Headbangers’ Bangladesh: discussing the state of play with Dhaka’s hard rockers, Crunch
“Let us know when we should be expecting calls for shows in London, then,” bassist Arka jokes.
“Our frontman will make you curry if you get us shows,” guitarist Shahed joins in. “He is a brilliant cook.”
I first met Shahed in the trenches of retail, selling and shifting furniture for the well-healed and oft ill-mannered denizens of the King’s Road area of London while he was studying for an MBA. I knew he was a metalhead right away, with a serious fondness for the classics. I would walk into the stockroom to take a morale moment and catch him hard at work swinging pallets around, belting out the lyrics to the oldies accompanied by a much-abused radio cranked on Planet Rock Radio. I still own the black Stagg electro-acoustic he sold me with some regret many years ago, the white trim stained yellow from cigarette tar. The smell of tobacco smoke would rise like a phantom from the wooden body when played.
Shahed returned to his native Bangladesh and joined the Dhaka based band after a chance meeting with Arka at a Megadeth concert in Kolkata. With their groovy, fun brand of hard rock, Crunch was a perfect fit.
I confess my ignorance about the music scene in Bangladesh. Having grown up with the hardcore scene in England, the vast majority of bands I’ve seen have been European or American, so I’m curious about what it means to be playing in a band beyond this zone of familiarity, as well as the experience of being a punter in such a place.
“Until around 2015 or so, Dhaka was buzzing with concerts every weekend (Friday and Saturday),” Arka explains. "Every weekend, there would be multiple concerts happening on the same day during the same time period. This allowed for a lot of younger bands to take part because there were a lot of slots available overall. The audience was also generally very engaging and excited.”
“Dhaka is the kind of city that is extremely draining and a lot of people need to do a lot to make a comfortable living. As such, the tendency to spend on luxury items is relatively low. Music is one of those items."
It has been a different story in the intervening years, however.
“Lately, they’ve been far more mellow,” Arka continues. “Audiences now have way more access to bands and their music on the Internet and that has hit the live music environment pretty hard. Spotify has only recently expanded its services to Bangladesh. GAAN (Bengali word for ‘song’) is a local platform which does pretty much the same thing but its library is composed almost entirely of Bangladeshi bands and artists. But here, everyone's go-to app for music is YouTube.”
Arka goes on to try and explain the phenomenon. “Dhaka is the kind of city that is extremely draining and a lot of people need to do a lot to make a comfortable living. As such, the tendency to spend on luxury items is relatively low. Music is one of those items. With YouTube streaming the songs of almost all bands, the cost of music purchase can be bypassed. Spotify, GAAN, and other streaming platforms have failed to be a source of income for musicians, so even though local musicians use them, they prioritise YouTube. It has better reach and local availability, while paying the same as the music streaming platforms (i.e. zero, or close to zero). As I said above, Dhaka is a very draining city. This is applicable for students, as well as jobholders, etc. Those who are enthusiastic about the local music scene are also usually put off by traffic and the lack of readily available, proper public transport, and so tend to miss out on shows as well. So who's at the show at the end of day? The ones for whom it was convenient to be there. They aren't really there for the experience, rather just because, ‘eh, why not?’. Additionally, in many cases, the musicians themselves don't raise the energy levels of a venue. Sometimes because they had to endure the traffic and other garbage to get to the venue, and sometimes because the lack of audience energy at the end of the day just makes it feel like you're jamming with the band on stage rather than doing a show. So they play like they're jamming, focused on their playing in a way that hampers their stage performance and energy.”
This migration away from live gigs, presumably catalysed in the last couple of years by the Covid pandemic, has particularly hit turnout at smaller shows, which discourages organisers, which in turn discourages audiences. It’s a cycle that Dhaka seems to currently be stuck in.
“Here the trend is mostly for ‘mixed lineup’ concerts,” drummer Dip says. “So, we usually get to play with other bands from different genres. It's both good and bad. Or I can say ‘unfortunate’ instead of 'bad'. The good thing is that we get to perform live, on stage, among the audience, which we always want to do. On the other hand, as the gigs are of mixed lineup, so are the audiences’ musical tastes. So there are possibilities that many people from the audience might not understand our musical style properly, which is unfortunate.”
