The travelling songbird
Faizul Khan Tanim interviews one of the most celebrated artists in Bangladesh and learns more about her distinguished, and perhaps unlikely, career
‘I do not know how to play the harmonium nor do I wake up every morning to practice’One expects interesting interviews from great storytellers. In Momtaz, one of the country’s most prolific musicians, one sees such a storyteller. The awe-inspiring honesty in the stories she tells of rural and urban experiences reflect her ability to vividly conjure stories in her music.
What makes her a yet more powerful singer is her high-pitched voice, which never goes out of tune and sounds fuller, richer and more open with every song. Her style makes the songs so dominant and adds such a potent emotional touch that everyone listens as if the Pied Piper of Hamlin is bewitching them.
Her most humble admission was that she does not even know how to play the harmonium neither had vocal training nor does she practice singing every morning. ‘I have an honest, God-gifted vocal, that is my magic and honest to God, that is my inspiration’. It is this gift that allowed her to once record a staggering four albums in a single day, where most trained singers would struggle to properly complete just three songs.
‘The day I lose this gift you will not find the Momtaz in me, and a small secret to my success is that I can sleep anywhere comfortably. Sleeping, I believe, is the greatest cure [and the] motivation [that] keeps me energetic and running,’ she added.
Born in the village Bhakum in Shingair thana, Manikganj district, her childhood was spent watching her father, Modhu Boyati, sing folk songs and write lyrics, mainly in the baul and pala gaan genres. ‘I literally learned how to talk through musical notes as the atmosphere and ambience of my home was so full of tunes. Baba was my first mentor and his songs and the world of spiritual music became an integral part of my life.’
From her school days, her personality was translated into song, as everyone in the area knew that Modhu Boyati was a great artist. Her friends and teachers would ask her to sing quite often. ‘I never felt shy to sing or hum and, opposing all the negative forces and comments made by the villagers, I kept on singing. It felt as if the world was on one side and me on the other but the reason I could succeed was my father’s support.’
Pausing for a moment, the emotional singer added, ‘People always used to [say to] Baba, “Boyati why do you not teach your son to sing? Why the daughter?” But I always felt that music is such a divine enthusiasm that it depends on the person’s will to learn rather than being taught and in that respect, I lived on music.’
When she was in class two of Joymontop Primary School, her teachers forced her to take part in a singing competition where she won the first prize and all of a sudden veteran Modhu Boyati realised that she was a singer in the making. ‘Baba, at that time, did not start tutoring me as yet and was amazed to find out how I was quietly listening to his practices, picked up his songs and won a school award for myself.’
She was an ardent listener and a natural singer and quite often she would pack her bags with textbooks and leave with her father for musical shows in other districts. She would promise to study hard for exams while her father was on tour, performing on different stages everyday.
When she was young, her father became extremely sick as she was preparing to compete in an inter-district championship. It was as if her world had come crashing down; her father was the one that used to take her everywhere and missing the opportunity to sing on such a stage would be devastating for any promising singer.
‘I always believed in the phrase, “if there is a will, there is a way,” and it all happened within seconds. My teacher, Rashid Master, took me to that meet to participate. I remember, it was so late that night, my time slot for singing was during the end and after finishing my song, there wasn’t any more bus service running for me to return home so we hopped on a truck and finally made it.’
Another teacher who helped her fulfil her dreams was Adom Ali. During her father’s ailment, her teachers inspired her to continue singing and taking stages.
It was evident by then that nothing could stop her, so Modhu Boyati brought her to Mirpur, Dhaka to an ustad at Shah Ali Baba Majar Samiti called Matal Kobi Rajjak Dewan. They rented a house in Dhaka so that she could get proper tutoring and, as days passed, her creativity convinced her ustad to visit her village and continue teaching her the art of pala gaan.
‘During 1992, I was travelling a lot. Travelling to perform at gigs in various parts of the country, and my singing style and arresting songs actually created my first fan bases ever. Soon they were asking for audiotapes and I thought that bringing out an album had become a necessity and it was not a luxury anymore,’ she said as the gleam in her eyes became more prominent than before.
She continued, ‘My first album was in that same year. Visiting a couple of record labels, we finally settled with Jonny Electronics, who would conditionally bring out my album [so] that if they incurred a loss, we would have to pay the full amount.’
‘I not only completed the album within half of the shift instead of taking the full time, but they immediately signed me up to sing another album and paid a royalty of Tk 2,000. The technology at that time was to record ‘live,’ where all musicians were required to sing, play with harmony and record in a single take instead of track-based modern recording available now,’ she added.
Soon, Boithoki, Biroho-Bichchedh and spiritual albums like Bichchedh Super and Khelchey Pakhi Ulta Koley became hits, mostly in the rural areas. It was after releasing 300 solo albums that her 1999 debut television appearance came, in Hanif Sangket’s Ittyadi. ‘I still remember the song – Return Ticket Haat-ey Niye. Those were my golden days, as any album I released was a super hit.’
The ‘super hits’, mostly produced by Hassan Motiur Rahman, were Ashol Boithoki, Noyon Tara, Murshid-er Talim and Konna Kon Geram-e Ghor, duet albums with Shujon Raja and Ashraf Udash called Ballo Bondhu and Prem-er Driver, and more. The song Ami Jokhon College-e te Pori was such a hit that it was played on repeat in almost every rural cassette player and, even today, when performing in India, she sings this song as an encore.
She has released almost 700 albums to date, she informs.
She is still one of the busiest artists in the country, playing almost 15 shows a month in Bangladesh and another 20 concerts a year abroad. Her next tour will start on June 21 this year, slated to make stops in London, NewYork, Dallas and other venues in the United States.
Today, Momtaz is not only an artiste at heart, but also a great philanthropist. She did not forget her villagers and built two hospitals; a fifty-bed Momtaz Eye Hospital in 2003 to honour the memory of her mother and another Momtaz Child and Eye Hospital, which was inaugurated on May 10, 2008.
She is also a participant in urgent campaigns by singing in advertisements addressing issues like AIDS, tree plantation, environmental problems and food crises. ‘The days of singing songs with lyrics full of cheese and mischief are over,’ the artist added.
*This article was first published in New Age's XTRA Magazine's Inaugural Issue - June 13 2008