Bangladesh Concert: A Virtual Reality Music Event Revives the 1971 Beatles Charity Concert, but Without the White Savior Complex

On August 1, 1971, Beatles guitarist George Harrison and Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar took to the stage in New York City to launch a humanitarian call in Bangladesh. The nation was then at war with Pakistan, having declared its independence just four months earlier, and was facing a refugee crisis caused by genocide and a series of devastating natural disasters. Urgent and well-intentioned, the Concert for Bangladesh raised substantial global awareness and about $ 12 million. But perhaps its most enduring byproduct was the image of a nation diminished by conflict and with little chance of success.

Yet today, as Bangladesh celebrates half a century of independence, it seems all but powerless. Located at the apex of the world’s largest river delta, it regularly experiences severe flooding and occasional vicious cyclones. Meanwhile, politics, while relatively stable in the South Asian region, remains marked by corruption, sectarianism and growing repressions against dissent. Despite this, since the mid-2000s, the nation has remained a development model, regularly outperforming Pakistan and its other neighbors in most growth indicators. His 72-year life expectancy is now even higher than some parts of Mississippi, USA.

“Shezad Dawood, production of Still of Concert From Bangladesh, 2021
Courtesy of the artist and UBIK Productions

In response to the 1971 concert, British-South Asian artist Shezad Dawood, in collaboration with New York-based Bangladeshi music producer Enayet Kabir, will launch the Concert from Bangladesh 2021, August 1, a “mixed reality” concert that combines video performances by 13 musicians from Bangladesh and South Asia in a range of eclectic styles, ranging from hip-hop to in experimental electronics. All the musicians will be projected on a virtual reality stage, designed by Dawood, which traverses notable architectural and natural sites in Bangladesh and celebrates a country that has nevertheless become one of the most important creative centers in Asia.

Choose your words wisely

“It’s important to address what it means to be“ of ”something rather than“ for ”that,” says Diana Campbell Betancourt, concert curator and artistic director of the Samdani Art Foundation (SAF), which is partially funding the project. “Effective change is rarely achieved unilaterally. It comes from collaboration,” he adds. With this simple linguistic turn, the Bangladesh Concert seeks to reverse a problematic power dynamic inherent in the name of its ancestor: that of a former colonial power going to the rescue.

Campbell Betancourt, who is also a writer, finds these syntactic choices very important. She is blunt, for example, that the Dhaka Art Summit, of which she is chief curator, is not called a biennial, which seeks to avoid connotations of ephemerality and spectacle that surround many exhibitions every two years. But this attention to words also has a special relevance for the historical context of the concert: “Language is the reason why even Bangladesh was born,” he says, referring to the Bengali Language Movement of the 1950s, in what the citizens of then East Pakistan fought against suppression of Bangla and other indigenous languages ​​by West Pakistan. The movement, which included Bangla in the national constitution, served as a catalyst for the rising nationalism that led to independence. To this day, the languages ​​of Bangladesh have a special status in their society and legislation, and the concert, which is shown in places around the world containing important communities of the Bangladeshi diaspora, will be available in various d ‘them.

Courtesy of the artist and UBIK Productions

Music also plays a key role in the country’s long struggle for freedom. “During the 1971 Liberation War, songs played a huge role in motivating refugees and freedom fighters,” says Ruxmini Choudhury, SAF assistant curator and co-organizer of the concert. It specifically refers to Shadhin Bangla singers Betar Kendra (Free Bengal Radio Center), known as “voice soldiers”, who traveled through refugee camps and sang songs from Bangladesh to cheer. “My mother sang these songs to me as a child. Even today we sing them in our protests, we remember this music as a nation,” Choudhury adds.

Covering six centuries of musical traditions, the Bangladesh Concert features among its performers the mystical Baul singer Arif Baul accompanied by instrumentalists Nazrul Islam, Saidur Rahman and Sohel. The show will culminate with Bangladeshi hip-hop duo Tabib Mahmud and 12-year-old Gully Boy Rana, whose lyrics participate socially address issues related to climate emergency and poverty.

