How many countries have had marquee musicians perform for their benefit even while they were in the throes of being born? 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.
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. He also wanted to spread awareness of the situation, largely unknown to the Americans and the rest of the world.
Harrison had gone solo 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 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 organising the concert. The project began in earnest during the last week of June 1971.
The resulting Concert for Bangladesh on August 1, 1971, in 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. It provided 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 a 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 single Bangla Desh (as then spelt) in July 1971, three days before the concert. In it, Harrison acknowledged Shankar’s role in the project.
“My friend came to me/ With sadness in his eyes
He told me that he wanted help/Before his country dies...
Bangladesh, Bangladesh / Where so many people are dying fast...”
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, which 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, where they traded guitar licks back and forth; Here Comes The Sun and Something. And in the end, he sang Bangla Desh.
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 that which featured Russell and Harrison on backing vocals.
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 September 18, 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.
In 1971, Joan Baez wrote a song about the Pakistani army crackdown on unarmed sleeping Bengali students at Dhaka University on March 25, 1971, which ignited the liberation struggle. The song was titled The Song of Bangladesh and released in 1972.
The Concert for Bangladesh raised Harrison’s stature 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 June 5, 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.
On December 16, while India observes Vijay Diwas and Bangladesh its Victory Day commemorating the events of 1971, the contributions of George Harrison, Pandit Ravi Shankar and other musicians must be remembered.