Jon Foreman and his SWITCHFOOT bandmates visited Bangladesh, experienced Bangla music and much more
We were three hours outside of Dhaka in the Hindu village of Baliya. All day long smiles and hand-gestures had been our best means of communication. Our guides and translators had taught us a few key phrases: "hello", "thank you", "Bangladesh is beautiful." And truly, Bangladesh was beautiful. And a long, long way from home.
We had just played two festivals in Eastern India, and had decided to
fly over and see what our friends were up to in that region. They work
for an organization called Food For The Hungry empowering poor
communities with education, micro-finance, clean water, and a better
life. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Such an amazing
perspective: to see a village transformed through education, clean
water, empowered women, and micro-finance. This village was making an
incredible life from the ground up. I'll never forget the village. Or
their faces! The colours, the flavours, the traffic, the smells. even
jet-lag felt different in Bangladesh. In every way, we were as far
away from California as you can get.
And now, after a lunch in the Muslim side of the village we were heading back to the Hindu side for a concert performed by some of the locals: Bangla musicians who would show us how music is made in Bangladesh.
It's hard to describe music from that part of the world. As a band, we love to embrace new ideas: But these Bangla songs would make Jimi Hendrix or Zappa seem pedantic. My brother said it well: "The music made me want to move, but for the first five minutes I couldn't even figure out when to bob my head." The music in Bangladesh is an intricate dance that is unfolding. Each new song, like the traffic: beautiful, and dangerously free. As spicy as Bangla cuisine. As vibrant as the colours of the saris on the local women. As musicians, we were overwhelmed. Dancing, laughing, trying our best to sing along. What joy! What art!
Every so often our friends who could translate would whisper to us what the lyrics were aiming at. But as the afternoon passed, music was the only language we had in common: a language much older than any of our words.
After hours of this Bangladeshi musical feast, an idea came to me. What if we could play a song together? Souls from around the world converging to join voices in the common language of music. (If you can't tell by now, I'm a bit of an idealist from time to time). When I leaned over and told the idea to my more practical younger brother, he started laughing.
"Seriously? If you're really feeling it, we can try our best!" he said, still laughing. "But there's a lot of ways that could go horribly wrong."
The rest of the band gave a similar response, "it's probably a bad idea, but let's give it a shot."
So we grabbed our guitars out of the van and tried our best with interpreters and hand motions to spell out what we were aiming for. The local Bangla musicians were willing to give it a go, but they seemed about as sceptical as my brother: doubtful that this was going to end well.
I pointed a key to the melodica player. He held down a F# major chord with a questioning look. I moved the third down a half step to the minor. Then we started to clap out a tempo and we were off. We were playing a song called NATIVE TONGUE (a song that we had only played once or twice ourselves, much less in a setting like this). The first verse was a sea of questioning faces. I looked to my left at my bandmates, wondering what I had roped them into. I looked to might right at the Bangladeshi musicians, wondering what they were thinking of these surfers from California crashing their set. I looked back at the local villagers, whose questioning faces said it all: what was this cacophonous noise? What was happening?!
It was awkward. And strange. And uncomfortable. And then somehow, everything changed. The chorus arrived and all the notes began to find each other. The east and the west holding hands. The Bangladeshi musicians all stood up and began chanting and dancing with us. Somehow, there on the soil outside of Dhaka there was a spontaneous eruption of song and rhythm unlike anything I've been a part of in any number shows around the world. No lights. No PA system. No rehearsal. No words. Just music.
After the song, we were all laughing and sweating and trying to talk to one another. After all my efforts in English, the leader of the Bangladeshi band simply embraced me six or seven times. The first few times I was a bit self-conscious. I was sweating and I felt out of place. But by the fourth embrace, my defences broke, and I embraced him back.
Oil and water. The waves on the sand. The mountains and the sky. Every day, there are conversations happening all around us. Beyond fear. Beyond culture. Beyond our comfort zones. In that village outside of Dhaka I was loved. I was welcomed. I was met with open arms that saw past our differences. Seeing past the mistakes, the wrong notes. Cause the truth is, we're not that different from each other. We've all got scars, and hopes, and dreams, and fears. We all need forgiveness. We all need grace. Maybe it's time to communicate with a language deeper than fear. Hate is not your native tongue. No, my friends. Love is our native tongue.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.