Courtesy of the artist and UBIK Productions

For the visual elements of the concert, Dawood relied on his previous decade of research on twentieth-century South Asian architecture and the non-aligned movement during the Cold War, in particular the pioneering architect Muzharul Islam. in the modernism of Bangladesh.

“Islam defines what it is like to design” from a “place instead of” for him, “says Dawood.” Islam’s view of “indigenous modernism,” as Dawood calls it, goes back a lineage. about 2,000 years ago in places like Somapura, a Buddhist monastery built around 700 AD, which also appears in the stage of virtual reality. “Unlike modernism in many other parts of South Asia or the world no aligned, the Bangladesh movement was extremely homely and it’s important to highlight that, ”Dawood adds.

In an orderly summary, Dawood also says that Somapura’s geometric structure, which resonates with many of the architectural sites represented, including the National Assembly building designed by Louis Khan in Dhaka, lends itself to digital building blocks in shape. of jealousy that used to create the virtual reality stage, allowing places to dissolve and grow with each other.

Equally prominent in the virtual reality stage are the captures of Bangladesh’s rich natural landscape and wildlife, such as snake waterways and dense forests. In one section, Dawood has turned the Sundarbans, a vast area of ​​mangroves in the south of the country, with fearsome tigers that eat men and chase prey among green, shallow ponds.

Courtesy of the artist and UBIK Productions

A bit confusing, the Bangladesh Concert will not be the only musical event to be released this weekend addressing the 1971 concert. On the same day there will be a re-release of the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, organized under the auspices of the Council on Cultural Relations of India and starring the sons of Harrison and Shankar: musicians Dhani Harrison and Anoushka Shankar. The two coincident concerts are separate entities (attempts to merge them were initially rejected) and, in many respects, seem diametrically opposed to their organization.

“I don’t know who the concert for Bangladesh 2021 is exactly for,” says Campbell Betancourt. “Why is it celebrated in India? Do these musicians know what India is currently doing to Muslims? It seems strange to organize a concert like this when Dhaka has such a robust cultural scene.”

“‘Do you know it’s Christmas?’ Ethiopia is a Christian country, I’m sure they knew it was Christmas ”
Diana Campbell Betancourt, curator

The 1971 concert in Bangladesh was undoubtedly the model for all subsequent charity concerts which in turn played a key role in shaping the global charity industry. But this model is increasingly being rethought. “When you only have one hungry child as a sign of your initiative, it flattens out so many other things and reduces people’s agency. ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’ Ethiopia is a predominantly Christian country, I’m sure they know it’s Christmas, ”says Campbell Betancourt.

In fact, much has changed in the last 50 years, not only for Bangladesh, but also for attitudes toward aid and globalism. When previously atomized organizations depended on lateral flows of background and information, contemporary problem solving increasingly depended on interdependent thinking. This, above all, requires a challenge to the myth of the white savior. And nowhere is this rebuttal more urgent than in efforts to address the climate crisis, an issue that is unlikely to be resolved without focusing on global southern voices that are typically most at risk.

It is not that those in the richest countries remain intact. After sudden floods devastated Western Europe and killed hundreds earlier this month, it seems increasingly important to study how flood-prone nations, such as Bangladesh, have negotiated high water for centuries. Citing Bangladeshi artist Shawon Akand, Campbell Betancourt says the reason Bangladesh never successfully colonized is because the British were unable to navigate such dangerous terrain. “People here live an amphibious life. They call their children after the floods. It’s a different way of thinking about nature. But that’s exactly what we need if we hope to address the emergency.”

Bangladesh Concert will be posted live via the Pioneer Works online platform on August 1, 2021, accompanied by live events at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (Wakefield) as part of Yorkshire Sculpture International and Pioneer Works (New York) . Additional events will be held with the Chisenhale Gallery (London), the Leeds City Varieties Music Hall (Leeds) and the Srihatta Samdani Art and Sculpture Park Center (Sylhet).

• The Bangladesh concert has the support of Samdani Art Foundation, UBIK Productions and the British Council Digital Collaboration Fund. All funds will go to efforts to tackle climate change in Bangladesh, as well as the human rights charity Friendship.

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