Armeen Musa : Carrying the legacy forward

Armeen Musa : Carrying the legacy forward

In a candid interview with Jamini, Armeen tells us about her love for music, takes us through her foundational years, and shares the unique personal revolution that has shaped her journey with music.

As far as Armeen Musa can recall, she remembers waking up to the sound of her mother’s riyaaz, hearing her whisper soft tunes into the night. Rewind, replay, pause, repeat—riyaaz soon turned into routine practice, one that became the oddly comforting background score of her life. As the daughter of the acclaimed Nazrul singer Dr Nashid Kamal and great-granddaughter of folk legend Abbasuddin Ahmed, it would seem that music would be a natural undertaking for Armeen—in fact, it wasn’t. Set on being a lawyer from the time she was 18, she really thought that that’s where her life would be headed.
Now, a long way off from being a lawyer, singer and composer Musa has acquired an impressive resume, having set up a music career in 2005 with her rendition of Radha Raman’s Bhromor Koio in collaboration with Fuad Al-muqtadir. The video went viral on YouTube, garnering 4 million views.
Subsequently, a succession of singles from her teenage years formed her debut album Aye Ghum Bhangai that featured a variety of musicians, including Arnob, Zoe Rahman, Idris Rahman, Labik Kamal (AJOB) and Buno (Bangla). She also collaborated with Kishon Khan’s Lokkhi Terra project, a London-based world music collective, touring as its lead singer, debuting with the band at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London with famed musicians such as Mike Mondesir and Fazal Qureshi.
Armeen has since added two more albums to her credentials: Finding Fall and Simultaneously, along with a graduate degree from the prestigious Berklee School of Music. Selected as one of 17 singers from 300 applicants, she has performed with Grammy award winning singer Bobby McFerrin. Part of the Berklee Indian Ensemble in 2011, she was also one of the soloists for the group and was selected to record with visiting artist, singer, producer Clinton Cerejo in 2013. In 2014 Armeen composed the soundtrack for the film Shongram, the first cross-cultural film about the birth of Bangladesh, played in theatres in Bangladesh and selected halls in Britain and Europe.
In a candid interview with Jamini, Armeen tells us about her love for music, takes us through her foundational years, and shares the unique personal revolution that has shaped her journey with music.

Where did your love for music stem from?

From my grandfather to my mother, people from my family have been practicing music for decades— there’s no doubt that I’ve inherited it from them. My mom says that I used to sing from the time I knew how to form words. Although I don’t have clear memories of my childhood, but as far as I can recall, I don’t ever remember not singing. I remember that I used to set up the harmonium when my mom was at work and practice my own songs all the time. I’ve also grown up watching my mom practice her riyaaz. From waking up to the sound of her practicing, to hearing her sing at night, I have had Hindustani classical music as well as Nazrul Geeti as the background score of my life.

How did your lineage shape your views on music?

Interestingly, even though people from my family have been in the music industry for decades, taking up music wasn’t exactly encouraged. My elders knew how hard it is to make it as a full time musician in this industry so they weren’t initially appreciative of my choice. While there was no active discouragement, there was also no encouragement to pursue it full-time. It was always expected to be a hobby rather than a profession.

Did they want you to follow in their footsteps?

Not really. However, I wouldn’t really blame them for it. Their hesitancy can be traced to Bangladesh’s schooling system as schools here are not trained to look at and assess a child’s strengths and weaknesses. Personally, I believe that children need to be evaluated on what makes them happy or challenged. In terms of the performance arts in a country like ours, there are

good reasons to not encourage it because it is so hard to make a living from music. I am standing here myself as testament to this fact: it really isn’t easy to survive in this industry. Music is one thing; the industry another.
Although my parents were supportive of me later, initially they were not inclined to see the musician in me. They were never equipped to think that I would sing with A R Rahman one day. Our society has instilled in them a belief that success equates to being a really good doctor, a big businessman, or even just being on TV. I feel that in terms of arts, as there isn’t a lot of exposure for parents to see what kinds of career can be had, we don’t think big for our children when it comes to music. Our parents think that a career in music will probably mean your child will end up being one of the pop stars on TV, who make music videos with the help of models. That’s not really something my parents would ever want for me. What you see on TV today is not a goal they would ever consider—it would have been out of the question. On the contrary, neither did they have the kind of vision to say that they would want their child to be able to grace the Bengal Classical Music Festival stage one day. I think it was because of the way Bangladesh’s music industry has been shaped: you are expected to take up playback singing for movies to make money, and the songs in Bangladeshi films get worse with time. Moreover, after Runa Laila and Sabina Yasmin, there hasn’t been many other musicians that have been able to penetrate international markets. Musicians are restricted to a certain circle that they can’t really break free from. So naturally, when I was younger my family wasn’t too encouraging of me pursuing music.

