George Harrison–Ravi Shankar Special Emergency Relief Fund: ‘Bangla Desh’ pop single

Exhibited by
SOFII
Added
May 13, 2021
Medium of Communication
Song
Target Audience
Fans of George Harrison
Type of Charity
Emergency appeal
Country of Origin
UK
Date of first appearance
28 July 1971

SOFII’s view

We love our history at SOFII and we also love to celebrate world firsts. As far as we can tell, George Harrison’s ‘Bangla Desh’ was the first-ever pop charity single, meaning its influence was massive even if, as a song, it has somewhat been forgotten. It’s probably safe to say that without ‘Bangla Desh’ and the subsequent Concert for Bangladesh, we may never have seen events like Live Aid or heard more famous charity songs like ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’.

Summary / objectives

To raise money to support victims of war, famine and displacement in the newly independent nation of Bangladesh. The song was also intended to create awareness of the victims’ plight.

Creator / originator

George Harrison

Background

By the spring of 1971, George Harrison had established himself as the most successful ex-Beatle. During the former band members’ first year as solo artists; in the words of biographer Elliot Huntley, ‘he couldn't have got any more popular in the eyes of the public’. Just as importantly, writes Peter Lavezzoli, author of The Dawn of Indian Music in the West, Harrison had ‘amassed such good will in the music community’ during that time. Rather than looking to immediately follow up his All Things Must Pass triple album, he had spent the months since recording ended in October 1970 repaying favours to the friends and musicians who had helped make the album such a success. 

One project was a documentary on the life and music of Ravi Shankar, Howard Worth’s Raga (1971), for which Harrison had stepped in at the last minute to provide funding and distribution through Apple Films. With Harrison also serving as record producer for the accompanying soundtrack album, work began with Shankar in Los Angeles during April 1971 and resumed in late June.

A Bengali by birth, Shankar had already brought the growing humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh to Harrison’s attention, while staying at the ex-Beatle’s house earlier in the year. The state formerly known as East Pakistan (and before that, East Bengal) had suffered an estimated 300,000 casualties when the Bhola cyclone hit its shores on 12 November 1970. The indifference shown by the ruling government in West Pakistan, particularly by President Yahya Khan, was just one reason the Bengali national movement sought independence on 25 March 1971. This declaration resulted in an immediate military crackdown by Khan’s troops, and three days later the Bangladesh Liberation War began. 

By 13 June, details of the systematic massacre of citizens were beginning to emerge internationally via the publication in London’s Sunday Times of an article by Anthony Mascarenhas. Along with the torrential rains and intensive flooding that were threatening the passage of millions of refugees into north-eastern India, his news galvanised Shankar into approaching Harrison for help in trying to alleviate the suffering. ‘I was in a very sad mood, having read all this news,’ Shankar later told Rolling Stone magazine, ‘and I said, “George, this is the situation, I know it doesn't concern you, I know you can't possibly identify.” But while I talked to George, he was very deeply moved ... and he said, “Yes, I think I'll be able to do something.”’

As a result, Harrison committed to staging the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden, New York, on Sunday, 1 August. Six weeks of frantic activity ensued as Harrison flew between New York, Los Angeles and London, making preparations and recruiting other musicians to join him and Shankar for the shows. 

Realising the need to create greater awareness of the situation in Bangladesh, and particularly the refugee camps of India that had become ‘infectious open-air graveyards’ with an outbreak of cholera, Harrison quickly composed a song for the cause. He later said that ‘Bangla Desh’ was ‘written in ten minutes at the piano’. The title translates as ‘Bengal nation’, and the fact that Harrison spelt it as two words is indicative of how little the new country’s name had been acknowledged by the Western media at this time. 

As with the concerts, Harrison made a point of steering clear of the politics behind the problem, his lyrics focusing instead on the human perspective. Harrison began the song with a verse outlining his own introduction to the Bangladesh crisis: 

‘My friend came to me with sadness in his eyes / 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 of you to help us save some lives.’

Results

The song peaked at number 10 on Britain’s national singles chart and number 23 on the Billboard Hot 100 in America; the other US chart compilers, Cash Box and Record World, placed the single at number 20 and number 13, respectively. ‘Bangla Desh’ attracted sustained airplay in the days leading up to the concerts and lent the relief project an authentic social and political significance. A Bangladeshi academic, Professor Farida Majid, would later write: 

‘To the utter consternation of [US President] Nixon and [Secretary of State] Kissinger, George Harrison's “Bangla Desh” hit the chart. It was a thrilling moment in the midst of all the sad news emanating from the battlefront. Even the Western journalists covering the civil war in East Pakistan were not yet using the word “Bangladesh”.’ 

The studio recording was also played at the Concert for Bangladesh shows, following Shankar's opening set, over footage of the refugees and scenes from the war.

Merits

‘Bangla Desh’ has the distinction of being the first-ever pop charity single, 14 years before Band Aid released ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ or the creation of USA for Africa.

George Harrison played the sitar with Ravi Shankar. Photo: Scope Features.
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George Harrison recorded and released the single in a matter of days.
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The reverse of the US picture sleeve for ‘Bangla Desh’: the confronting United Press International image that was also used in print advertisements for the single.