A teenage singer with 31 million Youtube hits: an interview with Palbasha Siddique

Published in The Independent’s “Dhaka Live” supplement on 12 October 2010

Copyright @ Ashis Sengupta

Two years ago, the American-Bangladeshi singer Palbasha Siddique received an unusual request via email from a man called Matt Harding in Seattle, USA.  He invited the then 17-year-old to record Rabindranath Tagore’s “Praan” (“Stream of Life”) for a video he’d made called “Dance 2008.”  Neither Matt nor Palbasha understood at the time that within days of the video’s release, the collaboration would be hailed by the world press as “Youtube’s greatest hit” and that sales of “Praan” on Amazon would exceed those of Madonna and Mariah Carey.  To date, “Dance 2008” has attracted over 31 million views on Youtube and Palbasha’s performance has been praised by R&B superstar Beyonce Knowles and US President Barack Obama.  Palbasha Siddique talks exclusively to The Independent about the dizzying heights of success and how she manages to keep both feet on the ground.

Palbasha Siddique was born in Jessore in 1991 and she began singing at the tender age of three.  “As soon as I could speak, my mum got me into a music school in Dhaka,” she said, laughing.  Whilst her family is not especially musical, Palbasha’s mother had dreamed of having a daughter who was accomplished in the arts.  “My mum had way too many ambitions for me,” she explained, “But ultimately the singing worked out, because I realised I had a passion for it.”

Copyright @ Ashis Sengupta

Palbasha attended regular singing classes in Dhanmondi, but it wasn’t until several years later that her voice, now unmistakable and exquisitely sweet, caught the attention of her teachers.  By the age of eight she became a routine winner of various national awards.

When Palbasha was 10 she travelled halfway across the world to Minneapolis, which she describes as “a smaller version of New York,” to visit her older brother.  After nine months had elapsed, Palbasha had obtained a full scholarship to study at the MacPhail Centre for Music.  The principal of her elementary school took a shine to the gifted singer and offered to sponsor her to remain in the United States.  Palbasha gratefully accepted and the year-long visit was extended indefinitely.  A year later, at the age of 11, Palbasha sang “God Bless America” for a packed stadium at a Minnesota Twins baseball match.  The video of her singing for a radio contest was posted to Youtube, and Matt Harding’s girlfriend and co-producer, Melissa Nixon, happened to catch sight of it while the pair were scouring the website for Bangladeshi talent.

Palbasha said that during these early years in America, when she was consumed by a passion for singing western songs, “People could tell I was from a different country and always asked me to sing in Bengali, even if it was just to end a show.”  When Palbasha performed classical Bengali songs – such as “Praan,” – she was not alone in realising that she had developed an unusual technique.  Her refined knowledge of western singing techniques lent a different quality to the result – her tone, which sprang from the diaphragm rather than her throat, was entirely different from the traditional sounds associated with Bengali singing.

Copyright @ Ashis Sengupta

Palbasha said, “The positive response to my performances in Bengali made me realise that I could sing Bengali music in a different way.  And that’s how I sung “Praan,” which is a fusion of Bengali classical music and pop.”  Palbasha said that her rendition of Tagore’s classic from Gitanjali confused and surprised many – some were initially unable to identify it as Bengali.  To the best of her knowledge, Palbasha’s style is unique.  She said, “I’m glad to have brought a different aspect of Bengali music into the musical world.”

At this point, something ought to be said of the phenomenon created by Matt Harding’s universally appealing video.  The concept is so simple it almost hurts – the regular-looking 30-something man “dances badly around the world” (to borrow his own words) in 42 different countries.  In four-and-a-half minutes, viewers watch Matt contorting his elbows and knees in a clumsy but loveable jig that is copied with varying success by local strangers.  In “Dance 2008,” (which is also popularly known as “Where the Hell is Matt?”) Matt gets funky with waitresses in Japan, grass-skirt wearing tribal groups in Papua New Guinea, children in Soweto and monkeys in Madagascar – to name but a sample.  Matt even manages to bust a move in a gravity-free zone in Nellis Airspace, Nevada – but perhaps more incredibly, he may be the first person in history to have danced in the Demilitarised Zone in Korea.  The feel-good nature of the clip, however, is brought about by the fact that no matter the location, others join in Matt’s antics with joy and self abandon.

Much has been made of what it was precisely that Matt intended to convey.  Some journalists have interpreted the clip negatively, claiming that it is representative of US foreign policy – specifically, its unwillingness to adapt to different circumstances and cultures.  According to Palbasha, this is incorrect.  She said, “To me, ‘Dance 2008’ shows how small the world is and how connected we can be, no matter what country we are from. ‘Unity’ is what I see in the music video.”

