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Azam Khan
Azam Khan

Events of the week have intervened, as usual, to flavour my writing. At a party in Pittsburgh, I was in the presence of my cousin’s wife’s family, a very musically talented group of Paraguayans. Into the night, the family regaled us with tales of the military coup which had toppled the dictator Alfredo Stroessner in 1989.

At the night of the coup, a gunfight erupted in Asuncion, practically on the front yard of the family’s home. I found the description of event fascinatingly mundane, from the fact that the family had to drag mattresses from room to room to find the most sheltered part of the house, to the fact that they decided to eat all the chocolate in the house in case tomorrow never came. They found it amazing not so much that they had survived, but that they, almost alone in the city had not lost electricity or phone service, and that annoying phone calls kept coming despite the gunfire.

My cousin-in-law’s sister is a wonderful singer, and earlier in the evening I had commented about how I was moved by her eulogy to the great Argentinean singer, Mercedes Sosa, when she’d died in 2009.

The sister pointed out that she had often attempted to translate the songs Mercedes Sosa had covered into English, for American audiences, and had finally given up, because certain things just couldn’t be translated. You can’t translate into English the rattling of the plates in the cabinets as the tanks roll down your street. You can’t translate the smell of fresh plaster as the propagandists hurry to patch holes so that they can claim the machinegun fire of the night before never happened. You can’t translate the nagging wonder in the back of your mind of which neighbours might not survive the crossfire.

When she put it that way, I understood her point. I remember the first time I ever heard the sound of a machine gun — I remember thinking how fake it sounded, not at all like the manly blasts in the Hollywood movies. It sounded more like frenetic construction, a jackhammer perhaps, than it sounded like the ultimate de-construction: war. Somehow the fact that it sounded fake, made it ugly and real.

I agreed with the sister, that the music that so moved us in Argentina just couldn’t resonate for most Americans, when the majority of the people here get their exposure to tragedy through video games where life has a reset button and movies pretty much all have happy endings. Here, thank God, if something doesn’t go your way, you can always change the channel.

This week, as I read your news, the death of Azam Khan stood out as the most important item. For the first time since I have followed Bangladeshi news, I noted that the BNP and the AL were putting their differences aside, and doing so to honour this remarkable man. I began to read about the life of Azam Khan, and tried to discover translations of his lyrics. The first thing I discovered is that his music is very accessible to Western ears. Azam Khan’s voice is hypnotic, and from the translations of his songs, I concluded that the messages in the songs seemed deceptively simple. I wondered: did the lyrics invite deeper interpretations? Are Alal and Dulal, the two bad boys in his song of the same name, reflective of politics in Bangladesh? What does Ami Jare Chaire mean? Is it religious? Is he speaking about God? I don’t know enough to know. I suspect that his songs are snapshots of life, well-composed images that we can interpret as we see fit.

In any case, I can enjoy the music at the simplest level. I find the tunes to be catchy, and the singer’s voice is warm and inviting, like a musical conversation with a friend. Still I wonder. I have heard the song Ami Jare Chaire, which while it seems very ‘70s pop, just seems deeper, it invites me to ask me questions about myself.

Mercedes Sosa
Mercedes Sosa

You mourn the loss of a great singer and freedom fighter. I know how it feels to lose such a voice. Mercedes Sosa left the same gap in my heart when she died. It caused me to wonder — is the world losing the tradition of the singer who longs to liberate her people, or do such singers abound wherever there is oppression, hunger and frustration? Perhaps even today, maybe in China, or somewhere in the Middle East such singers are secretly rallying the masses. Perhaps I don’t hear about these singers because the music of freedom cannot easily be packaged and understood outside a singer’s homeland.

In any case, I am sure that God will want Mercedes Sosa and Azam Khan to meet in heaven. They will have much to talk about. In some ways, they are kindred spirits, and in others, they are opposites. Azam Khan brought pop music to Bangladesh, which, in itself, was a revolutionary act. Sosa brought her Folk/Indigenous musical roots into the mainstream. They both sparked the pride of their nations, and came to define an era. I understand the depth of your loss, because even now, I miss the possibility of being able to see Mercedes Sosa perform again.

