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You Like What?!
Written by Emon

One of the best reasons to run a blog is the amazing friendships that strike up with the people you meet via e-mail. Take one Emon Hassan, for instance. I asked him to write this post--he enthralled me with his surprising love for a certain kind of music genre I never expected. I helped him--by asking him to write a post, which led him to a music connection. (He even posted about it!) And now, it finally comes full circle with this enrapturing blog post. For more intriguing entries by E, check out Guitarkadia.

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Picture me. Back when I was a boy listening to whatever I was listening to. The sounds coming out of those speakers, tiny as they were in those early boom boxes, bringing the sounds of pop music. Pop music that is sweet as candy, that sticks to the teeth as candy, and that disappears as...you guessed it. Mind you, I was growing up, not in NYC, but in Dhaka, Bangladesh. And although many around me were exposed to Rock, Blues, or Jazz - I had the faintest idea what those meant, let alone sounded like. Then one day:

"What's this you're listening to?"

"Scorpions", I muttered.

"And what's this?" The tapes showed. Recorded from LPs, the scratchy sounds seemed normal those days - like an almost quiet fireplace. Dude asking me these questions was a local in our apartment complex. He was the 'Oracle' who owned hundreds and hundreds of tapes, we were told. We being the neophytes of music. We as in barely-grown-mustaches-is-our-ID-cards kids. We...as in..just me. The others were happy with Bangla pop songs.

"Mm...Bon Jovi"

"Slippery When Wet", I managed.

"Yeah...you need to upgrade, man." Clearly a 'Rock Guy for the Pop Guy' moment; I still love my Scorpions though. 'Holiday' was the first song I learned on the guitar. That finger-picked intro, that second guitar part over the intro - ah, still sweet.

So I was sent home with two tapes, "Best of Deep Purple" and "Best of Iron Maiden." Lo! What is this music! Why do I respond to it in such a primal way? Where the hell did it come from? And thus, I was initiated, introduced to the mob, inducted into the hall of 'shame', a made man of the rock 'n roll army. Once you're in, you're in. You commit. You live it. You grow with it.

Picture me now, several years later, tapping my foot - the left one always - to the rocking sounds of...Bluegrass! What? How? Why?

Exactly! It's not just "Yeah, it's nice." It was "Hot damn, this music is awesome!" Not exaggerating. This was way before 'Man of Constant Sorrow' via George Clooney, via Dan Tyminski , brought Bluegrass fever to the masses; the masses, of course, that never had been tapped by Bluegrass before, I suppose. What happened in between? How did I do a Benjamin Button on Heavy Metal to Bluegrass? And yes, why Bluegrass?

A short stop at the History booth first. Although the genre seems much older, Bluegrass, the style that made dictionary-friendly by the Bill Monroe, was developed in the late 30s and early 40s. Wikiepedia is a good friend, and she points to a quote by Dr. Ralph Stanley :

"Oh, (Monroe) was the first. But it wasn't called bluegrass back then. It was just called old time mountain hillbilly music. When they started doing the bluegrass festivals in 1965, everybody got together and wanted to know what to call the show, y'know. It was decided that since Bill was the oldest man, and was from the Bluegrass state of Kentucky and he had the Blue Grass Boys, it would be called 'bluegrass.'"
There you have it. The good Doctor brung it. But what is it about the sound of Bluegrass that I related to on the first listen? In order to do that I have to go back at least 7 years. I was in my brother's car messing around with the radio; he hates it when I do that because I never can seem to settle on a station. That night I did a 'double take' on a song. It was Hayseed Dixie's version of 'Highway to Hell.' Whoa...what the hell, man! It was like listening to 'Highway Star' for the first time. That pretty much did it for me. I had to dig. Not too many bands were doing hard rock covers that way [the band calls it rockgrass and has their own version of how they came upon that style].

Well, basically no one else to my knowledge, that is. Years later, Iron Horse's 'Fade to Bluegrass' would come knocking on my door and slap me awake. So much so that I had to seek the guys out and do an interview. It was as if these guys knew how Bluegrass and Heavy Metal could've been cut out by the same tailor, but made of different cloth. And not only did they understand the connection, both bands extracted just the elements that makes a rock song rock and interpreted with the language of Bluegrass. You know what's unusual about the 'Fade to Bluegrass' album? Hetfield's lyrics popped more. That makes sense? Hope it does. It's not hard to see AC/DC transition into the covers by Hayseed Dixie, but I have to admit, and you will too perhaps, that one would have to really stretch his/her mind to see how 'Unforgiven' could translate into Bluegrass. They say about Jazz that 'It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing'. True for Bluegrass - you better believe it!