What was the final prompt that made you take up music as a full-time profession?

When I was in university working towards a law degree and later studying Economics, I realised I wanted to pursue a career in music more than anything else. I realised that I really didn’t enjoy my studies and I didn’t enjoy the kind of people I was exposed to. In high school I had an underground band and was always around musicians so I found myself immersed in music. During summer breaks I would take lessons from Sujit Mustafa but that was the extent of my formal education. Once I went to university, I didn’t even have that. It was a drastic change from my 18 year old self that thought I was going to be a corporate lawyer. At that age I really feel that we don’t know what we’re interested in. Corporate law sounded like a glamorous job where I’d make money and I just sort of went with that. I went to law school for a year and I didn’t like it so I changed my major to Economics so that I would have time to do my music. It was less demanding and I had time to have a band. Those were indications that I was not happy with my life. It was much later when I was 25 that I decided to go to music school, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve made.

What would you say is the best part of being a musician—what do you love about it the most?

I’ll definitely say this: in all sorts of ways it isn’t easy, my family was right about that. The music industry is very hard to work in. Professionalism is different here. Some days, the traffic, the politics, and the people can drive you crazy. Sometimes, I just want to leave but I will go into a rehearsal and for those two hours I will forget everything that is wrong with my life. That’s the best part of being a musician—other people get to listen to music for a while, but I get to do it all the time. I get to be in a world that is bigger than my personal problems and even the little problems go away. I’m part of something much bigger than I know and there’s a very special place that I get to see and feel here. I love that feeling and I hold on to it.

Would you say it’s a form of escape?

Escape is running away from reality, so I’d say no. My reality is music and it makes me realise that the small things that bother me are nothing but trivial issues. You know when something seems like a really big deal to you? When you’ve been stuck in traffic for 40 minutes, it’s frustrating. But in hindsight it’s not that big of a deal, especially when you get to do the thing you love. At the end of the day I would say that I still have the best job in the world. I’ve never felt unhappy making music; I’ve never regretted choosing this path. It’s hard for me to work in Bangladesh at times, but I love the people here and it is because of them that makes it all worth it. I can hate the room I am in, but I will always love what I’m doing.

When younger, did you try your hand at any instruments?

In my teenage years, I had a guitar but I never really played it with passion. I had it only for functional use. It was only last year that I really fell in love with an instrument: the piano. At Berklee, we had a piano in every room and I would watch people play. When I came to Bangladesh there was a big hole in my heart and I felt like it came from not having a piano around me. That’s when I got a small keyboard and started learning. I won’t say I have mastered it but I know where the notes are. But in all honesty, I’m not an instrumentalist.

Would you then say that singing is your forte?

No. I don’t consider myself a good singer either. I’m a composer and that’s what I’ve worked on forever. I started with writing my own songs and composing my own music. I’m working on my second film now, with a few ad films here and there but I’m essentially a composer and that’s what I consider myself. The goal is to be a singer in the future.

How did your Berklee education differ from your previous schooling?

Berklee is a professional school where we were not treated like undergraduate students. We were treated like musicians and we were expected to act like professional musicians at all times. Yes, in some classes this was not the case, but mostly we had world famous musicians teaching us. We had to work really hard to get there; we couldn’t just waste their time. You would never feel like not doing homework. It’s quite the opposite: you are dying to do your homework, to bring your work/songs to show somebody who could critique them in a way that nobody else could. In general, I liked this American system more than the British one I was accustomed to. Furthermore, I don’t think there was anyone in the entire college who didn’t sacrifice something to be there. They were there because they really wanted to study and really wanted to learn music. It didn’t feel like a conventional school-teacher setting. I think that’s how people should learn and no one should go to college at 18. They should only go when they know what they really want to study. If I have children I’ll never let them go to university at 18. There was something beautiful about going to college at 25. I loved every second; I loved my college; I enjoyed my classes; I had good relationships with my professors. Homework never felt like homework, instead it was fuel for me to strive to become a better musician. A lot of students at the college were older too, and it made a lot of difference. I knew exactly why I was there and I knew what I wanted.

