On the 6th of April at around 6:00 PM, Art Cafe on Gulshan Avenue Dhaka was buzzing with people who were about to witness a unique show of music and story-telling. The event titled “From Blackburn to Bangladesh: A Musical” acquainted us with Jennifer Reid, a young ballad singer from Manchester. She came to Bangladesh and soon found a connection between the weavers from the first industrial revolution in Manchester with those living the same lives today in Bangladesh. Singing 19th century Industrial Revolution broadside ballads and Lancashire dialect work songs, Jennifer performed her native ballads while discussing its similarities with the industrial and local folk songs here in Bangladesh.
The event started off with Reid explaining what broadside ballads were. “They are called broadsides because they had ballads printed on one side and you’d cut pieces from the sheet and sell them. It was an essential way of passing on news about everything – be it murders, executions, industrial actions or the death of a celebrity”, said Reid. She then sang ballads which told stories of women working with looms and of poverty stricken children who woke up at dawn to go work in the factories. All of her songs portray the life lived during the industrial revolution. The ballads are as old as being from the 17th century and as recent as the 19th century, as the industries shifted from the west towards lesser developed areas of the world where labour was cheaper.
Which brings us to Bangladesh, where the economy is still growing. It is also home to millions of working class people whose lives resemble those of 19th century Manchester workers.
After each ballad, she showed us songs which explore similar stories of the poor in the rural areas of Bangladesh. She showed samples of Bhatiali, the songs of fishermen, Bhawaiya, songs of bullock-cart drivers and Maimansingha Gitika, a collection of folk ballads that were later translated in English as Eastern Bengal Ballads, all of which resemblances the songs sung by people from centuries ago, in a land thousands of miles away.
We got a chance to sit with Reid and therefore asked her why she drew parallels between 19th century British working class and of those in Bangladesh. She said, “With the recent Rana Plaza tragedy and many other workers’ rights issues going unnoticed here, it bears a lot of resemblance to the lives of the workers of 19th century England. It’s almost like the struggles shifted from one part of the world to another.”
Being the only living person who can still sing these old ballads, Reid feels a certain sense of responsibility towards sharing and teaching these songs so they don’t fade away. She does events, has her own album, and has even taken classes to teach children about the history of these songs.
When asked why it was essential to never forget these songs, she said, “It’s important because it’s a part of our history and our culture. Remembering these ballads will help us stay grounded to who we are and where we were from. It’s an essential part of history.”
Reid will continue to lend her voice as she travels around the world, giving everyone a chance to experience something raw which is not to say just another lesson in history, but a lesson in humanity.