Northern Voices: The connections we make through music

Graffiti-covered streets, flamboyant outfits, alleyways soaked in punk rock. This was my first impression of Manchester. I scoured the streets as the sun set, looking for the Soup Kitchen. It’s a small basement venue in the Northern Quarter, with low lighting and grungy brick walls.

I was there to see the experimental artist Ecco2k whose music is well suited to such an intimate space. The small crowd felt like a family, moving to the same collective story. This is what I think of when people ask, “what is it like to live in Manchester?” Like that concert: ethereal and intimate.

Soup Kitchen | Photo: Mymona Bibi

I come from a conservative, Bangladeshi, Muslim family where music was strictly prohibited for most of my childhood. I don’t remember singing nursery rhymes or theme tunes to TV shows or listening to the radio. In my mind, music was a secret hobby very few people indulged in.

Later, I was introduced to pop punk and learnt of the Walkman, YouTube, Spotify, huge speakers and festivals. I began to connect with a world beyond my immediate friends and family. The image of music in my mind evolved from a secret interest to one of human connection.

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I recently sat down with my sister, university friend and boyfriend to reminisce about the music connections we forged together.

My relationship with my sister Morium is shaped by our music taste. She is a lot older than me and enjoys the nostalgia of ‘80s and ‘90s Bollywood music, as well as Jamaican reggae and dance hall that was popular in the ‘90s among young second generation immigrants like herself.

By the time Morium was an adult and had discovered her favourite artists, I was still oblivious to the place music really had in society. It was her music that helped me understand the act of listening, lying together in bed. She tells me that she remembers “Mymona, in a short bob, smiling eagerly, waiting to see what else is on the playlist”. We would watch Bollywood films together, realising that neither of us wanted to skip the musical numbers.

Morium and Mymona | Photo: Mymona Bibi

As we got older, our musical relationship changed. We were no longer lying in bed, but instead enjoying long, cosy drives across the country. I no longer waited eagerly to be surprised by new songs, now I had to provide the playlist for our drives. Morium told me that: “watching my little sister taking pure pleasure in something I had facilitated, that for me was a pleasure in itself and still is today as we continue to share new songs”.

We share songs that remind us of each other without having to explain ourselves. Through music, “no matter what is happening in our respective lives, there is no disconnection”, Morium says. We both long for our motherland, for the smell of monsoon rain and the taste of fresh fruit which we can access through our shared music. We bond over these old songs that I have never been able to share in the same way with friends.

Isabel and Mymona | Photo: Mymona Bibi

My relationship with one of my closest friends, Isabel, is built on pop/country/folk music ­­– artists like Kacey Musgraves and Taylor Swift. As housemates, we would listen to those artists every day, sitting in a small, student living room. We hid the old, dusty sofa under beautifully embroidered blankets and would curl up with a glass of mulled wine. Isabel remembers how one day “we were walking back from the library at 2am, tired from a long day of work, streetlights beaming and Mona played me a country ballad that he sister introduced her to”.

I had some understanding of Jamaican music through my sister. My boyfriend, Rob, is Jamaican and this was a great bond for us. During the first lockdown, we spent a lot of time experimenting with recipes from around the world whilst listening to music from Jamaica and Bangladesh. For Rob, “listening to Asian music always reminds [him] of our kitchen in Birmingham”, of new recipes, new spices and new mistakes.

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Through this exploration of the ‘new’, we bonded over experimental music different to our own cultures. Doing this together built a sense of trust and awareness that allowed Rob to record his first song in our shared space. He recalls “being able to bounce off ideas with someone else finally gave [him] the confidence and push to record that song that [he’d] been ignoring for so long.”

As we grow older, music becomes memories. A song is a face and a room, an artist is a dish. I think back to Ecco2k and realise that my enjoyment was years in the making. From those days as a child, climbing into my sister’s bed to hear sounds foreign and exciting, to now using music to learn about my friends and build relationships. It gives me access to myself and others.

This feature was written in response to listening to Manchester Collective’s ‘The Centre is Everywhere’ (2021) and ‘Recreation’ (2020) and considering how music can shape relationships and identity.

We’d like to hear how music shaped your own relationships and identity, let us know @saltmanchester on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

This is the first article in our Northern Voices series, commissioned in collaboration with Manchester Collective.