Mo Lotif, 2011 Gaudino Fellow

2011 Gaudino Fellow Mo Lotif


Mathir Ghaan (Music of the Earth): A Critical Exploration of the Social Functions of Baul Songs in Rural Sylhet, Bangladesh


During my Gaudino month, I set out to explore the social functions of Baul music, Bengali folk music, in the rural communities of Sylhet, Bangladesh. Specifically, I had a two-fold objective: 1) to recover Sylhet’s rich Baul tradition; and 2) examine in what ways, and to what extent, Baul music, and the radical philosophies that inform it, structure the social life of the rural poor. Through gathering oral histories, visiting the mausoleums of prominent Sylheti Baul musicians, and participating in many Baul performances, I attempted to realize my aforementioned objectives. In the end, I was left with more questions than answers. However, I have come to realize that Baul music serves as a site of solidarity for Sylhetis despite differences in religion, ethnicity, or class. It is deeply instrumental in propagating, and preserving, the folk history of Sylhet. In a sense, Baul music composes the “pulse of Sylhet” for it permeates, and speaks to, almost every aspect of life in the region.

While it was an invaluable experience, my stay in Sylhet was, nevertheless, a very lonely one. From the outset, several markers indicated my “otherness.” My accent, in particular, was an especially salient marker. While I am relatively fluent in Bengali, the overtones of an American accent in my speaking patterns are hard to miss. As such, my speech immediately indexed my “foreign” identity to everyone that I engaged in conversation. I came to learn that my perceived “foreignness” was conflated with financial wealth.  Thus, many a time, I found myself in a situation where someone was attempting to solicit money for me. From malnourished children to fixing holes in a tin roof, the reasons people presented to me were varied and vast.  But in no way could I oblige these monetary request, for I simply did not have the resources to do so. Consequently, I had to turn down many people. Sadly, this adversely affected my relationships with quite a few individuals that I felt were integral to the robustness of my stay. Although no one ever explicitly expressed their disappointment, I could sense, from my interaction with them, the sentiments concealed within. This disconcerted me greatly, but it was a reality that I could not change.

A central lesson that I took away from my experience in Sylhet was that self-interest appears to especially pervasive in nations that do not have the infrastructure, or resources, to provide its citizens the ability to pursue stable livelihoods. Many of the individuals that asked me for financial assistance did so because they had no other choice. In a way, I was perceived as a potential lifeline, and an especially attractive one considering that there were no viable alternatives around. As dismal as this may seem, it is a reality that beckons us to muster courage and empathy, especially if we are to face it, and through out collective efforts, eventually redress it.  While my keen sense of “otherness” was uncomfortable, and at times even hurtful, it nevertheless reinvigorated my desire to confront the manifold social inequalities that structure our world. It is my hope, that in a more equitable world, perhaps I will find the sense of belonging that has eluded me for so long.