of the three recording stores because, firstly, it never accepted lower quality cassettes, and second, it took three months to deliver a recorded cassette. This was because each and every cassette was recorded with the utmost care by Kabir Bhai, Rainbow’s talismanic recording engineer, plus rock music connoisseur.
Kabir bhai was sort of a legend, and Murad bhai, the owner of Rainbow, allowed him latitude to run the business the way he wanted. This meant a lot of rules which irked many, but gave birth to the cult of Rainbow’s unwavering determination to maintain quality.
A place for Dhaka's musicians
The most memorable feature of the 80s was the band music revolution, which gave birth to Feelings, Nova, Obscure, Winning, Miles, Monitor, Feedback, Souls, and others. While many of these bands had actually formed in the late 70s, their music turned them into stars in the ’80s.
To brag a bit, I was chosen by Monitor to be their English vocalist, and sang Uriah Heep’s “Easy Livin” in a concert at the Engineers’ Institute.
We came on stage right after singer Agun set the stage on fire with his band Sudden: “Nishiraate jodi dekho amake.” People were not terribly excited when I took the microphone, but they did tolerate me till the end of the song.
Anyway, all music lovers came to Rainbow to get their music fix. Kabir bhai had an aura about him which he enjoyed thoroughly. His taciturn demeanour only added to his charisma.
Rainbow transcended from a mere recording shop into a youth counselling centre because youngsters smitten with Kabir bhai often came to him for social counselling. Some time around 1990, a desperate mother appealed to Kabir bhai to tell her son to concentrate on studies before HSC, since he would only listen to him and no one else.
An age before online music platforms
It was a time when a top selling album in the UK or US came to Dhaka at least six months or, sometimes, a year after release. There was no legal way to get the albums within a short time.
Owners of these studios or people coming from overseas were the only ones who brought albums. Owners of recording studios, Rainbow included, went twice or maybe thrice a year to Singapore to get them, and therefore, the Dhaka top ten list was always a year behind.
Michael Jackson’s Thriller came out in 1982, but “Beat It” became the number one song in Dhaka in early 84. Also, Duran Duran’s Seven and the Ragged Tiger, a 1983 album, reached the top in Dhaka in mid-1984. Up until the mid-90s, we were always a little behind.
Musicians and listeners had to rely on the stores, and Rainbow became a hot spot for the snazzy Dhaka crowd. Dhaka’s first Coffee House with a cosmopolitan air was just beside Rainbow; for the young, an evening spent at Rainbow with friends, ending it with a coffee and burger at Coffee House was the ultimate thrill.
It was also a time for music magazines. Today we get the lyrics of a song in seconds; back then, it was either a photocopy of the album’s inside cover or reliance on locally published music magazines which ran the lyrics of popular numbers.
Rainbow is still in operation
So many of our priorities from the 80s have disappeared but, thankfully, due to Murad bhai’s determination, Rainbow is still around. The alley in New Elephant Road is still regarded as Rainbow’r Goli, though many of those using the name do not know its origin. Rainbow moved from the original spot to a side building, with Mukul bhai working as recording guru.
“I have been working here for nearly 20 years, and have developed the skill to intuitively understand what listeners want,” says Mukul, adding: “Post-lockdown period has seen a surge in orders for Blues, Jazz, and Ghazals. People are becoming more reflective.”
Mukul Bhai is held in reverence by those who come here, most of the clients above 40.
Those who had their teenage years touched by Rainbow cannot forget the studio because this is a small time capsule which allows them to leave the mercenary creed and go back to the insouciant days of the past.
As lockdown looms, I put some orders in at Rainbow and no, they don’t take three months anymore. Pop in sometime if you are in Elephant Road.
Once in a while, Mukul plays the music loud, as if to let people know that Rainbow still shines and the lustre hasn’t faded.
Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.