Nov 1, 2008

Entertainment - Rickshaw men excel in 'Pop Idol'

Mark Dummett
BBC News, Dhaka

Omar Ali is Bangladesh's unlikely new music star - he's a white-bearded rickshaw puller from an impoverished village a day's drive from the capital, Dhaka.

But his voice is golden and millions of viewers voted for him to win a television "Pop Idol"-style talent show, which has just reached its climax.

Magic Tin Chakar Taroka, or Three Wheel Star, was only open to the riders and drivers of Bangladesh's one million-plus three-wheelers - its cycle- and auto-rickshaws.

Their work is badly-paid and back-breaking and they seldom have anything to cheer about.

But Omar Ali's final performance of the Bengali folk song Lovers Never Drown was so powerful it had the audience, which included many of Bangladesh's leading pop stars who have backed the show and coached the rickshaw-men, dancing in their seats.

With the release of a CD and DVD - and prize winnings of nearly $2,000 - the wiry Mr Ali can now afford to abandon his rickshaw cart, with which he used to transport goods to market.

'Not about money'

He is now hoping for a career in music in Dhaka.

"It is not about the money I have won, but my devotion to music," the 45-year old said.

The hit show was aired on the channel ATN Bangla.

All 10 finalists, who together received 10 million text message votes from Bangladeshi viewers around the world, were awarded at least $300, enough for them to at least buy their own rickshaws.

Most rent them and have to share their earnings with the owner.

One of the finalists said that he planned to invest the money in a small business. "I'll buy a poultry farm and then use the earnings from that to pay for my sister to go to school," he said.

Abdul Rahman Khokon, who came third, said he would use his winnings to discover the fate of his 80-year-old mother.

She disappeared suddenly from their one-room home on the southern edge of Dhaka three years ago. She was not carrying a mobile phone or any money, and Mr Khokon is afraid she had an accident and died and that no one was able to inform him.

Love of music

"With this money I will now be able to place adverts and her photo in the newspapers. I really want to find out what happened to her. I pray someone gave her a decent burial," he told me.

According to the programme's host, Asadduzaman Nur, Bangladeshis are able to deal with such hardship in their lives through their love of music.

"These people are working from morning until dusk to earn their bread and butter, in fact not even butter, just their bread and salt," Mr Nur, an MP and popular actor told me.

"And then when they get home they still have the strength to sing and to live for music.

"Everywhere you go you will see poverty stricken people singing," he said. "They are a very happy people and possibly they overcome all the miseries of life through music and culture."

Omar Ali and the other "Three Wheel Stars" may have had a bumpy ride in life so far, but they hope that from now onwards they will not have to pedal so hard.

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