In August 1971, when Richard Nixon was the president of the US and decided to end the dollar’s convertibility at a fixed price, effectively ending the Bretton Woods system, and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar spun out Ray Illingworth’s Ashes-conquering English team for 101 at the Oval, helping Ajit Wadekar lead Indians to their first-ever victory in a Test—and a series—on English soil, and India and the Soviet Union signed a 20-year treaty for “peace, friendship, and cooperation”, George Harrison and Ravi Shankar organized a concert at Madison Square Garden in New York.
It was called The Concert for Bangladesh—the title itself was audacious, for at that time, the idea of Bangladesh was still an aspiration for millions of Bengalis living under Pakistani control. In March that year, the Pakistani army had unleashed a brutal reign of terror, killing hun¬dreds of thousands of civilians. Bangladeshi freedom fighters, known as Mukti Bahini, many of them operating from Indian soil, launched attacks on Pakistani positions. India had yet to step in; Pakistan’s defeat and Bangladesh’s independence were still four months away.
But Harrison named it The Concert for Bangladesh—it was a gift to a na¬tion yearning to be free, and it was the first such concert for an international cause on such a scale. Today, many remember the music and the acts, in¬cluding the famous deadpan comment by Ravi Shankar, who performed with Ali Akbar Khan. They were greeted with applause when they paused while tuning their instruments. The audience thought the piece was over, and Shankar said, “Thank you, if you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more.”
Bangladesh is now 40, and to celebrate its anniversary, another major concert will take place on 4-5 February, bringing world musicians to Dhaka. This time, Bangladeshis will showcase their talent, and the world will come to sing in Bangla¬desh. Runi Khan, of the London-based Culturepot Global, which along with Jatrik Travels, Excalibur Entertainment and Symbianc Part¬ners is organizing the Dhaka World Music Festival, says: “Forty years ago, George Harrison’s concert drew attention to the genocide in our country, then known as East Pakistan, and it mobilized the world about the tragedy of our nation. That inspired me in the first place to organize this festival, of bringing the world and its music together, to break barriers.”
Dhaka hasn’t seen anything quite like this before, and preparations are afoot to bring music from Africa, Latin America and beyond to Dhaka. There will be the Dele Sosimi Band from Nigeria. Sosimi plays the keyboard and was the music director for Fela Kuti, the legendary Nigerian musician. He later formed the band Positive Force with Fela’s son, Femi. From Cuba, there will be Motimba, a fiery Cu¬ban funk band that has over the past decade broken many norms. Kishon Khan from Bangladesh, who is also a Latin pianist and has performed with Hugh Masekela and Pandit Dinesh, will perform with Cuban vocalist Javier Camilo and bassist Jimmy Martinez. From South London, there will be the Soothsayers, led by the trumpeter Robin Hopcraft, with the British-Bang¬ladeshi saxophonist Idris Rahman. And there will also be Bangladeshi Baul musicians Rob Fakir, renowned for his vocals, and Shahjahan Munshi. Nazrul Islam will play the dhol, and Lalan Band, a rock group, will play rock fusion songs influenced by Fakir Lalon Shah. Finally, there is Lokkhi Terra, a group based in Britain, which has become popular in that country, blending Afro-Latin jazz with Bengali folk music. Their debut album, No Visa Required, has gained critical ac¬claim and the group has played at the South Asian Games.
Khan sees the festival as a way to secure a sustainable place for Bang¬ladeshi musical heritage in the global arena, and to engender a dialogue with world music.
Cultural fusion is clearly one goal for the concert, but linked to that is the great desire among many Bangladeshis to help change the country’s image. It was the former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger—no fan of Bangla¬desh’s emergence—who had dismissed the country as “a basket case”. The post-independence famine of the early 1970s and repeated cyclones in the Bay of Bengal have perpetuated the image of the country as forever seeking help from the international community. Pe¬riodic coups haven’t helped either. But the reality is always more complex.
Bangladesh’s socio-economic indi¬cators are today superior to Pakistan’s. The government of Sheikh Hasina Wajed has taken several steps to bring the state back to its secular origins. Writers of Bangladeshi origin have been winning international honours: Think of Monica Ali, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003 for her novel, Brick Lane, Tahmima Anam, winner of the Commonwealth Award in 2008 for her novel, A Golden Age, and Abeer Hoque, winner of the Tanenbaum Prize in 2005 in California.
Music is part of that soft power, and it is about time that a country whose national anthem Rabindranath Tagore wrote, has a world music festi¬val of its own.
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