Originally Published January 15, 2015.
This blog recounts my experiences serving as the International Community Engagement Program (ICEP) coordinator for Music Sharing’s 2012 program in Bangladesh. Music Sharing is a non-profit organization founded by violinist and UN Messenger of Peace, Midori, and is headquartered in Tokyo. Concerts were held in 16 locations throughout Bangladesh, for (and with) thousands of children in varying circumstances.
My earliest memory of Bangladesh came from a high school friend named Imran Khan, a Bangladeshi-American with whom I served as a Student Body Officer during my senior year. He currently serves in the U.S. Air Force. I was so excited to get to visit his home country and learn about a part of the world so distant from my homeland of Utah, and was not disappointed.
Not a Land Upon Water, but Water Upon Land
For many Americans, Bangladesh is perhaps the least familiar of the top 10 most populous countries in the world. The current (2014) population estimate is around 166 million people, crammed into an area “slightly smaller than Iowa,” as the CIA World Factbook points out (statistics in this blog come mainly from this source). Of the country’s 144,000 square kilometers of geography, more than 13,000 square kilometers are occupied by water, mainly rivers – the Ganges, the Jamuna (called the Brahmaputra upstream in India), the Padma, and the Meghna, all of which carve up the flat, green land in to a million shapes, carrying the runoff from the not-so-distant Himalayan glaciers to the Bay of Bengal. I can’t help but think the CIA figure above refers to the dry season – in the rainy season the rivers rise and spill across many of the open fields, flooding much of what is before dry land.
According to James Novak, author of Bangladesh: Reflections On the Water, “One-third of Bangladesh’s physical space of fifty-five thousand square miles is comprised of water in the dry season, while in the rainy season up to 70 percent is submerged.” He continues, “Of the classical elements – air, water, earth and fire – only one is symbolic of Bangladesh: water. For Bangladesh is not so much a land upon water as water upon a land. […] It has water from the rivers, the seas, rain, wells, tidal waves, floods, dew and humidity, and the melting snows of the Himalaya Mountains; water that is tidal and fresh, sweet and brackish; water that is blue, green, muddy brown, gray – water, the stuff of Bangladesh.” Whatever the square-mile percentages, for the 47% of Bangladesh’s workforce still engaged in agriculture, the rise and fall of Bangladesh’s rivers is a primary fact of life, and one that enables the production of its staple crops: jute, rice, and tea.
For many Americans, Bangladesh is perhaps the least familiar of the top 10 most populous countries in the world. The current (2014) population estimate is around 166 million people, crammed into an area “slightly smaller than Iowa,” as the CIA World Factbook points out (statistics in this blog come mainly from this source). Of the country’s 144,000 square kilometers of geography, more than 13,000 square kilometers are occupied by water, mainly rivers – the Ganges, the Jamuna (called the Brahmaputra upstream in India), the Padma, and the Meghna, all of which carve up the flat, green land in to a million shapes, carrying the runoff from the not-so-distant Himalayan glaciers to the Bay of Bengal. I can’t help but think the CIA figure above refers to the dry season – in the rainy season the rivers rise and spill across many of the open fields, flooding much of what is before dry land. According to James Novak, author of Bangladesh: Reflections On the Water, “One-third of Bangladesh’s physical space of fifty-five thousand square miles is comprised of water in the dry season, while in the rainy season up to 70 percent is submerged.” He continues, “Of the classical elements – air, water, earth and fire – only one is symbolic of Bangladesh: water. For Bangladesh is not so much a land upon water as water upon a land. […] It has water from the rivers, the seas, rain, wells, tidal waves, floods, dew and humidity, and the melting snows of the Himalaya Mountains; water that is tidal and fresh, sweet and brackish; water that is blue, green, muddy brown, gray – water, the stuff of Bangladesh.” Whatever the square-mile percentages, for the 47% of Bangladesh’s workforce still engaged in agriculture, the rise and fall of Bangladesh’s rivers is a primary fact of life, and one that enables the production of its staple crops: jute, rice, and tea.
A tragic short story called “Little Master’s Return” by the country’s poet-hero, Rabindranath Tagore, is relevant to this gargantuan rise of water each rainy season. In the story, a houseservant named Raicharan is charged with caring for the son of the housemaster and his mistress. Raicharan is completely devoted to the son, loving and adoring him. Tagore describes the coming of the rainy season: “The Padma began to swallow up gardens, villages and fields in great hungry gulps. Thickets and bushes disappeared from the sandbanks. The menacing gurgle of water was all around, and the splashing of crumbling banks; and swirling, rushing foam showed how fierce the river’s current had become.” One day, Raicharan and the boy in his care are out for a stroll near the river’s bank, and the boy tells Raicharan to go pick some flowers for him. As Raicharan leaves to pick the flowers, he warns the boy to stay away from the water, which of course only piques the boy’s interest. While Raicharan is out of sight, the boy picks up a reed and leans forward, pretending to be fishing. With “a single plopping sound,” the boy disappears into the “gurgling and swirling” water, never to be seen again.
