Azam Khan played an integral role in Bangladesh's journey through history
To recall Azam Khan, the pioneer of the rock music trend in independent Bangladesh, one needs to blend music with the surreal. To say Khan was a rock and roll guru is just highlighting one part of his role in the evolution of this country. He was far more than just a musician.
A bohemian all his life, a true renegade till the end, Azam Khan’s music transformed as Bangladesh went through a series of tumults in the first two decades after liberation. With the country plunging deeper into an abyss, the music of the maestro also became darker, often laced with insanity.
It was not just music but the message that came with it which challenged the young to dare to think and act differently.
Here’s a look at how we were influenced by the ultimate rebel who took up arms for the country and then picked up the microphone to thrill generations.
Salvation from the angst of the 70s
Growing up as the first generation in an independent country, we heard Azam Khan sometime around 1977-78. By that time, he was already established as a rock singer. Now the identity of a rock musician is significant here because at that time, most bands played soft music with some occasionally venturing into disco or pop. While Khan’s main love was for psychedelic hard rock and metal, he astutely inserted some rhythm and blues numbers to appeal to the masses. "Obhimani," "Papri," and "Anamika Chup" are such numbers.
However, Khan was singing at a time when the country was facing ferment. The whole of the 70s was a bloody period for Bangladesh. Politically, the country was unstable. Socially, there was a sense of malaise.
Today, there is a lot of reminiscing about the Liberation War, with many freedom fighters eagerly recounting their experiences. Yet, in the first decade after independence, the priority was survival in a shattered nation.
A pall of desperation permeated all layers of society as people picked up the pieces to start life anew. So, on one hand there was political intrigue and on the other, the efforts by the general people to survive.
In between came Azam Khan to provide musical respite. Just like the films of the period which were mostly extravagant costume dramas, the music often bordered on extreme fantasy. The purpose was simple: Creating a getaway from the harsh reality.
Azam Khan is called the Rock Guru, though much of his music was tilted towards psychedelic blues with hints of surreal spiritualism. "Ami Jare Chaire She Thake Mor E Antore" (the one I crave resides in my soul) is certainly not a romantic number but a mystical piece seeking spiritual bliss through music. The same goes for the piece "Kangal Hoile Keu Jigae Na".
Azam Khan and his band 'Uccharon' took up music as their main profession in a country where income options were very limited. The hapless educated young man going around looking for work was a common phenomenon and was used regularly in movies and TV dramas. Taking up music was definitely daring because it did not ensure a steady income. Luckily, musicians could also supplement their livelihoods by offering their services to the booming film industry.
The band revolution of the 80s
The anti-autocracy movement of the 80s injected a new drive among the youth in Bangladesh. As many took to the streets to protest, others formed bands to create music as a form of defiance. Inspired by Azam, young lads took up music as a profession and bands like Feelings, Sudden, Winning, Monitor, Obscure, and Nova came to the scene.
Azam Khan had also changed the style of his music, moving more into a melodious style. The "Anamika" song came out in the early 90s – a number celebrating the tryst between two lovers meeting secretly. It was a massive hit since the song had a leitmotif of illicit excitement about it. Azam Khan was asked several times in talk shows about Anamika but always managed to pull a coy smile and avoid a full elaboration.
In the 80s and 90s, the main attraction for Dhaka youth were concerts and Azam Khan’s inclusion meant a full house and hefty profits for the organizers.
At such a concert, I saw Khan deliver one of his famous/unforgettable lines, pointing to his heart: "Jotokkhon Tick Tick Kortese, Totokkhon Thik Thik Thik Asi" (as long as the heart is ticking, I am alright).
Bangladesh, his pièce de résistance
Millions of fans began their love affair with Khan’s music with his timeless hit, "Bangladesh". Sung in 1975, it narrates the story of a dead child in a slum and a distraught mother. The country faced a devastating famine in 1974 leading to countless deaths, especially of children due to malnutrition.
It was not just a song, but a musical metaphor for a country ravaged by war, natural disaster, and political bloodbath.
"Bangladesh" on one hand is a rock singer’s anguish about the nascent country’s plight while on the other, is a defiant stand against detractors and denigrators.
Azam was fortunate to have lived long enough to see that crisis-riddled Bangladesh stand up from the ruins and devastation to become a country on the path to prosperity.
June 5 was his death anniversary and our best tribute to the messiah of Bangla rock music is that in 2021, malnutrition has been alleviated to a large degree.
The song "Bangladesh" is still sung by countless bands out there though there is a distinct touch of optimism in the renditions.
Rock the heavens, Guru!
Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.