Waves of Change – bringing together opera, surfing, music, identity

Surfing and opera are not what you’d consider a comfortable pairing – surfing is so much about freedom from constraints, flow, exuberance, joy; opera is traditional, hyper-stylized, formalized, and – if all you’ve seen so far are traditional works – it can feel like an outdated vestige of an earlier European era. But at its core opera is simply a vehicle to tell stories through music, and as a musician, surfer, and woman, bringing the two together seemed the obvious way to bring attention to a story close to my heart.

I came to know about the girls of the Bangladesh Surf Club a few years ago through a volunteer organization I was a part of which was fundraising for the group. Their story is truly inspiring – in Cox’s Bazaar, one of the poorest parts of Bangladesh, a group of girls who are never sent to school, are often married away to older men at the age of 11-12, and who live hand-to-mouth selling trinkets at the beach to make money to feed their families were taught by local lifeguard Rashed Alam to surf. It wouldn’t be a remarkable story if it happened in a Western city – women here are frequently hassled, objectified, and experience plenty of sexism within the sport, but still, no one will physically stop you if you want to get in the water and learn. But there, since girls are not supposed to enter the water, these young children are called ‘sluts’ for daring to enter the ocean, the equipment they borrow from the surf club is stolen and locked up to prevent them from surfing. Some girls from the club have been locked away by their families to prevent them participating and married away – their consent is not even a factor to weigh in the equation. And while it might be so tempting to point fingers and place blame, it’s a difficult truth that in poverty, people do what they have to to survive. If every single day you just don’t have enough to feed every mouth in the home, perhaps the only choice you feel you have is to pass off one of those mouths to someone else.

All of which makes the story of the girls themselves much more powerful. What I and many women take for granted – the ability to choose to go to the water – is the very thing these young girls fight tooth and nail to do. And what’s most remarkable is that the club itself – particularly the founders Rashed Alam and Venessa Rude Alam – are combining surf training for the girls with schooling and education, lifeguarding training, self-defense skills, to make the water a means to opportunities the girls wouldn’t otherwise have. In fact, earlier this year, Sumi Akter became the first girl from the club to graduate high school. In a place where girls are not even sent to the earliest levels of schooling, this is a truly remarkable achievement. Their story is one not only of surfing, but about finding joy, fighting for the right to make their own choices, about holding their own in the maelstrom of culture-clash that comes from this abrupt juxtaposition of surfing into a very conservative Muslim community.

My work in music is often inspired by strong women, and the girls’ story has stayed with me since I first came to know of it. My mother grew up in a similar culture to the girls, and her own stories of wanting to explore music and martial arts and not being allowed to have made the background for many of the choices I’ve made in my life, from becoming a self-defense and wilderness instructor to now a composer. So when I was asked to write a piece about identity for the Prototype Festival, my thoughts went not to the smaller, incessant frustrations and challenges of being a female surfer in the first world, but to the urgent fight these girls live every day just to be able to make choices for themselves. There is a joy and a freedom to being in the water, to riding waves, to feeling the raw power of the ocean that is simultaneously humbling and liberating, that everyone should be able to enjoy if they want to. I can’t help but feel a sisterhood and solidarity, an empathy for these girls’ experience, and an anger that they should have to fight so hard just to be given choices the rest of us often take for granted.

Image by Miguel Galindo

In the era of Covid, it feels like we are given a rare moment to reimagine almost anything, to reinvent ourselves, our priorities, our work. For me, one of the main ways this has manifested is in making my work about something larger than myself, finding ways to give something to the community, to bring focus to stories, issues and themes that more people need to know about. In the case of this piece inspired by the story of the surf club, it was reimagining an ‘opera’ commission as a digital scene, a meeting of surfing and music to create a window into what someone’s else’s search for identity and self-determination might look like. We took two female singers – one Western soprano (Katherine Shuman) and one Hindustani singer (Ranjana Ghatak), to embody the two cultures, and spun an instrumental track bringing together surf rock, contemporary music and Hindustani influences.  The end piece is perhaps as strange an amalgam as you might expect, but there was never going to be a traditional way to tell a story about girls smashing boundaries by the force of their will.

The finished video (below) was streamed in Spring and Summer of 2020 as part of Modulation by the Prototype Festival.

You can find out more about the girls (and recently boys) of the club and donate here.

Waves of Change – Composer and English text – Juhi Bansal; Guest artist and Bengali vocals – Ranjana Ghatak; Soprano – Kathryn Shuman; Cello – Timothy Loo; Sound design, mixing, mastering – Laura M. Kramer; Cinematographer and editor – Miguel Galindo; Bengali text – Ranjan Bandhopadhyay, Sunit Ghatak, Indira Ghatak.
Originally Commissioned, Developed, and Produced by the PROTOTYPE Festival as part of the original work Modulation.