REVIEW | RENU ‘YOU ARE FEARLESS’ (TUMI OBHOI / তুমি অভয়) FT PAGLA BAUL

The music of per­cus­sion­ist, com­poser, pro­du­cer and multi-instru­ment­al­ist RENU (Renu Hossain) is a tour de force of exper­i­ment­a­tion from a maes­tro crafts­wo­man informed by dec­ades of prac­tice and study by way of the Queer Brit­ish Asi­an exper­i­ence. RENU’s work is skill­fully tex­tured and son­ic­ally var­ied with each new addi­tion to the oeuvre a pleas­ant sur­prise and an unex­pec­ted yet exhil­ar­at­ing turn into a chasm of cos­mic cre­ativ­ity. The latest single ‘Tum obhoi (You are fear­less)’ looks to the past in a bold and defi­ant leap into the future.

2021 marks 50 years of inde­pend­ence for Bangladesh. 2021 also marks 21 years of RENU who began her music­al jour­ney in the year 2000. RENU cut her teeth as a per­cus­sion­ist for the likes of Grace Jones, State of Bengal and oth­er major artists. RENU’s mes­sage, is some­what dif­fer­ent to male identi­fy­ing elec­tron­ic artists — It is Femme, it is Queer, it is POC & it is elec­tron­ica that is like water — you nev­er know what form it will take on.

As a child RENU atten­ded Bengali Sunday school and was encour­aged to get into Indi­an Clas­sic­al music by her moth­er. RENU picked up the Tabla at a young age but it was in her later life that she redis­covered it play­ing it as part of live per­cus­sion for Asi­an Under­ground out­fits such as State of Bengal, Fun Da Men­tal and Charged.

RENU stud­ies the Tabla and is the dis­ciple of Sri Chir­anjit Mukher­jee in the tra­di­tion­al ‘Guru shisha para­m­para’ or Mas­ter Stu­dent Jour­ney’ meth­od. Her quest for mas­tery of the instru­ment and oth­er per­cuss­ive instru­ments (Cajon & Lat­in per­cus­sion) has also led her to tra­verse the world and study under mas­ters based in India, Cuba, Brazil & Spain. RENU has also per­formed as a per­cus­sion­ist for major Con­tem­por­ary Dance insti­tutes as well as along­side con­tem­por­ary and clas­sic­al orches­tras, for example Chineke! Orches­tra (Europe’s first major­ity Black and eth­nic­ally diverse orches­tra). Her work there­fore tran­scends con­ven­tion­al cat­egor­isa­tions of Pop, Dance, Elec­tron­ic and the Orches­tral. Her fierce com­mit­ment to exper­i­ment­a­tion based on a pos­i­tion of study & prac­tice has lead to some of the most son­ic­ally excit­ing and prin­cip­ally innov­at­ive tracks this writer has heard this cen­tury.

RENU released her first self-pro­duced album Love from Lon­don in 2010, it was a move away from per­cus­sion and was RENU’s explor­a­tion of being a Music­al dir­ect­or, arranger, gui­tar­ist and song­writer. The album fea­tured a nine piece band includ­ing an opera sing­er and harp­ist. The blend of the­at­rics with live music came from RENU’s club nights, spe­cific­ally the Holykuti Records Night at Jam­bor­ee, Lon­don. These nights often fea­tured opera sing­ers as well as poets, dan­cers and per­formers. The album was fol­lowed in 2011 by the Lon­don Rev­el­lers EP that con­tin­ued with same themes. 2012 saw the release of Mid­night Radio which explored RENU’s South Amer­ic­an influ­ences.