The fear of water inherent in this sad story continues today. Each year, 64,000 people are displaced throughout the country by the erosion of riverbanks.  To paraphrase a traditional song, “one can be a landlord in the morning, and a beggar in the evening.” Nowhere is this more true than Bangladesh, which is sadly one of the world’s biggest victims of rising sea levels and other environmental hazards, even though it is one of the world’s lowest contributors of carbon to the world’s atmosphere. In 2010 the US emitted 5,428,612,000 metric tons of CO2 compared to Bangladesh’s 56,107,000, a factor of almost 100, even though the US has only twice as many people.  Per capita that’s about 17.3 for the U.S. compared to 0.4 for Bangladesh.
Speaking of fear of water, Bangladesh is the only country I’ve visited where water bottles actively advertised the poisonous minerals that WEREN’T in their product: “Contains no arsenic or cyanide.” It turns out that arsenic occurs naturally in the well-water in Bangladesh. According to a World Health Organization (WHO) report in 2000, between 35 and 77 million individuals were at high risk of drinking contaminated water in the 1990s – making it the largest such mass poisoning of a population in history.  Arsenic poisoning in sufficient amounts can cause lung, bladder, and skin cancers, and brings distinctive skin lesions all over the body. So it took a monumental effort on the part of both government and international agencies to halt the practice of drinking from wells.
Nevertheless, the country is equally blessed by the endless amounts of water. The country’s flag is green for all the vegetation (everything is green, even in the dry season), with a deep red circle in the middle, representing the rising sun and the sacrifice required to achieve independence.  Bangladeshi culture is inseparable from it – its songs, its stories, its poetry, its traditions are all connected to and born of the water-logged soil. The beautiful, mysterious, and (tragically) endangered Bengal Tigers thrive in the swamps of much of southwestern Bangladesh. I myself came to love the land, even during the short time I was in the country (two trips for a total of about three weeks). And I hope the reader will find many things to love about the country as a result of this blog post.
We began and ended our music tour in Dhaka. No other city in the world that I have visited exhibits the word “chaos” better. I really came to appreciate the Lonely Planet description of the capital: “…it is a giant whirlpool that sucks in anything and anyone foolish enough to come within its furious grasp. Around and around it sends them, like some wildly spinning fairground ride bursting with energy. Millions of individual pursuits constantly churn together into a frenzy of collected activity – it is an urban melting pot bubbling over. Nothing seems to stand still. Even the art moves, paraded on the back of the city’s sea of 600,000-plus rickshaws, which throb with colour and restlessness even when gridlocked.” I could not have described it better. The excitement is contagious and I will definitely be riding rickshaws if I ever visit again.
SOS Children’s Village
One of our main events in Dhaka was a performance at the SOS Children’s Village. SOS Children’s Villages International is an organization founded in 1949 by Hermann Gmeiner in Austria to ease the suffering of children orphaned during World War II. The organization is now active in over 130 countries and territories. Mr. Gmeiner himself visited Bangladesh in 1972 following the war with Pakistan, and proposed the establishment of a children’s village in Shamoli district. The government readily accepted the proposal, and by August of that year the first group of mothers and children moved in. Then-President Mohammad Ullah formally opened and dedicated the facility on February 10, 1974.
I was impressed by the quality of facilities and the dedication of the staff. The model is that children are put into “families,” with a full-time, trained “mother,” who herself is supervised by the village director and his staff. Schooling and play all take place within the SOS Children’s Village compound. This facility has 15 houses, each with 3 “wings.” Each wing has 5 households, and each household contains 8-10 children, both boys and girls. When I visited alone in November, 2012, they took me into a household and offered me some of their home-cooked food.
One of the staff explained to me that one of their biggest challenges is determining who gets “accepted” into the school. Often mothers will bring their children to the village and attempt to hand them over to SOS, claiming that they cannot support the children. The staff must determine which children are “legitimately” orphans. It is not surprising that mothers from around Bangladesh would desire their children to be raised in the SOS village, since conditions there are much better, in many cases, than what is being experienced elsewhere.