So, as I discover Azam Khan, my dear readers, let me offer you a little world culture in exchange, the life of an extraordinary singer. I want you to understand Mercedes Sosa, because I believe that you can. I think that if some pop star of this generation were to translate the songs that she sang for her people, much of what she sang about would resonate there in a way they could never resonate in the United States.

Mercedes Sosa began her career in dangerous times. She sang songs of freedom and maintained an activist lifestyle during the dangerous years of the military dictatorship in Argentina. The sound of her voice, even in the context of an apolitical setting, like a Catholic Mass, could inspire the masses who longed for freedom.

As she fearlessly raised her voice, it became increasingly difficult for her to remain in Argentina. The military throughout Latin America believed that to silence a singer was to break the spirit of the revolution itself. In Chile, Sosa’s friend, pop star and guitarist Victor Jara had already paid the ultimate price for his music. One September day in 1973, in Santiago de Chile, all suspected “subversives”, including Jara, were rounded up and forced into the national soccer stadium where they filled the stands. From there, they were taken to be tortured, raped or murdered. Jara was dragged onto the soccer field, and soldiers mangled his hands into bloody stumps in front of the crowd. He was then mockingly ordered to play the guitar. Instead, he fearlessly began singing a rendition of the song of freedom, “Venceremos (We Will Win)”. When the crowd defiantly joined in from the stands and the officials were unable to still the voices, they put a bullet through Jara’s head.

Sosa expected the same fate from the Argentinean military, and felt it was only a matter of time, but she refused to leave the country. Her recordings were banned, and her songs were declared subversive speech. One night, after a concert, she, and her entire audience were detained by the military police. She finally realised that she could no longer sing without compromising the safety of her audience, and she fled into exile. That concert may have coincided with my first visit to the country, and simple happenstance prevented me from having attended that particular concert myself, as a very clueless young fan. Sosa was forced into exile in Spain to prevent her fans from being arrested. She declared that she carried her people in her voice.

Years later, I saw her at a concert in New York. Times had changed and Argentina was free. Her presence, and her strong contralto filled the Lincoln Center. She still carried her people in her voice, as she sang songs that claimed America for the Native People, and thanked life for all the gifts that it had given her.

“Thank you, Life, for giving me so much

You have given me laughter and you’ve given me mourning.

That’s how I distinguish joy and misery-

Those two materials that form my song

And the song of you all, which is the same song,

And the song of everyone, which is my very own song.

The world has changed, but in the midst of upheaval and revolution, the subsonic rumble of the tank and the “fake” cadences of the machinegun, there rises above the strains those “Redemption songs”, as Bob Marley called them.

In one of the most famous songs Mercedes Sosa sings, she says,

“I only ask of God that my suffering not leave me indifferent. That death not find me alone and void, without having done my share.”

If you have done your share, then your life has had meaning.

And finally, I share this sentiment from Mercedes Sosa’s music with all of those who mourn the passing of their beloved musician:

If the singer is silenced, life is silent.

Because life, life itself is all a song.

Luckily for us, a great singer’s work can’t be silenced. Not by machine guns, or tanks, or even death itself. Instead, like a tree, it can continue to sink its roots into the ground, and spread its comforting shade and bear fruit for generations to come.

Frank Domenico Cipriani writes a weekly column in the Riverside Signal called “You Think What You Think And I’ll Think What I Know.” He is also the founder and CEO of The Gatherer Institute — a not-for-profit public charity dedicated to promoting respect for the environment and empowering individuals to become self-taught and self-sufficient. His most recent book, “Learning Little Hawk’s Way of Storytelling”, is scheduled to be released by Findhorn Press in May of 2011.

12 Responses to “If the singer is silenced…”

  1. zishan

    Mr. Frank D. Cipriani, I finished your article and was surprised at your thinking ability. Especially about Alal and Dulal. Are they really representing our two political parties!

    Now I think I need to explore pop guru Azam Khan from the very beginning. I still can’t believe he died but I am really so grateful to you because you thought, analyzed, and wrote about him.