Do you think it’s a good time for aspiring musicians in Bangladesh?

The music market is bad, for those pursuing the indie genre. I’m not going to lie about it. If you want to be an independent musician like me you need to pick something else that pays. Especially for someone who doesn’t do commercial music, this is not the country to do it in. Everyone will say the same about every other country; but if you have to become a non-commercial musician in Bangladesh, you have to be willing to chase a secondary income source. To exist in the market now, you cannot just simply be a guitarist playing instrumental music. All of us that work fulltime are balancing many things. For example, teaching, corporate shows, radio stints, session work for ads and documentaries—we are doing it all. The extra stuff can be fun too, but it’s juggling and balancing to making a living, keeping yourself relevant, as well as continuing to hone your craft that can help you survive this industry. Despite these hardships, I do love my job, but it is because I love it so much that I survive. You have to really love what you do if you want to stay sane and make it here.

What are three life lessons you took away from your time at Berklee?

One lesson I learnt was how bigger is more beautiful. Everybody is very individualistic in Bangladesh, but in Berklee we learnt how to perform in large groups. I would perform with 140 people there. Here, even if I learnt from the best teachers it would be my voice I would be learning more about. The kind of exposure I had from learning from hundreds of people on stage, it might look like I was insignificant but I wasn’t and I never felt so. So much detailing goes into free concerts by students. Beyond the music itself, so much goes on backstage. I know now that if I lived here I wouldn’t be so pushy about rehearsing before shows. For musicians from the pop or rock industry here, most people aren’t into the habit of rehearsing. As most musicians are juggling so many things, it’s difficult to make time for rehearsals. There have even been times when I’ve performed with one rehearsal but my audience is okay with it because we are all good singers. However, what we overlook is that incredibly special feeling of rehearsing something for months before finally going on stage. You internalise the music to a point where it is you—that’s something I’ve learnt from Berklee. It’s something people learn in Gurukul or from classical Ustads—that it’s all about practicing. It doesn’t happen with two to three sessions…it comes with months, and years and repetition and long hours.
Finally, I believe the most important lesson that I got out of my experience is that performing music is a service. One of my professors would say that we need to do what ‘serves the music’ and that’s something that I would not have known had I lived here. Performing is not a just a job, it’s a service to the universe. Of course, we do it because it makes us happy but we also do it because we are serving the audience and sometimes you have to do what you have to do. Even if you’re having a horrible day you have to go on stage and make your audience happy because you have that power…not everybody has the power.

Musicians have the power to heal, it’s a gift that’s given to very few people in this world. Utilising that power for money and fame is one way to do it but keeping that balance in helping people and society is what my college instilled into every single student. It’s something about the healing power of music that I came out with, that I didn’t know of before.

In the next phase of your career what do you want to accomplish?

I’ve been out of university for a while and have drifted into a very transitional phase. The first two years of me being a professional musician has had me working for ad films. I’ve travelled as a musician; I’ve done jingles and voice-overs; I’ve taken my own band on tours and I’ve also sang for films. I’ve done a little bit of everything, trying to figure out what my goal should be, and despite my complaints, I’ve been very lucky as a newcomer. In the music industry there are hundreds of places where you can work and concentrate and right now, for me, I’m just trying to figure out what my next course will be.
Personally I don’t have a vision or goal, I just want to sing. I am a selfish person who wants to do things that fulfill me. Sometimes it lands me on a rooftop in Jatra and sometimes it lands me in the Boston conservatory. But my main goal in life is to keep learning—I’m a student by nature. Having spent most of my life in school or college or universities, I miss that, and be it Gurukul or a postgraduate degree, I see myself headed back to being a student soon.

N Anita Amreen is a writer who began her creative career with a five year stint as a journalist, with her work appearing in national dailies such as Dhaka Tribune and Daily Sun. Presently, she works as Manager for the publishing wing of Bengal Foundation.

In a candid interview with Jamini, Armeen tells us about her love for music, takes us through her foundational years, and shares the unique personal revolution that has shaped her journey with music. As far as Armeen Musa can recall, she remembers waking up to the sound of her mother’s riyaaz, hearing her whisper soft…

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