Jasmine and Lilacs



When my wife, infant son and I first arrived in Dhaka, in what was then known as East Pakistan, in 1967, I was determined to learn as much as I could about the culture of this mysterious place.

I told my Bengali staff that I wanted to hear local music and try to learn to like it. One of them said he would call a man who ran a music school to see what might be arranged, and I was invited to visit that afternoon.

(At this point I must explain to everyone younger than I that a very popular film of the time, “Never on Sunday,” starred the fine Greek actress Melina Mercouri as a religious prostitute who would not sell her body on Sunday. Its music was composed and performed on the bouzouki by a genius named Theodorakis. The score remained the most internationally popular music for several years. Now back to my story.)

The music school had a long side verandah used as a stage, and I was ushered to a comfortable chair on the lawn. There I was, awaiting my introduction to local music, when a young man came out with an electric guitar and proceeded to play “Never on Sunday.” It was as far from what I wanted to hear as P. Diddy is from Placido Domingo. I politely applauded, and left as soon as I could.

It turned out all right, though, because I soon became acquainted with the Bulbul Academy. (In Bangla, “bulbul” means “nightingale.”) My wife and I spent many magical evenings listening to the masters of South Asian music and their students discussing and playing the music we soon came to love.

My title then was Information Center Director. The center consisted of a well-used library and a little-used auditorium. We showed films supplied by the U.S. Information Agency to meager audiences largely made up of casual passersby taking a breather from the oppressive heat. My mission was to design programs to appeal to the opinion leaders whom we wanted to engage.

We spent many magical evenings listening to the masters of South Asian music discussing and playing the music that we soon came to love.

Bengalis, like all descendants of a pre-literate culture, love poetry, an important medium for transmitting history and culture through the generations. I read that the death anniversary of a beloved Bengali poet named Nasrul was coming up. Because he had once claimed Walt Whitman as an influence, I decided to prepare a program called “Nasrul and Whitman.” (In South Asia, all important poems are set to music; and in poetry recitals, the selections are not recited, but performed.)

My staff and I prepared guest lists and delivered invitations, and on the night every seat was filled. When the stage lights came on, we were all sitting crosslegged on a carpet, the musicians in their Bengali garb and me—in the American uniform of white short-sleeved shirt with tie and somewhat removed from the musicians.

The performance began with a Nasrul poem, beautifully performed. The audience gave it tumultuous approbation. When the noise abated, I began to intone, “When lilacs last in the courtyard bloomed...” But I was loudly interrupted by shouts of “Sing it!” Eventually the audience realized that I did not know how to deal with poetry, and cheerfully allowed me to carry on.

The evening was a colossal success, written up in the newspapers and talked of on radio. From that evening, we were able to engage the audiences we sought.

Subsequently I heard South Asian music in its great variety and in several countries—quwalli, Sufi songs of devotion, morning and evening ragas. But when I think of the music, my mind always returns to the Bulbul Academy.

Those jasmine-scented evenings remain among my fondest memories.

Ray Peppers was an FSO with the U.S. Information Agency from 1967 to 1998, serving in Dhaka, Islamabad, Kabul, Lome, Kuwait City, Lahore and Washington, D.C. Since retiring from the Foreign Service, he has given more than 1,200 lectures to international relations classes, civic groups, corporate boardrooms and other audiences.