How many countries have had marquee musicians perform for their benefit even while they were in the throes of being born? How many countries have had songs dedicated to them while they were struggling for independence? How many countries became household names overnight, even before they come into existence, due to the awareness such concerts and songs brought about? How many countries have honored the memory of a musician in their Liberation War Museum?
I can think of only one.
Pandit Ravi Shankar, who had ancestral roots in Bangladesh, started the ball rolling.
Deeply concerned at the situation unfolding in East Pakistan -a combination of an independence movement , the genocide that followed , intense flooding and poverty, and disease ravaging the people , with hundreds of thousands dying, and millions more seeking refuge in India, he brought the issue to the attention of his friend George Harrison in the early months of 1971 in order that a musical concert be held to raise funds for relief efforts , as also to spread awareness of the situation , largely unknown to the Americans and the rest of the world . Harrison had turned a solo artist after the break-up of The Beatles in 1970 and had had a hugely successful release of his first solo album ‘All Things Must Pass’. Over the next few months, Harrison was being kept abreast of developments by Shankar. When the situation reached horrific limits, a distraught Shankar approached Harrison to alleviate the suffering of the refugees by organizing the concert. The project began in earnest during the last week of June 1971.
The resulting Concert for Bangladesh on 1st August 1971 at Madison Square Garden, New York had two shows. The concerts were followed by a triple live album and a concert documentary.
The Concert for Bangladesh is acknowledged as a highly successful and influential humanitarian aid project, generating both awareness and considerable funds, as well as providing valuable lessons and inspiration for projects that followed, such as Live Aid, Farm Aid, the Concert for Kampuchea, and the Concert for New York. Shankar would later remark that in one day, the whole world knew the name of Bangladesh.
Harrison got in touch with friends like Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Leon Russell, Billy Preston—and his former bandmates John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Starr agreed to perform, while McCartney declined, feeling that appearing in concert with Harrison, Lennon, and Starr would raise public expectation of The Beatles reunion. Lennon initially offered his support, but within days, pulled out, upset that Yoko Ono was not invited to participate. Bob Dylan, who had been keeping a low public profile for the previous two years, was unsure on his commitment until the very moment he stepped on stage. Eric Clapton was another problem. The famed guitarist was at the beginning of a three-year period of inactivity, brought about by depression and heroin addiction. In addition, Harrison himself had never headlined a concert under his own name, and the guitarist had his own nervousness to conquer.
Harrison released a non- album single ‘Bangla Desh’ (as then spelt) in July 1971, 3 days before the Concert. Harrison acknowledged Shankar’s role:
“My friend came to me/ With sadness in his eyes
He told me that he wanted help/Before his country dies
Although I couldn’t feel the pain/I knew I had to try
Now I’m asking all you/To help us save some lives
Bangladesh, Bangladesh / Where so many people are dying fast
And it sure looks like a mess/I’ve never seen such distress
Now won’t you lend your hand, try to understand? / Relieve the people of Bangladesh”
The song has been described as one of the strongest social statements in music history and helped gain international support for the country’s independence. Harrison steered clear of the politics behind the problem, his lyrics focusing instead on the human perspective.
Despite all these uncertainties, Harrison walked onto the stage, sporting long hair and a long beard, and after a brief introduction, the Concert began.
Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan performed the opening set of Indian classical music. Then Harrison and friends kicked off the rock music section with a high-energy version of ‘Wah-Wah’, a song from ‘All Things Must Pass’ that Harrison wrote about Paul McCartney during the tense period of ‘Let It Be’ sessions with The Beatles. It was a good thing that McCartney was not present. Harrison’s album in fact provided the bulk of his songs – ‘My Sweet Lord,’ ‘Awaiting On You All’, ‘Beware of Darkness’, ‘Hear Me Lord’. From The Beatles’ catalogue, Harrison and Clapton performed ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (‘White Album’) where they traded guitar licks back and forth; ‘Here Comes The Sun’ and ‘Something’ (Abbey Road). And in the end, he sang ‘Bangla Desh’.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JNS_SUmCJm4 – Here Comes The Sun
Billy Preston sang ‘That’s the Way God Planned It’. Starr sang his recent hit ‘It Don’t Come Easy’ in a more energetic up-beat style than the original recording, bringing the house down.
Bob Dylan, keeping in tune with the theme of the Concert, opened with ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,’ followed by ‘It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes A Train to Cry,’ ‘Blowin’ In The Wind,’ ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit ‘and a stunning version of ‘Just Like a Woman’ which featured Russell and Harrison on backing vocals.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRnS2O5EPdo – A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
The Concert were attended by 40,000 people, and the initial gate receipts raised close to $250,000 for Bangladesh relief, which was administered by UNICEF. Since then, through revenue raised from the ‘Concert for Bangladesh’ live album and film, several million dollars have been sent to Bangladesh, and sales of the live album and DVD release of the film continue to benefit the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF.
There were other concerts too. An English version of the Concert for Bangladesh took place, on 18 September 1971 before over 35,000 fans at The Oval in London, with a bill featuring the likes of The Who, The Faces, Mott the Hoople, and America – all A-listers. Bangladesh refugees were also one of several charitable causes supported at the Weeley Festival, held near Clacton-on-Sea in Essex in late August 1971.
Ravi Shankar cut a benefit disc of his own, the Harrison-produced ‘Joi Bangla’. The A-side featured two vocal compositions sung in Bengali, while the flip side had a six-minute recital of Raag Mishra Jhinjhoti, featuring Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, and Alla Rakha.
Joan Baez wrote ‘The Story of Bangladesh’ in 1971 – based on the Pakistani army crackdown on unarmed sleeping Bengali students at Dhaka University on March 25, 1971, which ignited the liberation struggle. The song was later titled “The Song of Bangladesh” and released in 1972.
“And the students at the university/Asleep at night quite peacefully
The soldiers came and shot them in their beds
And terror took the dorm awakening shrieks of dread
And silent frozen forms and pillows drenched in red
When the sun sinks in the west
Die a million people of the Bangladesh”.
The Concert for Bangladesh raised Harrison’s stature way beyond from just being a major music celebrity. He changed the perception of recording artists, showing they could be good world citizens too. Overnight, because of their fascination with rock stars, masses of people became educated about geopolitical events they had not even been aware of. The tragedy in Bangladesh moved to the fore as an international issue.
On 5 June 1972, in recognition of their “pioneering” fundraising efforts for the refugees of Bangladesh, George Harrison, Ravi Shankar and Allen Klein were jointly honored by UNICEF with its “Child Is the Father of the Man” award.
Dhaka’s Liberation War Museum has a bronze plaque dedicated to George Harrison. Reportedly, the country’s national TV network traditionally, re-broadcasts parts of the Concert on Independence Day (March 26) and Victory Day (December 16).
Music is a very powerful tool, and the Concert re-energized the struggle for liberation. With the power of good music, magic can happen. And while weapons of war play a role, so does music. It certainly played a role in the country’s independence!
Today, on 16 December, while India observes Vijay Diwas and Bangladesh its Victory Day, the contributions of George Harrison, Pandit Ravi Shankar and other musicians need to be acknowledged and have already indeed been done by a grateful nation.