Culture is key at Bangla School of Music
“The kids come here because their parents push them to come,” said Athena Akram, instructor at the Bangla School of Music.
The tiny school, which nurtures the music, language and culture of Bangladesh, is in the unique community called Banglatown, the neighborhood heavily settled by Bangladeshis that straddles the border between northern Hamtramck and Detroit, just shy of the Davison Freeway.
Many of the parents who bring their offspring here barely speak English, but their children are already “Americans.” Shumi Hussain and her husband are in the process of moving here from New York City, where a large Bangladeshi community has been slowly relocating to Detroit over the past decade.
“I want my daughter to learn my language,” said Hussain as six-year-old Suha danced across the Bangla school’s floor in head-to-toe pink — pink Hello Kitty T-shirt, pink cardigan, pink tutu — like any little American princess.
“But when I try to teach her, she doesn’t like it, so I thought if I bring her to Bangla School of Music she would follow the teacher.”
So far she seems to be right. Suha fidgets but engages with school founder Akram Hossain, 68 — the father of Athena Akram — who patiently leads her through a vocabulary drill pointing to the characters of Bangla, the language spoken in Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal.
Hossain’s nimbus of unruly hair gives him the air of an absent-minded professor, but his focus is sharp.
“Spreading and promoting our culture is my main objective,” he said.
A dozen or so students from age six to adults meet on Saturdays and Sundays for vocal training and practice in playing the harmonium by ear. The instrument is a miniature organ with a keyboard and hand-pumped bellows in a carved wooden box the size of a large carry-on bag. It is the traditional accompaniment to Bangladeshi songs, with music based on Indian classical music.
Although kids may be forced to attend in the beginning, “They stay because they make friends here,” said Akram, 34. “And when they learn the music they realize that it’s part of who they are. It gives them their identity that they didn’t realize was within. So they keep coming back for years and years.”
Dhrobo Deb, 19, a first-year pre-med major at Wayne State University, lives on the Detroit side of Bangla Town. After years of studying at the Bangla school he took a long hiatus when his college prep studies took priority. He recently began coming to Bangla class again with his little sister Dhetee, 10.
“I feel really nostalgic coming back here,” he said. “This is really helpful to calm me down when I’m stressed. And learning this music helps me interact with the Bangali community.”
“Bangla music is part of our culture, it’s part of our religion, it’s part of our whole ethnicity,” Athena Akram said. “It’s who we are.”
Welcome to the neighborhood
There is a difference of opinion over who came up with the name Banglatown. Was it the young hipsters and artists who also make the neighborhood their home, or was it the Bangladeshi business community? Either way the Bangladeshi American Public Affairs Committee (bapac-usa.com) has adopted it and greets visitors to its headquarters with “Welcome to Banglatown” stenciled on the window it shares with Kabob House and Mouchak Sweets restaurant on Conant, co-named Bangladesh Avenue, in Hamtramck.
The neighborhood has churned with Hamtramck’s always-evolving demographics. Poles, Bosnians, Albanians, African-Americans, Yemenis and Bangladeshis — and in recent years plain old American hipsters — have all called it home.
When Gina Reichert and her husband Mitch Cope moved their populist architecture and art firm Design 99 here and began Power House Productions, the neighborhood embraced them too. They lured artists with fellowships and cheap homes, in a bold experiment to see if art and the people who make it could help stabilize and grow a neighborhood showing signs of abandonment and blight.
One of the homes they bought and renovated became the Play House, home to The Hinterlands experimental theater group and to the Bangla School of Music, which formerly had been squeezed into a few rooms above Aladdin Sweets and Cafe on Conant.
Hinterlands co-founder Liza Bielby sought out Akram Hossain because she wanted to learn to speak Bangla so she could communicate with her non-English-speaking neighbors. As program director for Play House she offered Hossain the space for his classes.
“The lyrics are incredibly beautiful, very deep,” said Bielby. “It’s an unending well of beauty in these different poems that are songs.”
From Bangladesh to Detroit
When he lived in Bangladesh, Akram Hossain was a noted musician and composer, producing programs as music director of a radio station and performing and teaching traditional Bangladeshi music.
He brought his wife and daughter here in 1992 for a six-month visit to perform in New York and Wisconsin. The trip became a permanent stay when his wife, a physical therapist, was offered a job in Michigan.
Hossain plugged into the Bangladeshi community here, established his school and continued to perform.
He had five productive years. Then in 1997 he suffered a major heart attack and stroke that left him paralyzed for more than a month. Daughter Athena said his first post-stroke words were not spoken but sung, and he continued to sing his way through his recovery. “The music of his life, it saved him,” she said.
Athena Akram is a physical therapist like her mother, but is also her father’s partner in running the school. Her pure soprano is beguiling as she leads her students in scales and melodies.
She stops often to correct pronunciation and insists the students understand the meaning of what they’re singing in the language they may only hear their parents speak at home. Language learning seems to come organically when inspired by the music they have so much fun singing.
Akram Hossain teaches voice for singing traditional and modern Bangladeshi music and he teaches students to play the harmonium. He also teaches steel (or Hawaiian) guitar to private students. He won a gold medal in Pakistan for his proficiency with the instrument when he was only 17.
Athena Akram teaches voice and harmonium. They both informally teach Bangla, the language of their homeland, a language shared by Indians in the state of West Bengal.
Knight Foundation awards grant
The 10-year-old school has used public performances to showcase Bangla culture. They recently performed during the Hamtramck Music Festival.
With the help of Power House Productions, the school published “Chondotoru or Rhymes of the Tree,” a book compiling songs and poems of famous writers of Bangla literature printed in Bengali script with phonetic pronunciation and translations in English, making it accessible to a wide range of readers and students of Bangla.
In 2015 the nonprofit school was awarded a $12,000 Knight Foundation grant to record a CD of the songbook, featuring some compositions by Akram Hossain. Knight Foundation grants require the grantee to come up with matching funds to get the full amount of the grant. To help Bangla School of Music reach its goal, go to https://igg.me/at/banglaschoolofmusic.