01 May Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, the Sitar, George Harrison, The Concert for Bangladesh and Me
I’m a born-again Asian American. Most of my life, I was oblivious to my rich roots and Japanese heritage. I was a banana — yellow on the outside, white on the inside. So probably more than some Asian Americans, I like the idea that May is officially “Asian Pacific American Heritage Month” in the U.S.
There’s a part of me that finds it irritating that APAs get noticed once a year and we’re practically invisible the other 11 months. But I’m glad that former transportation secretary Norm Mineta drafted the legislation to establish this month-long celebration when he was a Congressman. I’m pretty immersed in the APA community now — not just Japanese American, but also the dozens of other Asian ethnic cultures and how they’ve evolved as they’ve become established in the U.S.
APA Heritage Month makes me think of times when I was less connected to my own roots, and not interested in the vast wealth of culture throughout Asia.
When I was a kid, I was into Japanese and Chinese (or more correctly, Chinese American) food. That’s what my family ate when we weren’t eating hamburgers, steak, spaghetti and pizza. This was before I developed my voracious appetite for Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Cambodian, Singaporean and Filipino food. It was pre-dim sum. And, it was way before I grew to appreciate all kinds of Asian music, both traditional and Asian American.
(Note: For those of you non-Asians who are Asiaphiles, I want to make the distinction that though we Asian Americans appreciate our heritage and understand how we’re steeped in traditional values, we’re all about the mix of being both Asian and American, or perhaps more accurately, being Asian in America.)
One very clear example of my growth and awareness of Asian culture today as opposed to when I was younger, is my appreciation for one particular track in George Harrison’s landmark recording, “The Concert for Bangladesh.” The track is the Indian music performance, “Bangla Dhun,” by the sitar master Ravi Shankar.
George Harrison assembled an all-star cast of friends — including fellow Beatle Ringo Starr,guitar god Eric Clapton, cult session musician Leon Russell, keyboard player (and “fifth Beatle”) Billy Preston, and members of the British pop band Badfinger (which was signed to the Beatles’ Apple label and sounded an awful like the Beatles) — to perform for one night at Madison Square Garden in New York City, to raise money for food aid to Bangla Desh. The concert was on Aug. 1, 1971, and though in the years following there was some controversy about whether the money raised actually went to save starving people in Bangla Desh, UNICEF is still using proceeds from the sale of the recording (now as a two-CD set instead of a lavish three-record boxed set) to feed children caught in humanitarian crises.
This was more than a decade before “We Are the World” and Live Aid. This was the first major display of rock culture being used for a good cause. And George Harrison was convinced to perform this concert at the behest of his friend, the master sitar player Ravi Shankar (who by the way is the father of singer-songwriter Nora Jones). Shankar, who was from the Bengali-speaking part of India, was concerned by the devastation on the Bengali-speaking population of Bangladesh (the eastern portion of Pakistan), which was torn by war and natural disaster. So Harrison decided to host this superstar concert and raise money to send food and aid to the region.
I loved the album, with Harrison’s muscular live versions of songs from his 1970 boxed set, “All Things Must Pass.” He performed “My Sweet Lord,” “Awaiting on You All” and “Wah-Wah.” He even did a couple of Beatles-era songs: the definitive version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with Clapton joining him onstage, and a beautiful acoustic take of “Here Comes the Sun” with backing by the lads from Badfinger. Billy Preston sang his gospel-tinged hit song, “That’s the Way God Planned It”; Ringo did “It Don’t Come Easy,” and Leon Russell did a terrific R&B medley that didn’t really fit the evening’s mood but rocked anyway. And Bob Dylan joined the event, stamping the evening once and for all as a concert for the ages in the annals of rock history. The concert was filmed but I never saw the movie, and oddly enough, have never even seen it on DVD now that’s been re-released.
But as Harrsion explained in his introduction, half the evening was taken up by a performance of Indian music, played by Shankar on the multi-stringed instrument sitar, along with Ustad Alla Rakha on tablas, the percussion instrument, Ali Akbar Khan on another stringed instrument, the sarod, and Kamala Chakravarty on tamboura, another percussion instrument. Harrison asked the audience to give these musicians their respect and be open to their sound.
The released recording included one 16-minute Indian track “Bangla Dhun,” which took up one entire side of the LP. And I hated it.
I had heard Indian music before, as background color for Western pop — most notably in the score for the Beatles movie “Help!,” where Harrison was first introduced to the sitar, and in various psychedelic rock songs of the late ’60s. But I was still a kid when “Concert for Bangladesh” came out, and without doing mushrooms or dropping acid, and without an open mind and ear, the droning, twangy sound of the sitar and the lightning-fast riffing of the percussion simply sounded grating to me.
The same thing happened years later, when I first listened to a lot of bebop jazz. It didn’t make any sonic sense to me, until one day it suddenly clicked. “Oh, THAT’s what Charlie Parker was doing — I can hear his path now!”
These days, I have entire albums of Indian and Tibetan and Nepalese music. I can appreciate the depth of the music and the complexity of the musicianship. I love the sitar and sarod, and have CDs by both Shankar and Akbar Khan. I also love the modern mix of Indian music and dance music, which is called “Bangra.”
So I salute Harrison, whose early interest in Indian music helped open my ears to a cultural heritage that’s centuries old and incredibly rich and beautiful. And I pay my respects to all the masters of Indian music, a sound as complex and thrilling as anything I’ve ever heard in my life.
Now, the 16 minutes of “Bangla Dhun” seems almost too short. Listening to it seems an appropriate way to kick of APA Heritage Month.