The late Azam Khan, performing here in 2005, brought rock to Bangladesh in the 1970s.

As in the US a decade prior, where rock music helped change cultural values about race, religion and sexuality, Bangladeshi rock ‘n’ roll—dominated by Azam Khan’s star power—showed people that a different life was possible.

Khan “was a rebel to the dominant culture,” said one man I interviewed, who saw Khan live in the 1980s. He traded his traditional Bengali garb for jeans, he said, because “I saw Azam Khan used to wear jeans.”

The changes Khan pushed went beyond aesthetics.

“He was redefining Bangladeshi culture and promoting liberal values like freedom,” the man told me. “Freedom from conservative values.”

As another fan said, “We were becoming politically aware.”

Bangladeshi rock goes mainstream

Political awareness was a subversive thing in newly independent Bangladesh.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the government alternated between military dictatorship, illiberal democracy and autocracy. And though rural development spurred some economic growth, 41% of Bangladeshis still lived in extreme poverty by the early 1990s.

Founded as a secular nation, Bangladesh—which has a Muslim population bigger than that of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt combined—adopted Islam as its state religion in 1988.

That decision, which the nation’s highest court upheld in 2016, made Bangladesh more socially and religiously conservative.

Rock culture was a kind of alternative universe—one where criticism of the government was encouraged and religious zealotry was uncool.

Guns N’ Roses, Pink Floyd and Aerosmith all became popular in Bangladesh in the 1990s. Local groups with English names–the metal pioneers Rockstrata, hard-rocking Warfaze, the popular Love Runs Blind and a dozen others—performed to stadiums full of long-haired fans wearing t-shirts, boots and chain necklaces.

The Bangladeshi band Rockstrata in 1985.
Image: Mahbub19702002/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

This was revolutionary in a place where musical performances were historically quiet, calm and disciplined.

Rock concerts were loud. Fans smoked cigarettes, headbanged, and got in fights. Artists used alcohol, marijuana and other drugs, if not as heavily as their American or British counterparts.

A rock democracy

As Bangladesh’s economy opened up to the world in the late 1990s—its textile exports leaving the country while Hollywood films and luxury vehicles flowed in—inequality also rose quickly, particularly in rapidly growing cities, where poverty persisted and new wealth accumulated.

Bangladeshi rockers were unsparing critics of these disparities.

In the 1998 track “Dhushor Manchitro,” or “Faded Map,” the metal band Warfaze sings of a “hopeless time,” with “dead bodies on the street every day” and “arrogant blue Mercedes” rushing past, “democracy winking” at the injustice.

In the 1997 track “Gonotontro,” or “Democracy,” singer Maqsood O’ Dhaka calls Bangladesh’s democracy a “constitutional thugocracy.”

Rock artists also denounced Bangladesh’s growing religious conservatism.

In the video for his anti-militancy song “Parwardigar,” O’ Dhaka opens with an anti-extremist message. Over images of terrorist attacks and peace rallies, he insists that “blind fanatics and fundamentalists simply cannot snatch away our future.”

The decline of Bangladeshi rock

Most of those social and economic problems have only worsened since then.

Prime minister Sheikh Hasina, who took power in 2008, has overseen some remarkable economic development. Today, Bangladesh is a manufacturing hub with a booming economy.

But while there’s good news economically, Hasina’s administration has suppressed dissent in Bangladesh.

In the past year, two outspoken government critics—the photographer Shahidul Alam and sociology professor Maidul Islam—were jailed for spreading “propaganda and false information,” a charge that carries up to 14 years in prison.

The nonprofit group Human Rights Watch has called on Hasina’s government to stop the arbitrary arrests of opposition activists. Bangladesh’s prisons reportedly house thousands of people charged with “subversive activities.”

Religious extremism is also rising in Bangladesh. Since 2013 a string of violent attacks targeting secular bloggers, artists, religious minorities and free thinkers has shown the narrowing scope of civil liberties and acceptable public discourse.

The decade the music died

Bangladeshis could use a protest music like rock. Instead, rock culture is fading away.

Partly, it has lost ground to Bollywood music from neighboring India, with its colorful power anthems celebrating life and love. Bollywood songs dominate Bangladeshi radio, and pirated versions are available online for free.

Meanwhile, a budding underground hip-hop scene has largely replaced rock as music of Bangladeshi rebellion.

Domestic law has also failed to protect the financial interests of the artists who once drove Bangladesh’s vibrant rock scene. Industry groups say that just 10% of music in Bangladesh is purchased legally and estimate that music piracy annually costs US$180 million in lost earnings.

warfaze bangladesh
Image: Facebook/Warfazefans

“Ideas such as intellectual rights and royalties are not strongly embedded in our culture,” Samir Hafiz, Warfaze’s guitarist, told me. “It’s really difficult to live as a rock musician in Bangladesh.”

Increased religiosity, which rejects all things Western in favor of a traditional lifestyle, has also hurt Bangladesh’s rock scene. Some young Muslims I spoke with even see rock ‘n’ roll as a sin.

Rock music helped change Bangladesh. Now, there’s little room left for it.

Mubashar Hasan, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article. We welcome your comments at

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