The spirit of George Harrison continues this week
As an apt way of marking the 50th anniversary of George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, I recommend an online ticket to view the Concert from Bangladesh on Sunday August 1.
This international multimedia event organized by the Samdani Art Foundation will showcase a diverse array of Bangladeshi musicians and help raise funds for charity.
When Ravi Shankar first asked George Harrison to do a benefit event for the millions of refugees fleeing the border into India during the Bangladesh Liberation War, he envisaged a small venue with an appearance by their mutual friend Peter Sellers.
Inspired in part by John Lennon leveraging the Beatles fame to support his and Yoko Ono’s activism and peace campaigns, Harrison took time out from the solo success he was enjoying following the band’s breakup the previous year and thought bigger.
Much bigger. The hurriedly organized Concert for Bangladesh in New York was an artistic, cultural, and popular triumph. It drew worldwide attention and ticket receipts on the day saw a quarter million dollars sent straight to Unicef.
Fundraising events involving multiple rock stars were not completely unknown. Harrison himself had turned up to support John and Yoko’s Plastic Ono Band at an all-star show for Unicef at the Lyceum ballroom in London in December 1969, but the Madison Square Garden fundraiser was on an unprecedentedly bigger scale.
Apple (the Beatles record company not the Silicon Valley giant which copied its name) ensured the event was immortalized in a best-selling Grammy award-winning record and concert film. Though delayed by tax disputes, these have generated millions of dollars for Unicef in the decades since.
In 1972, Bangladesh was the world’s newest independent nation. The world had just seen it resist and prevail against the brutalities of Pakistan’s occupying army, despite Yahya Khan’s genocidal junta having had the support of both the American and Chinese governments.
In The Blood Telegram, historian Gary Bass relates how President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger knowingly indulged Yahya Khan’s brutalities, because his regime was providing a clandestine back channel for Kissinger’s talks with Zhou Enlai. But it is clear from White House records, that racism and a proclivity for dictators over democrats also played a part. A criminally unnecessary choice on their part, which cost countless lives.
The feature length concert film opens with George Harrison and Ravi Shankar’s press conference announcing the event and indicates they appreciated from the start that drawing attention and increasing awareness to positively influence policy, was the most important thing they could achieve, however much money they raised for the refugees.
Part of the enduring appeal of the film, which like the concert itself is serious in its aims but joyous and uplifting in its sounds, is down to Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, and Alla Rakha with Kamala Chakravarty setting the mood as its opening act.
Some might say this shows prescience for not being exclusively Western and white. Personally, I think it simply proves Harrison and Shankar did the right thing at the right time during the tiny window which they had to make an impact. They delivered. And that is why The Concert for Bangladesh is recognized as an historic landmark.
Nothing happens in isolation. In 1971, the Bengali diaspora and NGOs never stopped campaigning, newspapers never stopped reporting, and the UK saw other large concerts involving prominent rock musicians, including the Goodbye Summer Concert for Bangla Desh at the Oval cricket ground in September headlined by The Who.
Bob Geldof cites Bangladesh as an inspiration for Live Aid in 1985 while 1979’s superstar Concerts for Kampuchea in London for victims of Pol Pot’s genocide directly draws on its title. Geldof’s campaigning helped in part to grow a cross party consensus in the UK by 2010, for it to meet the UN’s target for rich countries to give 0.7% of gross national income towards overseas aid. (A target attained but recently put into reverse by Boris Johnson’s government.)
When musicians are involved in benefit events, sex, drugs, and occasional tax exile may be baked into public expectations, but that still leaves room for controversy. Queen comes to mind for breaking the Musicians Union boycott of apartheid-era South Africa by playing Sun City a couple of years before appearing at Live Aid. They also show if an act is big enough or contrite enough, the furore can be forgotten in the mists of collective memory.
Hence, relatively few people seem to associate Eric Clapton, a performer at Live Aid, Lyceum Ballroom, and the Concert for Bangladesh, with the racist rant he delivered on stage in Birmingham in 1976 supporting Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech. (The guitarist’s status as a Beatle friend was one of numerous ironies as Paul McCartney had originally written “Get Back” in 1968 as a satirical parody of the speech that got Powell sacked from the shadow cabinet by Edward Heath.)
Clapton did later apologize. His rant also inspired the formation of Rock against Racism, the grassroots movement which alongside the Anti-Nazi League was highly effective in driving fascist agitators off British streets in the late 1970s, a legacy noted in last year’s White Riot documentary and the first episode of Steve McQueen’s new Uprising docuseries.
Naturally, most benefit concerts eschew politics and seek to avoid controversy.
Occasionally, events get conferred with political significance they did not earn. Woodstock’s legendary performances deserve their due, but it is muddy 60s mythologizing to imagine it as driving positive political progress. The brilliant line up at the Zaire 74 festival in Kinshasa during the Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” is certainly a positive celebration of pride in black performers and talent. But the de facto significance of these events is that they were underwritten by money to sanitize dictator Mobutu’s brutal regime and detract from memories of the murder of Patrice Lumumba.
I cannot then recommend highly enough Ahmir Questlove’s Summer of Soul (... Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televized) documentary for brilliantly weaving together concert footage with realistic historical and political context and audience recollections from disparate performances during the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.
Thought-provoking as it is, the heart of the film lies in its music and the joy this brings to audience and performers alike.
As of now, I am in the fortunate position of being able to look forward to two live concerts this weekend.
If Covid interferes, I can at least seek the spirit of George Harrison’s concert with a double bill of Questlove and the Concert from Bangladesh.
Niaz Alam is London Bureau Chief of the Dhaka Tribune.