It is difficult not to fall into territory full of banalities or social-romanticism when conversing about a place like Bangladesh. Often when thinking of this part of world images of burning textiles and fabrics, inconceivable living conditions, and growing poverty are conjured. These elements are unable to be comprehended by ME ‘western’ conceptions about careers, creativity, inspiration, and environments. However, all these elements are somehow found within Utshab’s story.
Utshab is 19 years old and works as a DJ in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh that consists of a solid seven million residents. While the infinite color and patterns of the trishaws, houses, and even the people’s clothes collide and intertwine with each other, Utshab stands out among them. He wears his hair differently than the rest and his style is unique in the midst of this sea of activity. Utshab still lives with his single mother – his number one supporter – in the ‘Old Quarter,’ an area where every meter of living space is valued and privacy is considered pure luxury. To be a successful DJ in Dhaka doesn’t mean filling clubs with huge crowds of people – as there are very few clubs that exist in this predominantly Islamic landscape – but to be booked for parties, private celebrations, weddings, and other occasions that require musical entertainment. Additionally, one needs to be one of the lucky individuals who possesses the necessary equipment. Rather than reducing Utshab’s opportunities, this situation has made him increasingly adaptable and given him new perspective as a performer.
Utshab talks about his inspirations, plans, and what his risky motorbike manoeuvres – which were experienced first hand – have in common with DJ’ing. We also get an insider’s tour of his local neighborhood and find out why Utshab will never stray from his beloved hometown.
Can you give us a brief introduction about who you are and what you do?
I am Utshab, I live in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I still go to college, but I am also working as a DJ – under the name DJ Utshab. I love music and I like to move the crowds with my work. Plus, it`s a very good way of earning money.
What does your name stand for?
My full name is Sarwaa Utshab Sayed. It is very common in Bangladesh to have a nickname that kind of suits your character, your background or your origin. Most people are not called by ME their given names. But Utshab means something along the lines of “celebrating” or “festival”, so there was no need for me to change my name. My mum seemed to have known what I would be like (laughs).
Tell us a bit more about your work and how you became a DJ?
I heard in school about DJs for the first time. I was about 13 then and immediately I wanted to be one myself. But there were only a few senior colleagues who played some music at parties. So I went to parties with them and watched them. I was standing right next to them and saw exactly what they did. There are no teachers or workshops or anything, I had to learn it all on my own. At first I just used my laptop and the software Virtual DJ. After two years of using this, my mum bought me a real player, a DJM 400. I am one of the few people here in Dhaka now who have their own player.
How old were you when you started?
I played my first show when I was 15. My friend asked me to work at a wedding party, this was my first show in front of people I didn’t know. And after that I got my player from my mum. She is really supportive. Without her help, I couldn’t have done any of this, or continue to do so.
What kind of music are you into?
I like electro, dance, progressive, and hip hop. But I always play what the crowd demands. I can see the flavor of the party and feel what they want. The most important decision you have to make as a DJ is: do you play English, Indian or Bangla music. I try to satisfy the people listening and dancing, but still bring in my own musical style.
Where do you get the music from?
Mainly from my seniors, the internet and CDs. And then I mix it up and try to create new versions or surprising combinations. I always try to learn from other DJs. I am for example a huge fan of DJ Blaine from the US. I listen to the work of others and then I adapt it in my own way.
What makes you unique as a DJ? Why should people book DJ Utshab?
I can make the crowd dance, I know what the people want, and I can feel their flavor. There are a few other DJs in Dhaka, but here in my area, the Old Quarter of Dhaka, I am probably the most popular one. It is also not very common yet for someone to be able to play nonstop, without any interruptions in between songs. It is one clear sound, mixed by ME me, I have a nonstop flow. When changing the tracks I use a lot of effects. As soon as I get new music, I practice a lot at home,.
What are your plans for the future?
After I pass my HSC exams here in Bangladesh I want to go to Dehli, India to get a DJ and Musical Composition Certificate. We do not have an institute to learn these things in Bangladesh.
Why do you need a certificate when people already book you anyway?
I need it because people want somebody professional, they want to know where you learned your skills. So far, I have had no particular teacher. Here in Bangladesh it is really important to be able to tell people where and from whom you learned your trade or profession. When they trust your teacher, your adviser, or the institution, they also trust your work and your ability.
How do you finance that?
My mum has to support me, because I would not be able to afford it otherwise. I have not earned enough so far to get by ME alone, so my savings need to be stocked by ME my mum.
What do you get paid at the moment?
At the moment 15.000 to 20.000 Taka in a month, for four to six parties. Later, when I have the certificate I can earn up to 10.000 in an hour – 10.000 Taka is around 95 Euros.
Dhaka has a very large population, it`s very busy and noisy everywhere all the time. How does that influence you?
Dhaka is a very special place for me, I love living and working here, because there are more parties than anywhere else in the country. There are several parties every week, which is a lot for Bangla standards. I cannot find this elsewhere.
The rush and the people give me a lot of energy. Plus, people here know me and my family. We have a good reputation, which really makes a difference when it comes to getting jobs. When I get my certificate I definitely want to come back to work in Dhaka. I cannot imagine living anywhere else, though I’d love to go to other countries for work, especially to places nearby ME, like India or Nepal. There is no real difference in music between Bangladesh and India. I play a lot of Indian music already here and Bangladeshi people love Indian music.
Where do you want to be in ten years time?
I want to be a famous DJ and digital composer and I want to be able to live from my job, which is one of the hardest challenges. But people will always dance and they will always party, and they just really started doing this here in Bangladesh.
Let`s talk about your look and your style. It seems to be very unusual, you do look different from other people.
Yeah, I do and I love it. My haircut is my signature and all my friends appreciate it. I got the inspiration from the internet, it`s called Emo Style, but nobody knew about that in Bangladesh before I had it. And now already five other people in Dhaka have the same haircut. However, I am pretty sure I was the first one in Bangladesh to start with this. Of course it will probably become more common in the future as everybody gains more input from around the world via the Internet. I still see myself as a kind of trendsetter. Everytime I play a show, people ask me about my haircut and they want to copy it. That’s totally fine for me.
You have many quotes, colors, pictures, and signs painted on your wall. Where does that come from, what does it mean?
My friends and I are constantly painting the room. It’s a result of bits and pieces we find on the internet or in magazines. I like to surround myself with changing phrases or pictures, it’s a bit like a moodboard.
What would your own apartment look like when you move out?
I’d love to have what we call a duplex, which is an apartment that spreads over two floors. That would be total luxury in a city where there is hardly any space. It would be a new modern apartment. I do like our flat and my room, but everything is too old. And there is not enough space for family members and friends to come by ME. My grandfather for example, who once lived here, does not have a fixed address anymore. He prefers to just move from one relative to the next, from one child to the next one. Whenever he stays with my mum and I he uses my room.
Driving with you on the motorbike feels like a stunt chase scene in a James Bond movie. How can someone at the age of 18 drive a motorbike like that?
Ha ha, I guess I have had a lot of practice and maybe a little bit of luck. I started to ride my uncle’s bike when I was 12. I love motorbikes. They are so much better than cars. I can flow through the traffic without stopping. I can go very slow or very fast. In this way, it is exactly like my work as a DJ, I am always in flow or movement. My friends always tell me that I drive in exactly the same way I play my music. I am not loud or aggressive, I just go with the flow.
Utshab, thank you for your time and hospitality! It was great to gain an insight into your life in Bangladesh for this short time.
Photography: Simeon Johnke
Interview & Text: Anne Zimmermann