A note on population
One of the more stunning statistics I heard while traveling the country and visiting schools was that over 40% of the population is under the age of 16. Doing a little research, I found that this isn’t quite true. The CIA World Factbook puts it at more like 50% is under the age of 25. But still, this is extreme. For comparison, the percentage of the US population under 25 is around 33%. Note the difference between the following two graphs:
What this means for Bangladesh is that it is about to experience a huge boom in its workforce (though sadly about 10% of children ages 5-14 are already engaged in some form of child labor). It also means that there are a LOT of children in the country: more than 53 million under the age of 15!
Most of our performances in Bangladesh took place in schools. During our visit, we were hosted by several different education-promoting NGOs. One of these was the wonderful Bangladesh Development Partners (BDP), led by Albert Malakar. BDP’s supporters are mainly in Japan – one of its primary partners is the Asia Christian Education Fund (ACEF), which focuses on establishing and operating non-formal primary schools for the underprivileged children of Bangladesh. They also facilitate volunteers from Japan (including people from the Japan International Cooperation Agency – JICA), who spend years at a time working in the schools, learning Bengali, and truly devoting themselves to bettering the lives of those they meet.
On our first morning in Bangladesh, Albert and BDP took us to a neighborhood in Dhaka, where they were operating a school with several classrooms. The slum is built on public land, inside of a graveyard. Sadly, whenever more graves are needed, the residents are simply removed from their squatting sites.
The ICEP quartet performed several of the staples in Western classical quartet repertoire, including Stravinsky’s Three Pieces, Haydn Op. 76, and the Ravel quartet. There was also an arrangement of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz, and a couple of Bengali tunes I had transcribed so the quartet could play along when the children performed (which they almost always did, either before or after the quartet had given their performance/presentation).
Most of our school performances in the country were arranged through a group called the Volunteers Association of Bangladesh (VAB). VAB promotes itself as “arguably the only NGO in Bangladesh solely devoted to the promotion and improvement of quality secondary education in rural Bangladesh.” It has been operating since the late 1990s, and is headquartered in New York. Their two-pronged mission is “to provide necessary support to deserving students from poor families (thereby, among other things, reducing dropout rates) in obtaining high school education and skill training” and to “provide a modest need-based integrated package of support to selected partner high schools.” VAB put us in touch with several of their partner schools in the area of Comilla, southeast of Dhaka, and lent us some of their volunteers as translators and guides.
It was in these schools that we got the clearest picture of what standard, public, secondary education looks like in Bangladesh, though even these schools had the added support of the VAB volunteers. Most of the students in the three VAB schools we visited were Muslim. The girls wore the traditional head garb, while the boys dressed mostly in the school uniforms (usually khaki pants with collared shirts). Classrooms were typically poorly lit, with wooden benches and tables arranged in rows over a dusty floor, but usually had windows for natural light. Textbooks were scant, and there was no computer technology to speak of (though almost everybody had cell phones with internet connectivity, or at least cellular service, as we discovered when we got trapped taking photos with student after student).
But the students were well dressed, and had all the energy of a new generation, filled with optimism. At one school, the quartet performed in a very lovely courtyard, on a cement stage, modeled after the famous Mother Language Day Memorial in Dhaka, which commemorates the day in 1952 when students demonstrating for recognition (by the then-Pakistan government) of their language, Bangla, were shot and killed by police. This architectural note is another example of Bangladesh’s intense pride in its language, literary heritage, and culture.
The town of Savar was the site of the collapse of a large garment factory in 2013, shortly after our visit, in what was possibly the worst garment-factory disaster in history. More than 1,100 workers were crushed or died in the aftermath. The stories of those trapped were incredibly tragic, with heroic stories of rescuers working night and day to save as many people as possible. The political consequences continue today.
I'm sure that some of those injured in that disaster were treated at the facility of interest to our group in the area, the Center for the Rehabilitation of the Paralyzed (CRP). CRP was founded by an amazing woman named Valerie Ann Taylor. To paraphrase her biography, Valerie first came to Bangladesh with the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), to work as a physiotherapist, in 1969, on the eve of the War of Independence. During the war she was evacuated briefly, but returned to the country two months before the war ended (the war was exceedingly bloody – it is estimated that more than 3 million Bangladeshis perished and over 30 million were displaced; the prosecution of war crimes from this war is still very much at the heart of national politics today), very aware of the needs of the rehabilitation services for disabled people, especially following the conflict. She returned to England for two years to raise the money necessary to start a rehabilitation center. Her vision was realized in 1979, when CRP admitted its first patients, in two cement storerooms of the Shaheed Surawady Hospital in Dhaka. Now, 34 years later, CRP has a very impressive facility of their own, in Savar town, with three other sub-centers in the country, each with its own focus.