    Thanks and I appreciate this. I am really interested to know more about “Mercedes Sosa”. Is their any particular website or link where I will find about her and her songs?

    • Frank D. Cipriani

      Thanks for the excellent question. I use playlist.com and look up Mercedes Sosa. You might be surprised by her voice, it is very deep. She was a big woman and sang from her gut- I think it was the way of her people.

      Find the music you prefer, and then luckily, some translations of the music do exist. I would start with a mixture. “Credo” is some of her church music with native instruments. It’s basically the declaration of faith of the Catholic Church, so no translation is necessary. But it was political, because the military banned her music, so in essence they were banning the profession of Catholic faith. It was a clever move on her part.

      Todo Cambia is another song worth listening to and finding the lyrics to:

      And a very moving song that Sosa sang when she finally returned to Argentina was Cigarra (an insect that emerges from the ground once every sixteen years) is very beautiful, is available on Playlist, and the lyrics can be read in English here:

      I hope you enjoy this, and maybe find something to translate into Bangla and sing.

    • afsan

      As the song describes, it’s about Alal and Dulal who were two brothers, sons of Haji Chand Miah who lived in Chankharpool, an area straddling old and new Dhaka. The two brothers were always causing mischief- paratakey jalai tara sharadin dhore- and wasn’t read as political commentary when it came out. It was the simple straight forward like life language that caused such a stir. The names, people, place were all real, not the vague descriptions that Bengali songs had except maybe a few war songs.

      In fact it was so real that one Haji Chand who also had two sons called Alal and Dulal who were causing nightmares in the neighbourhood sued Azam Khan. It didn’t get far though.

      Azam Khan sang songs of the world he knew and we did too. But of course much political readings can be done of his songs.

  2. Ezajur Rahman

    Azam Khan was more than a pop guru. The term pop guru is a good one but I don’t think it does justice to him. Azam Khan was our first, original and people’s rock star. He lamented that nowadays our bands do not sing about the people and the country anymore. What a great man he is to say such a thing! Music, especially for us, should often be about the people and the country. A generation that does not have such music is a generation without a voice.

    • Frank D. Cipriani

      Well said. I think there must be singers who do sing about the people, the problem is that they might have a more difficult time nowadays finding their audience. The best thing we can do is to encourage such musicians by listening.

  3. Mozammel

    Thank you Frank Cipriani for writing about our POP Guru.

    He is one real Bengali who should have met Mercedes Sosa in this life. Since that didn’t happen, I am sure in the after life the two will meet as both of them thought for others.

    Our guru showed these qualities to have faith in others, to sing for others, to encourage others for goodness and to pursue for tolerance. So he made an everlasting impression on many minds.

    • Frank D. Cipriani

      Mozammel, I don’t know much, but what I do know is that God is Merciful and loving. I hope God’s mercy and compassion allow that these two shall interact because they were kindred spirits even in life, and they fearlessly reflected the Divine Compassion

  4. A A

    And when I was a callow youth, I would listen to Azam Khan sing about life, love and death in a sharp and uncut voice. He was a rebel in many ways than one. It is only the rebels who leave a lasting imprint on the world.

    And I will make an effort to get hold of the songs and life of Mercedes Sosa. You have piqued my interest. It is fascinating to come across somebody whose voice would be fighting for space with the rattle of the machine gun or the rumbling of tanks. And I am always fascinated by the fact that at the end of the day it is the lyrics of the revolutionary survive and the rattle and the rumble become just echoes in the fabric of time.

    • Frank D. Cipriani

      I am glad you will. It’s worth the effort. Her lyrics, and those of others, like Silvio Rodriguez, are hard to find in good translation. I think the music of people like Rodriguez, Pablo Milanes, Violeta Parra and Mercedes Sosa, if translated, could really resonate with the people of Bangladesh.

  5. prakritozon

    Thanks a lot for this wonderful piece of writing Frank. I believe you have got the pulse of Guru’s (Azam Khan) true musical spirit. Peace.

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