It’s probably the first word anyone in Minnesota says. It’s probably also the first one uttered by babies in Bangladesh, some 10,000 miles away. The word is “Maa” in Bengali and it sounds just like the same short cry for a mother in English.
“Maa” is also the title of the song in the new video by Palbasha Siddique, the 17-year-old native of Bangladesh who will be a senior at Southwest High School this fall. She became a global singing sensation by lending her otherworldly voice to the immensely popular “Where the Hell is Matt?” video on YouTube last month.
Siddique, who is in Bangladesh for a month visiting family and competing in that country’s version of “American Idol” (called “Close Up 1” there) says she and her band, Mélange, knocked out the video shot in Minneapolis just a couple of days after she was contacted by the music director of YouTube and asked to follow up on the enormous success of the “Matt” video.
“Maa,” a song about expatriate loneliness, is a collaboration between Siddique and her friend, Saint Akhunji.
So far, “Maa” has about 129,000 views since its July 2 debut, far short of the more than 7.7 million views of “Matt” since late June. But if she wins “Close Up 1,” who knows how viral her video will go?
“I think the ‘Matt’ video itself was the biggest change of my life,” Siddique says by phone today from Jessore, the town where she grew up in southwestern Bangladesh. “I was just thinking about this just this evening because I’ve been really overwhelmed with everything lately. Everything has been happening so quickly.”
The “Matt” video features American video game designer Matt Harding doing a goofy little dance in spectacular settings around the world, often accompanied by the indigenous people of the 42 countries he visited. It struck a chord somehow, linking the world in silly, unabashed happiness.
Siddique became a part of the video (the story of her participation is here in a previous MinnPost entry) and her life has been a whirl since.
“When I was recording that song, I had no idea that this is something that people will know me for,” she says. “I’m just still amazed. I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. Why didn’t this happen to someone else instead of me? I don’t know. All these weird questions and I just don’t know why.”
Everyone wants the story
Even in her poverty-stricken homeland, one of the most densely populated places on the planet (the nation has half the population of the U.S. packed into a space about the size of Iowa), people are clamoring for the story of the “Matt” video, she says.
“There are many people who know about it [here],” she says. “The big radio stations all want to do interviews with me because they all know about it. Radio stations and magazines all want my interview, but ‘Close Up 1’ doesn’t want me to get too much exposure for the Matt Harding video right now.”
She says the show’s producers think she might get unfair exposure if she did interviews about the video with Harding.
“But I think I will do it in a couple of days,” she says. “I will do those and I will tell them to support me for the music competition [in ‘Close Up 1’].”
The show is on nationwide TV and also on YouTube, so she urges her fans everywhere to vote for her in Internet balloting coming up on Aug. 1 and 2.
She says she’s doing well in the “Close Up 1” competition (the show even has a surly Simon-like judge, the teenager says with a giggle), but she’s not sure if she’ll be able to take the top prize or not.
“It’s never the best singer who wins,” she says. “Fifty percent of it depends on the public and 50 percent of it depends on the three judges. You know, our country — this is really hard to say this because it’s my country — but our country is really poor. I think you know that. Because of that, the goal of the competition is to find the best singers from the small villages to see who really has the biggest talent. But when it comes to the judging, people will vote for singers from their villages or will vote for who they have the most sympathy for. Our country is a very emotional country.”
It’s possible that when Siddique is a bit older, she’ll come to understand that her home away from home is also a place where emotions run high over essentially meaningless competitions (to wit: are you ready for some football?).
Back to homework soon
Right now, she’s enjoying her stay in her home country and looking forward to a return to Minneapolis for her senior year. She’ll be recording an album with Mélange, a group including two Bengalis and two Americans, and focusing on her studies with an eye on college.
“I badly want to attend Harvard. Ever since I was little, I would hear members of my family say Harvard is the best law school in the world,” she says. “But it’s also about the people you meet and I would love to meet the people attending Harvard and find out what makes it so prestigious.”
Eventually, she says she would like to return to live where her heart lies, in her homeland. Even though it’s desperately poor — the average income in Bangladesh is about $1,300 — and overpopulated, with a faltering economy reliant on agriculture and textiles.
“I love Bangladesh. This is my country, of course,” she says. She moved to Minneapolis at the age of 10 to attend school. “I want to get the best education out of America, get the best experience out of America and put it to use in Bangladesh. Because Bangladesh needs to benefit from the people that live in America. I see so many people who go to America and totally forget about all their duties they have to their own country and I don’t want to be one of those people.”
Correction: Palbasha Siddique wants to correct an error in the June 27 MinnPost story on her. She says there’s no war occurring in Bangladesh. Neither is her father, a general, fighting in a war, she says. He was posted in Sierra Leone in the aftermath of a civil war there, and now he’s working on building a retirement home for soldiers in Bangladesh. “We don’t have any war here,” she says, “and we haven’t for over 35 years. We actually had a war in 1971, but that’s a long time ago.”