Asian Music and Dance

Jazzing up the Bengali music scene

Over the last two decades British Punjabis have given a complete make-over to bhangra music. Zoe and Idris Rahman may be hoping to do a similar shake-up with Bengali folk, film and popular music from the 1950s. Jon Mitchell caught up with them backstage at a Croydon concert to find out more.

Chichester doesn’t strike one as the sort of place where musicians would begin to take steps towards shaking up Bengali music. But this thoroughly English town is where Zoe and her brother Idris, offspring of English and Bengali parents, took their first musical steps and chanced upon Bengali music from a bygone era. 

Zoe began playing the piano at the age of four. She lists primary school teacher, Miss Hawkins and jazz pianist (and previous mentor), Joanne Brackeen as strong influences. Later came jazz artists Abdullah Ibrahim, Alice Coltrane and Chick Corea and classical musicians Chopin, Rachmaninov and Bartok.

Her musical education continued at the Royal Academy Junior Exhibition, a music degree at Oxford University and then at Boston’s Berkeley College of Music. Collaborations with Zimbabwean and Palestinian musicians followed. The groundwork was laid for multiple perspectives on rhythm and harmony. She won the Perrier Young Jazz Musician of the Year award, a BBC Jazz Award, Jazz Album of the Year at the Parliamentary Jazz Awards and was nominated for the Nationwide Mercury Music Prize.

 Idris meanwhile took a positive step to leave the piano to his sister and take up the clarinet. Both performed in a jazz quintet and later in contemporary urban band Soothsayers. But in recent years they’ve been exploring their long-neglected heritage. 

“I heard a lot of these tracks in their original form for the first time. We had a real emotional connection with these tunes.”

It began while Zoe was transferring her father’s old Bengali film music tapes onto CD. “When I was doing that I heard a lot of these tracks in their original form for the first time. We had a real emotional connection with these tunes,” she remembers. Later that year they played one of these, a tune by the famous playback singer, Hemanta Kumar Mukherjee at the London Jazz Festival; ‘Mucche Jaoa Dinguli’ also appeared on her highly acclaimed album ‘Melting Pot’. 

They decided to continue the exploration. An opportunity arose to perform at the 2006 Bangla Beat Festival at London’s Southbank Centre. Their learning continued. First from Armeen Musa, the great–granddaughter of Abbas Uddin, the famous Bengali singer. Later during visits to Dhaka where Auntie Ayesha introduced them to Rabindra Sangeet or songs of Rabindranath Tagore – the Bengali Nobel Laureate poet and philosopher. 

Bangladesh opened up other opportunities, such as working with Bengali vocal star Arnob. “We did a gig in Dhaka and Arnob joined us for the night and taught us those two tracks that he sings on the album (Jasim Uddin’s ‘Amar har kala korlam re’ and Tagore’s ‘Anondo dhara’),” says Zoe. 

Of the critically acclaimed album ‘Where Rivers Meet’ Zoe says: “It wasn’t really a conscious decision to make an album, it was just like, we really want to play these tunes and find a way of doing it.” The album features Zoe’s regular collaborators Oli Hayhurst and Gene Calderazzo and guests Samy Bishai on violin, the accomplished Kuljit Bhamra on percussion and the young Bengali vocal stars Arnob and Gaurob.

“It’s improvised so I suppose it’s kind of jazz, but the melodies themselves are so beautiful that they’re the focus. It’s a very lyrical album.” 

“It’s improvised,” says Zoe, “so I suppose it’s kind of jazz, but the melodies themselves are so beautiful that they’re the focus. It’s a very lyrical album.”  Idris adds: “We’ve been quite true to the actual tunes themselves, the main structures of the tunes have stayed the same pretty much.” Zoe says it’s because they wanted them to be recognisable to Bengalis but that’s not to say that they are at all conventional either.  “As a pianist and as a jazz musician and composer, I like to just take things out a little bit further harmonically,” she adds with a smile. 

They are not entirely alone in interpreting Bengali music in this way. Kishore Khan, a British-Bengali, with the Lokkhi Terra project is doing a similar thing but with more Latin–American influences. While Arun Ghosh with whom Idris sometimes plays, is doing his own contemporary jazz interpretation of folk songs with originals. Arnob, Gaurob and Armeen Musa all have their own takes on these popular songs of the past.  

The siblings have since toured with the band around the UK and in Dhaka, Chennai and Colombo as a duo. So far receptions have been good. “The reaction from Bengali audiences was ecstatic. The tracks are well–known tunes and well–loved lyrics and the audiences reacted to the jazz–inspired music with enthusiasm,” says their father. Before I leave them to prepare for their performance in Croydon, Zoe tells me of their future hopes. “I’d really like to go back with the group. To take the band to Bangladesh to see the context that it comes from, I think it would be fantastic. It’s already been an amazing journey!” 



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