For The Guitar That Gently Wept
I was born and raised in a musical family. At a very young age I was introduced to local and international classics. My dad used to play guitar and he spoiled me and my brother with music and musical instruments from around the world. Apart from teaching us the theoretical stuff, he also taught us the history of music and provided us with all sorts of resources to study it.
So, in early 2003 or 2004, when I started school, one day he brought this DVD of a concert. Instead of funky pictures of the performing artists, the cover had the black and white picture of a little kid. Very ill-health and weak. Holding out an empty plate as if begging for food. On top of it was written, ‘The Concert For Bangla Desh’. I remember being really annoyed with the space between Bangla and Desh. I thought it was a typing mistake! So I asked dad what this was really about. Very excitedly he said, “This is a historical concert. This is the concert that helped us win our Liberation War. And it started the trend of charity concerts too.” I was puzzled. How can a concert help win a war? To win a war you need to hurt your opponent and defeat them. But music never hurts anybody. It heals. So the next day, we didn’t have school because it was a weekend. The whole family sat after lunch to watch that disc. We often did that when there was a good movie or something. But this was different. It was a concert, well fragments of a concert, and a lot more information on it in between songs. Like a documentary. I started to get the hang of what all the fuss was really about. I saw familiar faces. There was George Harrison and Ringo Starr from the Beatles, there was Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, and even Ravi Shankar along with some other Indian artists I didn’t know. It was the most unlikely group I had ever seen. I mean, they all came from different musical backgrounds. I didn’t even know that they all knew each other! And they all seemed to get along so well and give such lively performances. It was a charity concert, the first of its kind. All these legendary artists ganged up to collect donations through their performances for the refugees of ‘Bangla Desh’ that was then struggling to win their independence. But the concert wasn’t about the political side of the war. It was simply meant for helping out the refugees who lost everything to the barbaric attacks of the vicious Pakistani army. The concert was a cry for help. It made the world see how music can fight and win a war against hatred and cruelty with love.
I will not go into the chronological details of the concert. That’s something everyone knows. Instead I will tell you the effect it had on me as a kid and now as a musician. The concert was a hurried, mismatched one. Ravi Shankar, although already being an international star had never done anything like this before. He saw the struggles of the people rushing to India to escape the brutality of the Pak army, and feeling helpless, he called George Harrison asking him for help.
Surprisingly, many artists such as Bob Dylan, Claus Voorman, Eric Clapton and many more came forward to answer George’s call. Each of them had a different struggle of their own which they fought through just to make it to the concert. The Beatles had just recently broken up. It was not easy for George to re-unite them for a concert that had the most chances of being a failure. When he started calling up his old mates telling them that he wanted to do something for the refugees of East Pakistan, Ringo was the only Beatle who responded. Bob had to cancel two other tours worth some million dollars to attend this concert. Eric hadn’t performed on stage for six years prior to the gig. He was fighting with his heroine addiction at that time and was not physically fit to perform. Ravi Shankar had never performed with a western setup before. Not only that, he had never done a concert before! None of his fellow classical musicians had. They only did recitals. But all of them in spite of all the odds, picked up their instruments, raised their voices, and made history that night on Madison Square Garden. Successfully executing the world’s first charity concert is not an easy job for any musician. I cannot imagine the pressure they had on their shoulders. And if you see the videos of the concert, you’ll see the spirit that they performed with. The urge that they felt to help clearly reflected in every sound they made. And there was a glow in their eyes, a glow of belief in something that is new and sounds crazy but is true and noble. And the desperation to make it work. This, as a musician inspires me till this day.
In my short-lived career with a band, I got to perform in quite a number of charity initiatives. And every time I picked up my harmonica in a concert like that, I closed my eyes & they met the eyes of my heroes. They are eyes full of compassion, dedication, determination and above all belief in their cause. Then I used to take a deep breath, open my eyes feeling the same emotion they had inside me, and started playing.
Now when I look at it, the concert had won more than one war. It won over cruelty with compassion, donating every penny earned to the helpless refugees of Bangladesh. It won over fear and doubt, and proved charity concerts can not only work out, but can actually be even more successful than profitable gigs. It also started the trend of charity concerts, guiding the paths of more phenomenas like Live Aid.
Thanks to the guitar that wept on this day, 46 years ago.
With this little piece of writing, let me bow my head in memory of the concert that made us hold our heads high.