Bangla School of Music thrives in neighborhood known for artists and immigrants

When we meet, on a bright but chilly Sunday afternoon in late November, Akram Hossein gives me a book of songs.

His English is limited, the words heavily accented, but the longer we talk the more comfortable he becomes. The book, along with his accompanying smile and warm demeanor, helps communication immensely.

When I ask him to give me a bit of his background, the man who started the Bangla School of Music and recently was awarded a Knight Arts grant to create a CD/songbook featuring the works of Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore, begins by talking about his musical training in South Asia, before immigrating to the U.S. in 1992.

"I was one of six children, all singers," Akram begins. He then opens a page in the book and points to a section that lists his milestones as a student in what was then East Pakistan and afterward as a teacher and administrator in the newly-declared country of Bangladesh.

On the opposite page is more biographical information, including notes about his being awarded a gold medal for steel guitar in a national music competition in the mid-1960s when he was 17. During the war for independence with Pakistan in 1971, Akram was also involved with a radio station that broadcasted content that helped inspire Bengali people in their quest for nationhood. He later became musical director for that station, in Khulna, where he later founded a music school. Before coming to the U.S. he also started a music school in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh.

While I read, the room where we sit begins to fill. Two men enter and greet the teacher. The voices of students, young people between the ages of 12 and 16, can be heard from a small room at the front of the building. Sunlight streams through a window over Akram's shoulder. Outside the window is the Tree of Heaven Farm, and across the street is Power House, a catalyst for urban redevelopment and community engagement in this neighborhood.     

We are talking in a building at the corner of Moran and Lawley streets in Detroit, just north of Hamtramck. This is Banglatown and we're inside the Play House, one of several old frame homes converted into art spaces by community art and design group Power House Productions. Bangla School of Music has been holding classes, rehearsing and putting on concerts here since November 2013. Before that the school was upstairs in the same building that houses Aladdin Sweets and Cafe in Hamtramck. And before that, Akram ran the school in Ann Arbor and out of his home in Livonia.

The Play House is where the Hinterlands, an experimental performance ensemble with an array of local, national and international credits, bases its operations. Co-founders and partners in the group are Richard Newman and Liza Bielby. As part of the Carpenter Exchange group (along with Power House Productions, Carrie Morris Arts Production and Popps Packing) Newman and Bielby programmed the Porous Borders Festival last May in this neighborhood with a seemingly invisible boundary (the actual line is the center of Carpenter between Dequindre and Conant) between Detroit and Hamtramck. They seem born to collaborate and connect. They've done both with Akram and his school.

As if on cue, Bielby enters the space and joins the party. She's hear to sing, as it turns out. "Liza is my student," Akram says, his face beaming.

How did this partnership begin?

"I wanted to learn the Bangla language, so I went to classes above Aladdin and I met Akram there," Bielby says. "We started working on the Play House in January 2013, later that year we invited the school to move in." The house is small but the space inside is deceptively big. The second floor on this two-story house has been eliminated, creating a room with a high ceiling ideal for performance. The sound of voices and music here is warm and clear.   

In the past two years, the Bangla School of Music has been part of various community events, including an October block party in Banglatown and at CMAP, a performance space further west on Carpenter, in June.

As part of the Knight Arts award, more performances are being planned for 2016, including one to celebrate the Bengali new year in April, and another in 2017. The concerts are singalongs, which is where the songbooks come in.

"This is the reason the (they) are so important," Akram says. "People come and sing together, and we express our thoughts and feelings." Note that the book Akram has given me -- called Chondotoru, or Rhymes of the Tree in English -- is also a collaborative effort between the Bangla School of Music, Liza Bielby and Power House Productions, which published it.

Akram says he will now play some music and his students will sing. Three young students (Ahana Roy, 12; Maruf Sourav, 14; and Mumbi Roy, 16) come in from the front room. Bielby joins them in a single line to the right of the teacher. Without hesitation he begins playing a keyboard and pumping a single wind instrument -- made of wood and resting on a table -- creating drones and slow harmonies that alternately evoke melancholy and joy. The singing matches the moods of the instrument and Akram's playing of it. The sounds seem historical, traditional and modern at the same time. Without getting carried away too far, what's happening inside this art space seems to match up with what's happening outside, in the "real world," where this community is evolving and growing together.        

When the recital is over only the joy remains. The room is all smiles. Everyone has been moved by music and song. There is talk of more to come in the new year and the years after that.

Walter Wasacz is a former managing editor of Model D and lives in Hamtramck, where he was born, writes and walks. He led a psychogeographical stroll through the streets and alleys along Carpenter during the Porous Borders Festival. Photos by the author.
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Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.