Bol­ly­wood soundtrack music also had an influ­ence on Mid­night Radio, espe­cially the music from RD Bur­man. Like many second gen­er­a­tion Brit­ish Asi­ans, RENU was exposed to Bol­ly­wood in her child­hood and was spe­cific­ally fond of the Bur­man pro­duced song Mehbooba Mehbooba from the 1975 film Sholay. Watch­ing Sholay is a rite of pas­sage for Brit­ish Asi­ans, like many Bol­ly­wood films being passed down from par­ents to chil­dren. A test­a­ment to this is the amount of times that Mehbooba Mehbooba has been sampled, remixed and covered by many Asi­an Under­ground and Bhangra artists. It is also a staple for Brit­ish Asi­an Bol­ly­wood sing­ers.

RENU’s fath­er passed away in in 2012 lead­ing to a pause in RENU’s prac­tice and out­put and a cre­at­ive block.

The EP & album Threshold and Plasma were released in 2014 and 2016 respect­ively and were RENU’s first dips into elec­tron­ic music and as opposed to her pre­vi­ous albums, these two fea­tured no extern­al musi­cians. In isol­a­tion RENU explored her per­cus­sion on a much deep­er level and worked with Logic Pro. Both EP & album were com­mis­sioned for dance per­form­ances and RENU would revis­it this world in later years. Threshold was ulti­mately based on Chris­ti­an cos­mo­logy and spir­itu­al­ism, and these themes would resur­face in the fol­low up album They Dance in the Dark.

RENU relo­cated to Ber­lin in 2015 and much like Bowie who recor­ded in the Ber­lin between 1977 and 1979, things took a more elec­tron­ic turn. RENU dis­covered Ableton and released They Dance in the Dark in late 2017. They Dance in the Dark received great crit­ic­al acclaim (BBC Radio 6, BBC Late Junc­tion, The Quietus, Art For­um Magazine)  with crit­ics mak­ing com­par­is­ons to The Orb, Massive Attack and Daphne Oram, as well as laud­ing the more intric­ate and del­ic­ate sound which one does not nor­mally asso­ci­ate with “Dance Music”.

The album was about mar­gin­al­ized com­munit­ies, the term “They” with its polit­ic­al over­tones was a delib­er­ate choice by RENU, how­ever in a 2017 inter­view RENU stated that this album was more poet­ic­al than hyper polit­ic­al. It was about dan­cing in the dark and being untrammeled. The influ­ence of House music was also a con­scious decision and this was also them­at­ic­ally sig­ni­fic­ant with the Queer POC ori­gins of House music that nowadays, is get­ting a wider acknow­ledge­ment in the music press.

RENU was also influ­enced by 70s Disco (Which was ori­gin­ally pro­duced on ana­logue mix­ing desks.) and wanted that sort of sound for the album, so she hired Guy Stern­berg from Ber­lin to mix and mas­ter the album. Stern­berg had a less aggress­ive and more vel­vety style of mix­ing which RENU sought in order to make the album sound more dif­fi­cult to place, in terms of ‘which age’ it was pro­duced.

The track Badr fea­tured an Islam­ic song known as a Nasheed which had pre­vi­ously only ever been used in a World Music con­text, RENU wanted to use it in an elec­tron­ic con­text. This eth­os would inform RENU’s later work as well as a more know­ledge­able and respect­ful use of non-west­ern ele­ments and instru­ments than what is nor­mally giv­en to them when used in west­ern music. RENU would later com­ment on the shal­low mis­use of the term ‘Baul’ in west­ern music.

RENU’s next album The Hap­pen­ing in 2020 tackled the corona vir­us pan­dem­ic head on. The third track Mary some­what haunt­ingly ends with the sound of breath­ing and a car­di­ac mon­it­or, remin­is­cent of the heart­beat drums from the track Lay Low from They Dance in the Dark. 2020 also marked the start of a flour­ish­ing in RENU’s cre­at­ive out­put, com­pos­ing for cho­reo­graphy and soundtrack­ing an exhib­i­tion com­mis­sioned by Haus der Kul­turen Welt, Ber­lin on the Rani Ghumpa caves in India.

