George Harrison still a hero in Bangladesh

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(This is the first of a two-part series on George Harrison and the Concert for Bangladesh.  Read part two here. All photos by Larry Luxner.)

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Hidden from view along a side street in this dusty, traffic-choked metropolis of 12 million people, Dhaka’s Liberation War Museum seems an unlikely place to honor the memory of George Harrison.

Yet here, in a second-floor gallery crammed with glass cases full of aging rifles, machine guns, spears, bayonets and other weapons of war is a bronze plaque dedicated to the “quiet Beatle” who preached love and compassion.

“Author, composer, peacemaker, gardener, lyricist, musician, philanthropist, poet,” reads the inscription. “Established the Material World Foundation to explore diverse forms of artistic expression and to support charities and those with special needs. Devotee of Krishna who found peace in his garden. Passed away Los Angeles USA, 29 November 2001. Our love and gratitude always.”

The plaque, donated in February 2009 by British singer and Harrison fan Danis Theophilus, is a testament to the former Beatle who organized the world’s first showbiz charity event — a full 14 years before Bob Geldof staged the 1985 Live Aid concert to raise money for Ethiopian famine victims.

Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, which was actually two benefit concerts held Aug. 1, 1971, was attended by more than 40,000 people at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Ticket sales from the concert itself generated $243,000 in emergency assistance for starving refugees at the height of the country’s 1971 war of liberation against Pakistan — and sales of the boxed three-record set and a subsequent 99-minute film, “The Concert for Bangladesh,” have since raised $15 million for UNICEF projects around the world.

In the film, Harrison is asked by a reporter: “With all the enormous problems in the world, how did you happen to choose this one to do something about?” His simple reply: “Because I was asked by a friend if I would help, you know. That’s all.”

That friend was Ravi Shankar, the venerated Bengali sitarist. Former Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, who performs June 24 at Baltimore’s Meyerhoff  Symphony Hall, also participated in that groundbreaking 1971 event. So did Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston and Leon Russell. (The two other ex-Beatles, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, declined for their own personal reasons).

“Every Bangladeshi has respect for George Harrison. All of us can recite the words to his songs,” said the country’s information secretary, Hedayetullah Al Mamoon, who was a 13-year-old war refugee at the time. He noted proudly that the country’s national TV network traditionally re-broadcasts parts of the concert every year on two occasions: Independence Day (March 26) and Victory Day (December 16).

With nearly 160 million people crowded into an area the size of Maryland and Virginia combined, Bangladesh is the most densely populated country on Earth. While its people are no longer on the verge of starvation, the nation faces tremendous challenges including poverty, corruption and the ravages of climate change. And nearly a third of its citizens are under 15 — too young to remember the extravaganza that put their country on the map for tens of millions of people around the world.

The concert marked Harrison’s first appearance before a paying audience since the Beatles’ last tour five years earlier, and included live performances of his classic tunes,  “Here comes the Sun,”  “My Sweet Lord,” “Something” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

“George Harrison was a very powerful and influential man, and a good friend of Bangladesh,” says Mahbubul Alam, the museum’s general manager, and a former “freedom fighter” who recalls those painful days all too well.

“I was in the war, fighting on the front against the Pakistani Army. We had only a one-band radio and that was for getting information from the outside world. After liberation, we came to know that a concert for Bangladesh had been held in Madison Square Garden,” he said. “That concert acted like a catalyst. The U.S. government did not support Bangladesh, but we got the people’s support, and that concert helped a lot.”

That the big event took place at all was a testament to the persistence of Ravi Shankar, whom Harrison reverently called “the godfather of world music.”

Born in India of Bengali parentage, it was Shankar who persuaded Harrison to use his influence to help relieve the suffering of his people in East Pakistan, as Bangladesh had been known prior to independence from West Pakistan — more than 1,000 miles to the west. For nine months, they bore the brunt of an all-out war that would eventually kill three million Bengalis and turn another eight million into desperate refugees in neighboring India.

“I was very disturbed and wanted to do something for the people of Bangladesh, something on a very large scale that might bring in a lot of money and also, you know, awareness,” Shankar wrote. “So I thought I would ask George, even if he could not take part himself, if he would advise me, ask other artists about it, write or talk about it. Then maybe we could do a big function where we could raise $25,000 or $50,000. He was very deeply moved and said he would be glad to help in the planning — even to participate.”

Shankar continued: “Things started moving very fast then. George called Ringo in Spain where he was working in a film, and he talked to Leon Russell and all of these wonderful musicians from the west coast and east coast who came to play. And he contacted [Allen] Klein, who has taken care of the business and administration … In a period of only four or five weeks, all of this was done.”

Even though Shankar knew some money would be raised from the concert, “when you think of the amount being spent on almost eight million refugees, and so many of them children, of course it is like a drop in the ocean. Maybe it will take care of them for only two or three days. But that is not the point.”

Maryland resident Alif Laila is a prominent sitarist who was born and raised in Dhaka. Earlier this month, she performed at a Bangladeshi Embassy function marking the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between her country and the United States.

“Music is a very powerful tool, and that concert re-energized our cause,” said Laila, who has met Ravi Shankar backstage several times — most recently at a Shankar performance in Baltimore four years ago. “We were going through a very dark time, and it made us feel good.”

Read part two here. 

And another Beatles’ story here.

George Harrison exclusive music to be released.