The one glaring omission of the video is the fact that it lacks a Bangladeshi location.  Palbasha explained that the video was created without a particular song in mind, and it wasn’t until shooting was finished that the composer, Gary Schyman – who Palbasha describes as a “musical genius” – stumbled upon an English translation of “Praan.”  So will Matt right the wrong (so to speak) by dancing in Bangladesh?

“I’ve invited Matt [to Bangladesh] a few times,” said Palbasha.  “But I think he is taking a break from everything at the moment.”

After Palbasha received Matt’s email and watched a previous video clip using a remixed Native Indian American song, she and her mother were promptly flown to Los Angeles.  Palbasha recorded “Praan” with a 20-piece orchestra in around six hours and returned home to Minnesota that same evening.

Palbasha describes Matt, who is now incredibly famous in some of the most unlikely corners of the globe, as “very humble and down to earth.”  She added, “He is caring and softly spoken.  He wasn’t all funky or crazy – just really laid back and nice.”

Did the pair dance, I ask?  Palbasha laughs with girlish delight as she recalls the moment.  “When I was in the studio, Matt came right next to me and did his little dance.  It was really hard for me to focus on singing.”

Copyright @ Ashis Sengupta

Within two days of the video clip’s release on Youtube, Palbasha was receiving calls from all around the world.  With evident wonder still in her voice, she said, “People in New York were telling me that they saw the video in Times Square.  I was like ‘What just happened?’”  For two straight weeks in June 2008, sales of “Praan” on Amazon took the number one spot, leaving relative breadcrumbs for the likes of Madonna and Mariah Carey.  Such success would be overwhelming for even the most well-known performers, let alone a 17-year-old girl.  Palbasha admits that the response stunned her, saying, “It was so hard for me to believe that I slept through it – it was all too much for me.”

Almost two years on, and as the numbers of hits on Youtube continue to grow daily, Palbasha said that she still feels amazed by the reaction to “Dance 2008.”  But she works hard to maintain her cool about it.  She said, “It’s come to the point where I am learning to take it normally that people are listening to “Praan” and liking it.”  Palbasha receives around 50 emails per day from delighted listeners.  She responds personally to each message and never uses a template response.  She said, “People listen to ‘Praan’ on their way to work, before an exam and during crucial moments of their lives. It makes me feel so good to be a part of their lives.”  When I suggested that she may be in need of a secretary, she protested, “But I want to read the messages myself!”

When I mention the online reports about Barack Obama being a fan of “Dance 2008,” Palbasha’s first words are, “Oh my gosh – yes.”  Palbasha was invited to perform at a school programme in a different US state which Obama was due to attend – the organisers felt she was the natural choice.  Palbasha declined – a surprising move, which she explains by saying that the idea was “all talk” and that she was scheduled to visit her family in Bangladesh at the same time.  “I didn’t think I should stay in the US just to do that,” she said.  As a footnote to this story – and the following one – Palbasha insisted modestly, “I usually don’t share these things, because people might think that I’m making it up.”  If you’ve seen the video clip of Praan, I dare say you wouldn’t.

Shortly after the clip was released, Palbasha was dismayed to read a nasty comment on her idol Beyonce’s Youtube page.  Palbasha knew that Beyonce had recently gone through a crisis of confidence, and she emailed the starlet to express her admiration.  To her surprise, Palbasha received a grateful reply from Beyonce, who added that she had really enjoyed Palbasha’s recording of “Praan.”  The two messaged back and forth several times.  Palbasha said, “She was so nice and down-to-earth that I wondered whether it was a fake Beyonce writing the replies.  But I don’t think that was the case.”

One may have assumed that the fame appeared with accompanying fortune for Palbasha – but sadly, this was not so.  Palbasha received a one-time payment of $1,000 for the recording – the contract excluded royalties.  Palbasha is pragmatic about it, without even a trace of bitterness.  She said, “I accepted [the terms of the contract] because I never knew it would be so successful.  I should have bargained – even if I only made ten cents per sale, I would have made a lot more money.  But considering my age at that time, just getting the opportunity was a big deal for me.”  These days Palbasha has a manager to take care of such non-artistic details.

Copyright @ Ashis Sengupta

Palbasha is currently studying political science and working on an upcoming album, and she is hoping to begin studies at the Musicians’ Institute in Hollywood next March.  The two biggest role models in her life – her mother and her sister-in-law – continue to provide love and support for the young singer, who describes their presence in her life as a “blessing.”

Palbasha is focused, driven and ambitious, but she has maintained a candour that is frequently absent in performers of her calibre.  She said, “I haven’t become everything I want to be yet.  I know where I have to go and I’ll have to fight against people that I don’t like to get there.  In a way that’s artificial, because I can’t always be myself.  But when I get there I will let the world see who I am.  I don’t want to be one of those superficial stars.”

“Dance 2008”

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