Dhaka is the Detroit of Bangladesh. But before the city produced its own independent scene, british bengalis layed the ground for one of the most influential music styles in the 90s: Asian Underground.
Talking about electronic music in a Bangladeshi context is a tricky business. It will seem like there are too many jargons to describe sounds that are already familiar to millions of people in Bangladesh and feel conflicted about its vague beginnings, the culture it seems to represents (including the prejudices) and its place in both the contemporary and the future music scene of Dhaka. As I will discuss further, my focus will be mostly on Dhaka as the musical hub as it constantly introduces new ideas by virtue of being the country’s most globally and nationally connected city, which is constantly trying to introduce new ideas.
The electronic music scene has similarities with that of Detroit or Berlin largely in terms of how the illegal underground party scene came into being. Yet there are more dissimilarities, like the unique socio-economic situations. The rise of electronic music in Detroit was during the 90s post industrial era, when Detroit, the «The Motor City» – home to the largest American car manufacturers including General Motors, Ford etc – was in a state of decline. On the other hand, Berlin, after the fall of the wall that divided the city, created a momentum to recreate a new identity for a new reunited Germany safely away from both the Nazi and the authoritarian communist East Germany regime.
In contrast, Dhaka is the capital of a country which is trying hard to remove the label of LDC, and stands resilient, energetic and optimistic about its future. There is no doubt that the introduction of electronic music was late in mid 1990s. But it was also one dimensional. There is almost no documentation at all of that period but I was lucky to interview a few people who were close to those cliques. The foreign educated Bangladeshi elites which surely included the diaspora introduced western style dance parties with the first Bangladeshi DJs. The reason I call it one dimensional is because it only imported the delivery of electronic music and not the culture of production or innovation.
So basically in Bangladesh the real breakthrough in terms of accessibility was in 1997, when the the software FruityLoops (now FL Studio) launched. With FL and its possibility to run on cheap personal computers, it has become more easy to make electronic music.
The Earliest Bengali/Bangladeshi Factors – The Asian Underground
Before attempting to understand how electronic music hit Dhaka in two different waves each with its own characteristics, it’s crucial to learn about the earliest Bangladeshi experiences of electronic music in the Bangladeshi diaspora in London, United Kingdom. The term ‘Asian Underground’ is an umbrella term for the musical movement of the pan-South Asian diaspora of British Asians. British Bengalis played a significant role in the development of this genre-diminishing scene which was very much about identity. The cultural movement was celebrated through ground breaking amalgamation of sounds redefining the British Asian cultural identity. In 1988 The Joi Bangla Sound (later known as Joi only) used Bangla vocals for the very first time in the track called «Funky Asian» which features the words «Joi Bangla» as a sample.
Joi comprised of Farook and Haroon Shamsher born to a Bangladeshi father and an Indian mother. Their work was part of the Asian Underground Scene which broke into the British mainstream with the 1997 compilation, «Anokha – Soundz of the Asian Underground», masterminded by Talvin Singh.
The other act that grabbed attention from the mainstream British media was the Asian Dub Foundation, whose album «Rafi’s Revenge» was shortlisted for the prestigious 1998 Mercury Prize (a mainstream music awarding body in the UK). The 4 member band had one British Bengali, Deedar Zaman. Other prominent Bengali acts included State of Bengal, Osmani Soundz, Titchiller, Renegade Boys, Naga and Deshi Movement. By the early 2000s, the Asian Underground scene had successfully entered the British consciousness and many of its artists moved into British mainstream.