Meeting Ms. Taylor was a beautiful experience. I could not help but think of Mother Teresa, or the example of Jesus Christ, as I realized the amount of service this one person has given to those who suffer in Bangladesh. As the head office reads: “Service to Sufferers is Service to God.”
One patient at the hospital was completely paralyzed, and yet is an active painter: he holds the paintbrush in his mouth, and leans over his artwork. Of the many gifts bestowed on our group while in the country, the painting he gave Midori – a landscape with a sunset, palms, and a row of the distinctive high-humped South Asian cattle – was perhaps the most powerful. The painting is on display in Music Sharing’s Tokyo office.
Chittagong Hill Tracts
Bangladesh is a mostly Muslim nation, at around 90% of the population. To the north and to the east, however, lie populations whose ethnic, religious, and cultural ties are quite a bit different. At Midori’s request, I chose early on to visit a multi-cultural region known as the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The area boasts dozens of ethnicities and languages (all of whom are encompassed in the umbrella term Adivasi), and has sadly been the site of periods of intense guerilla warfare between Adivasi rebels (united as the Shanti Bahini) and the Bangladeshi army since the 1970s. There were many factors that led to this long and deadly uprising. One is that the majority ethnicity (Chakma) had sided with the Pakistanis during the Liberation War, so when victory came for the Bengalis, there was no reward for the Chakma and their allies. Another was the government-sanctioned resettling of hundreds of thousands of Bengalis into the area (as Bangladesh’s population surged and land became, and still is, exceedingly scarce). Finally there is the issue of the hydroelectric dam, which formed Kaptai Lake and forced more than a hundred thousand farmers out of their fertile valleys and canyons while burying the Chakma king’s palace under hundreds of feet of water (the US-funded dam was completed in 1962). Thankfully peace has reigned, mostly, since an accord was signed in December, 1997, between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the tribal leader Jyotirindriyo Bodhipriya (Shantu) Larma, that granted administration of Rangamati and some of the neighboring districts to a regional council. But tensions are still high, and we had to cross through military checkpoints to reach the town of Rangamati.
While our visit was completely sanctioned, sponsored, and carried out by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), it was I who made the initial contact and the formal arrangements with the local school, Moanoghar.
Moanoghar is technically a secular school, but was founded by Buddhist monks in the 1970s as a home for orphans from around the Hill Tracts area. In response to the mass upheavals caused by the 1962 dam completion and the subsequent Pakistan-Bangladesh war, the monks created a safe space for children to live and learn. During the periods of guerilla warfare that continued later, Moanoghar (in their words) “turned out to be the only safe place for hundreds of children affected by the conflict. To date Moanoghar has been playing a vital role to provide shelter and education to thousands of poor and orphaned children from the remote and marginalized indigenous families across the CHT.” And indeed they have provided quality education for many. One of our main hosts at the UNDP was himself an alumnus of the Moanoghar program.
Our concert at Moanoghar was perhaps the best attended of any of the performances, numbering well over 400, complete with an armed patrol for security. Heads from the regional administrative council and the UNDP were also present. Midori, as usual, allowed children to handle her 300-year-old violin, and experiment by running the bow across the strings. Midori later described that one of the thrills of doing these outreach programs is seeing the many, many smiles that are elicited by the music. As she explains, these smiles are not merely social acts, but genuine expressions of pleasure – natural responses to the experience of hearing music (or, more often, they are in direct response to the experience of touching a foreign musical instrument for the first time).
I particularly enjoyed the several performances given for us by Moanoghar’s students. There was the harvest dance by the females, with baskets on their backs (common fare for Southeast Asia). One dancer, named Antar Dewan, gave a traditional candle dance, where he lights a candle and balances it on his variously on his head, feet, and hands. Another seven-year-old child gave a hilarious lip sync of a pop tune.
As we left in the darkness, rumbling through the hills across Rangamati’s dirt roads, we were treated to a quite otherworldly sight on the horizon: burning lanterns, floating up into the moonlit sky. Sky lanterns are common in China, Taiwan, and Thailand, but I did not expect to see such a thing in Bangladesh. It was a sign of th close cultural and ethnic connections of the tribes in this area to the rest of Southeast Asia.