I wonder if there is something like a rock royalty in Bangladesh.
“Yes, big time,” says Shahed. “Shows aren't frequent here, so whenever shows happen, [certain bands] occupy the headlining slot. Playing the same music. If you’re lucky, new music.”
“Abroad, you can have great lagers; you can get drunk and sleep in the mud. Here people will take you to the hospital if you do that."
“Yeah the bands that are usually selected for big shows are the same names over and over again,” Arka adds. “Organisers and sponsors tend to push those names as well, and there is crowd pressure, too. Because organisers don't do much to attract people to a show, it's all on the bands. So naturally everyone would prefer the big names. Similarly, even the bands are doing the same few songs for ages in show after show because the crowd is there for this and that hit number by the band instead of something new.” He adds, “There is a hunger for something fresh, but sometimes it seems to be that the nostalgia for the old and familiar overrides that."
Crunch are not without optimism, however. As Dip says, “I believe there are enough Rock/Metal music lovers here. There is a huge opportunity for Rock/Metal bands to thrive in Bangladesh.”
Arka elaborates. “Crunch's debut album in 2017 was received very well by listeners, particularly as we offered something that no-one else was offering in quite the same way. It was funky, groovy, catchy, yet retained some of the aggression and passion of rock music. Certainly, Crunch sounds quite different to the big name bands of the past, while still a distinct part of the spectrum of bands of the last decade or so.”
And what about the big names from outside Bangladesh? I point out Dhaka is not a place I have seen listed on any tour T-shirt.
“Big names of global rock and roll sadly do not tour Bangladesh at all,” says Arka simply. “In the past few years, Guthrie Govan had a show here though. Bands like Eluveitie, Krisiun, and Red Jumpsuit Apparatus were booked for shows at different times, but due to issues with administration or the organisers, it never happened, though they had even landed in Dhaka.”
“Bryan Adams was here at the Cricket World Cup ceremony,” chimes in Shahed.
“In Dhaka, open air shows are more packed but the energy is perhaps not on the same level,” Arka says of the differences between shows in Bangladesh and elsewhere in the world. “Indoor shows, which are more common even for big shows, are tightly packed. Big shows are organised far better, with efforts going into stage design, sound output (which usually tends to be average at best at small shows), crowd management etc. The tickets are also priced higher (though not by much).”
“I have not seen many good quality mosh pits here,” Shahed says.
Arka agrees. “Moshing doesn't happen in most shows because crowd energy isn't great, and even if it is, the venues are cramped.”
“In Dhaka there are no beer facilities [at shows].” Shahed continues to explore the differences with shows outside of Bangladesh, particularly in the West. “Abroad, you can have great lagers; you can get drunk and sleep in the mud. Here people will take you to the hospital if you do that. We really lack the festival/tent experience here. Never happened. I think this will take some time.”
“Everything is legal here if you don't get caught or have enough cash in your pocket to make them look a different way"
Talking of beer and weed, those long-standing adjuncts to rock and metal, Arka cuts to the quick: “Everything is legal here if you don't get caught (not too difficult) or have enough cash in your pocket to make them look a different way (also not too difficult). Beer is available but extremely difficult to consume openly. Most venues also tend to have a no alcohol policy. But bars are available in most locations so you're just gonna have to chug a few before going to the venue, which we have done on a few occasions. There's talk of relaxing the laws on alcohol every year during government reforms, but it's unlikely because there will be a general public backlash. Bangladeshis love to praise standards, most of which they themselves don't maintain. Public taboo behaviour is a big no-no. Do it privately, then sure. Weed situation is the same. But it's easier to hide, and much, much cheaper. So everyone does it, and hides it. It's an open secret at this point, even for law enforcers and the government.”
I ask Arka if other substances are popular in the Bangladeshi music scene.
“Popular no, available yes. Nowhere close to Europe and America, though. The desperation is less here. And even though they're available, most people in the rock scene (musicians and crowd included) don't indulge in hard drugs too much.”
Does our love affair with hard drugs smack of desperation to the rest of the planet? I wonder. Perhaps it’s a deeper question of experience.
Crunch are looking to release multiple EPs later this year. Check out their 2021 single, Off the Hook, here and keep a look out for future releases on their Facebook page.