Am I implying that Bluegrass is just an acoustic version of rock or metal? If that analogy alone makes you pick up a Bluegrass album or two, yes I am. But that would just be throwing away the evolution of that music and the significance it has to American music. While the terminology is fairly new, the history of Bluegrass goes back to 1600s. An excerpt from the IMBA reads:

As the early Jamestown settlers began to spread out into the Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky and the Virginias, they composed new songs about day-to-day life experiences in the new land. Since most of these people lived in rural areas, the songs reflected life on the farm or in the hills and this type of music was called "mountain music" or "country music."
Okay. Let's get to where I, a South Asian boy, and Bluegrass meet. I've always maintained that your tradition and culture might be hiding, or at a distance from you, but your taste in food and music will want to tell you where your roots are. Stay with me on this. A friend of mine, Steve, was born in the UK and eventually settled in France. He'd always tell me how he loved South Asian food and learned a little Bangla because both fascinated him. Normal, I thought, although I asked myself, probably once, why. We kept in touch via email and then one day it stopped. When he resurfaced, he mentioned that he'd then recently found out his ancestors came from Myanmar (Burma). Might I insert a 'whoa' in here? This was around the same time I'd seen Spencer Wells's 'Journey of Man'. You know my thinking had been reshaped about history already. And it had started with Latcho Drom a few years before that, the journey of gypsies from India (a whole different post); you're not complete if you haven't seen those two films.

A stringed instrument I'd like to present to you that's used in Bangla folk music - Dotara [Do = Two + Tara = strings]. It's not always just two strings. It has variants of 4 or 6 strings, just like the Banjo does. Okay, now guess what this instrument sounds like? This !! Mm hmm...oh-yeah-baby! The Dotara is mostly known for its accompaniment to Bhawaiya songs. Here's a old song clip by Abbasuddin Ahmed considered, to make a comparison related to this post, the Bill Monroe of Bhawaiya. To excerpt from the Banglapedia page, this style is:
"...generally about love between man and woman, derives from bhava (emotion). Bhawaiya songs, however, may also be spiritual in theme as in 'fande pariya baga kande re' (The heron cries entrapped in a net), 'chhar re man bhaver khela' (O my mind, leave earthly games), etc.
I see. Love, emotion (longing, as I see it), and spiritual themes. Now check out this list of Bill Monroe songs.

How does all this explain my love of Bluegrass? Maybe it's just a clue as to what I ought to look for if I wanted to trace my roots and know where my ancestor's footprints had been. Where am I in this Atlas? You might be wondering why I'm taking the simple admiration of a musical style to that level of self-discovery. Well, remember my friend Steve from a few paragraphs before? I'm not alone in this, by the way. You'll find a lot of folks like me from South Asia who feel a connection to Country or Bluegrass music. Now my argument would also suggest that I ought to like all types of music. In fact, I do. It's just that American music found its way to far corners of the world before faster because of its movies and records - at least it has to me. It's the same reason a generation of young musicians in the UK fell head over heels over Blues in the 50s and 60s. Blues was not, I like to think, born in the US; it just settled down here. Like the Gypsies have in Spain and France. The genres ping back and forth and take on different outfits but the purpose is always the same: to say something about how one feels, sees, and hears.

You know how you sometimes meet a person and don't hit it off right away. You drift away, meet other people, then come back a little more grown and meet the same person and say to yourself, "I see why I'd met you before I knew you." Today you might not like Bluegrass because the way the name sounds coming off of someone's mouth, but it might just mean you're not ready. I'll admit that I never had the appreciation for Bangla folk songs until I came to America. And I discovered Rock and Heavy Metal while I wasn't even in America. I'm writing this today, rather able to write this today because of the music that chose me. I don't think we humans choose what music we like. That would be similar choosing my face before birth.

Let's put all this in perspective from a guitar player's point of view. You learn something every day. Hopefully it's something new. Learning and playing the guitar is not just a musical journey you embark on, it's also learning who you are during that journey. I've always traced back influences cited by a guitar player, musician, or band. I did that so I could start with Led Zeppelin and end up with Robert Johnson. The reason you'd picked up the guitar might not be as superficial as you claim it to be. The reason you like electric over acoustic may be of some significance to what you're trying to communicate. The reason you like the shape of one electric guitar over another might not be so random. You're reading this page at this moment because of two reasons, my love of Bluegrass and your love of this site. Of course, if Ava hadn't asked me to do a guest post you and I wouldn't have met. And, if she hadn't asked me...I wouldn't have delved into this deeper. Guitarist Pat Martino said something in an article I'll never forget. He works on an album to find out how he and his world has changed after it's completed - meaning the musicians he meets, the happy accidents that come along the way, the unexpected changes in that album's roadmap etc.

Tell a story with your guitar. Tell it your way. Look for music that expresses your thought better. Give 'unusual' music a chance. And always try and say something different, or something familiar differently - your way.

Mark Twain had his pen. You have your guitar.
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