It was dur­ing her recent travels in India that RENU heard about the resur­gence of Fakirs, a col­lect­ive term for many spir­itu­al tra­di­tions. The Fakir’s ori­gin­ate from Bengal and adhere to Nadia, A philo­soph­ic­al premise” which is also the his­tor­ic­al region­al name of the area that the Fakirs are from. The philo­sophy is “…artic­u­lated through power­ful poetry, music and the­at­ric­al per­form­ances priv­ileging oral­ity over lit­er­acy.” The Fakir’s from Nadia fused ele­ments from the Hindu Bhakti (lov­ing devo­tion­al wor­ship) move­ment with ele­ments from Islam­ic spir­itu­al­ism. The spe­cif­ic Bhakti move­ment that the Fakirs claim des­cent from ori­gin­ated in the 15th-16th cen­tury and was known for being Anti-caste, anti-pat­ri­arch­al and anti class” and this has some res­on­ance in RENU’s own music and eth­os. The Bengali tra­di­tion of Baul which refers to “…ritu­al sing­ers and wan­der­ers.” often gets con­flated with Fakirs. It is worth stat­ing that Baul and Fakir are two dis­tinct philosophical/religious tra­di­tions com­pris­ing many beliefs and that these are spir­itu­al move­ments and not just the names for music genres as is some­times under­stood in the west.

May 2021 saw RENU com­mence a series of exper­i­ment­al singles with ‘Stut­ter­step, a track inspired by the BLM move­ment that gained prom­in­ence last year in the after­math of the George Floyd killing

‘You are fear­less’ (Tumi obhoi / তুমি অভয়) is RENU’s latest release (due 15th Novem­ber) and fea­tures Pagla Baul who is a dis­ciple of Lalon Fakir Shah (1774–1890) whose shrine is in Nadia (Spe­cific­ally in Kush­tia in Present day Bangladesh. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lalon).

The track is a spir­itu­al tour de force and stands boldly over the many Baul and Fakir inspired tracks that have plagued the world in recent years. The vocals are haunt­ing yet omni­po­tent with dis­tor­ted effects that are power­ful yet reas­sur­ing like being in the pres­ence of a deity. The bal­ance of force and del­ic­acy which has become a hall­mark of RENU’s work is played expertly here and in this writers opin­ion, this track is RENU’s most accom­plished and exper­i­ment­al work to date. It takes inspir­a­tion from the affirm­at­ive cos­mo­logy of Sun Ra but is hotwired for the south Asi­an dia­spora.  RENU describes Tum obhoi as a Baul/Fakir speak­ing to us from the future/space. The track and its fol­low up singles are inspired by the exper­i­ment­al and fusion work of Alice Col­trane and the broad mod­us operandi of the Afro Futur­ist move­ment and whilst these have been present in RENU’s pre­vi­ous work, they come to the fore­front with vehe­mence here.

RENU hopes to col­late this track and the whole series of singles on an EP based upon the Asi­an dia­spora exper­i­ence.

2022 also brings in a new major album release.

You are fear­less’ (Tumi obhoi / তুমি অভয়) will be released on 15th Novem­ber. All pro­ceeds of the single will go to Pagla Baul as the Cov­id crisis has severely affected musi­cians in Bangladesh.

RENU’s offi­cial web­site — https://renumusic.me/ 

https://www.instagram.com/renumusic/

 Quo­ta­tions from Far­had Mazhar (Nobop­ran Andolon) (2015)

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DJ ISURU

DJ ISURU

DJ Isuru is a music journ­al­ist and broad­caster on SOAS Radio. He also runs the Mishti Dance event series fea­tur­ing the best in Asi­an Under­ground, the next party will be on March 24th Ven­ue TBC. www.djisuru.com

About DJ ISURU

DJ ISURU
DJ Isuru is a music journalist and broadcaster on SOAS Radio. He also runs the Mishti Dance event series featuring the best in Asian Underground, the next party will be on March 24th Venue TBC. www.djisuru.com