Later, at dinner, we were treated to an improvisatory performance by a Chakma tribesman, who sat cross-legged with his de-tuned fiddle and sang into a microphone. Nishan, our host and one of the main leaders of Moanoghar, explained that this singer is one of the last who continues the dying tradition of epic storytelling through music. He compared the performance to that of the 13th century troubadours of France. A typical song will last an entire night, up to 8 hours. I had heard of all-night performances also at the Mandalay palace in Myanmar, where puppet performances for royalty were commonly a through-the-night affair. The tone and rhapsody-like, free-style singing reminded me of the blues traditions of the southern United States. Every few minutes he would swell into a long, passionate, sustained note, which would be answered with applause and cheers from the audience. It became clear in our conversation with Biplab Chakma (Chief of the UNDP Community Empowerment program at the Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Facility) the next morning at UNDP’s regional offices that these songs, which can only be performed by a handful of older tribesmen, contain highly valuable information relevant to the past of the Chakma people. I helped Midori deliver a gift to Moanoghar later on: a simple Zoom recording device, with stereo recording capacity, which has since been used to contribute recordings to Moanoghar’s library. To any ethnomusicologists who might come across this blog, I believe the Chakma music traditions are deserving of further academic study. I am happy to facilitate any introductions, so do not hesitate to contact me.
The next morning, before our departure from the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the Moanoghar staff and the UNDP team took us to visit a tribal community in the jungles across Lake Kaptai. It felt like we were transported back an age. We were welcomed to the community with many flowers, and then seated in front of the village community center on a raised platform. After sipping their coconut juice on the shaded stage in front of everyone, they walked us through the village to see their farms and homes, complete with monkeys. Midori had stayed in her hotel room to practice (she is very devoted!), but the rest of us felt the warmth and love of many on that beautiful day.
Music Schools in Bangladesh
By a happy accident, I met the daughter of one of Bangladesh’s most famous musicians at a house party in Queens in 2012 (the daughter was a graduate student at Columbia). The party was a Bangladeshi neighborhood gathering, to which I was invited thanks to my association with the Asian Cultural Council in New York City. The musician is a woman named Rezwana Choudhury Bannya, a singer who specializes in the songs of Rabindranath Tagore, of which there are thousands. She is a remarkable individual, especially for her commitment to teaching music to children of the slums. In 1992 she founded a music school called Shurer Dhara. I worked mostly with Rezwana’s assistant, a very talented person with perfect English called Adrina Jamilee.
A much larger music school, Chhayanaut, exists just a few blocks from Shurer Dhara, near the Parliament building in Dhaka. The quality of music education here is very high, and we learned tha relatives of the UNIC staff hosting us were studying here. I suggest listening to some of the recent recordings from the school at this page (in Bengali – just click on the “play” buttons to sample), which are exceptional in their quality and authenticity.
Much like Bangladesh’s language and culture more generally, the country’s traditional music is very much connected to that of Bengal in India, with great overlap in both technique and repertoire. Unfortunately I did not spend enough time with the music to be able to tell you much of the subtleties of how the styles are different. But a basic overview of the style we heard is that the tanpura (or tanbura/tanpuri) provides a long, vibrating drone, over which the esraj (the bowed instrument) and the singer will “draw” the melody of the “raga” (a mode of five or more notes used to construct melodies in Indian classical music – there are different modes for different times of day, different seasons, or different moods). The tabla provides the rhythmic backdrop, with its distinctive baritone drum “glissandi,” created by using the palm of the hand to strike an already vibrating drum head at the edge (see the photo below).
When I first arranged the national anthem for the quartet to play in unison, the quartet members complained of the dryness of the harmony, but this itself demonstrates a great disconnect between Western-trained ears and those of other traditions. The presence of the tanpura drone makes a Western-style harmonization irrelevant. You can hear a recording of this type of ensemble playing the national anthem, Amar Shonar Bangla (another Rabindranath Tagore song), here. Another, more contemporary take on this tune can be found here.
ICEP's goal is to engage with communities around the world through the vehicle of classical music. At the same time, ICEP aims to introduce young musicians to foreign cultures and give them an opportunity to sharpen their community engagement skills. I have certainly benefited from this, and am grateful to Setsu Goto, Midori, and all of the Office GOTO and Music Sharing staff members in Tokyo, for their amazing efforts in sharing music with thousands of underprivileged youth around the world.
For those interested in contributing to ICEP's future programs, you can do so here.
 The Economist, “The Game of the River,” April 19, 2014.
 “Contamination of drinking-water by arsenic in Bangladesh: a public health emergency.” Allan Smith, Elena Lingas, & Mahfuzar Rahman http://www.who.int/docstore/bulletin/pdf/2000/issue9/bu0751.pdf?ua=1