Saturday, December 18, 2010

Day 2 Bob Geldof in conversation with Shashi Tharoor at Hay Festival, Kanakakunnu Palace, Trivandrum

Unlike Ruth, I was looking forward to attending singer-songwriter and political activist Bob Geldof’s session at the Palace Hall. In my own circle of friends and acquaintances, there are some who are floored by his efforts and who proudly sported Live8/LiveAid bracelets and turned up at Hyde Park for the concert in 2005; there are also those who perceive him as a sham after publicity. I sat on the fence: it couldn’t be denied that he focused the economic North’s attention on the poverty-stricken Africa; his political activism seemed to reap dividends; and it was debatable where the LiveAid donations eventually ended up. Of course, one heard more about those associated with him, such as Paula Yates and daughters Peaches and Pixie.

Geldof was very chilled out- betraying neither passion nor rage. And he was very candid, even elaborating about his family background (a hotchpotch of nationalities including Jewish) and providing a quick history of Ireland (including the potato famine) and the volatile political situation. He had dropped out from school, had a series of jobs including a stint at road construction near Gatwick airport and as a music journalist in Vancouver where he overstayed and was eventually dispatched back to the UK.

Being a left-hander, he learnt to play a normal (right-handed) one by holding it upside down with the lowest frets at top. His Irish punk rock band, The Boomtown Rats, achieved moderate success in the late 1970s and the early 1980s. His group had concerts, around 30 years ago, in Bombay and Bangalore, where they were virtually unknown. But upon perceiving the musical inclination of the crowd, they had switched on to more popular numbers by Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

It was whilst his career was stagnating that he happened to switch on the television one morning and saw the unedited and poignant footage (by Michael Buerk of the BBC) of the Ethiopian famine. This motivated him to co-write, with Midge Ure of Ultravox, ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’, which ended up as a best-selling single around the world. He elaborated, in detail, about the process behind the song and the invitation received from a similar movement amongst music artistes in the US (which eventually culminated in the ‘We are the world’). He then organised the Live Aid concerts from 1985, all aimed at famine relief, economic sustainability, and ending third world debt. In July 2005, he organised the Live 8 concerts (eight free concerts held simultaneously around the world to put pressure on the G8 economic summit at Gleneagles), aimed at raising the awareness of the plight faced by Africa and to lobby for debt cancellation.

Nearly 25 years on, Geldof remains passionate about Africa. Admitting that India and China were major players of the 21st century, he spelled out the role which such countries could play in lifting the Dark Continent out of its bane. Africa needed aid, not just for the basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing, but also to steer the population towards education, technology growth, and other measures. Furthermore, Africans had been receiving a mere pittance of the aid meant for them, the rest being gobbled up in the process. But when an attendee referred to aid being swallowed by the corrupt in Africa, Geldof quickly pointed out that corruption was much rifer in India- as evidenced by what he recently read in the local paper about a government official resigning since his office was corrupt. He also mentioned about the private equity fund which he had started in September, with the aim of investing this in Africa.

There were also references about fellow musician Paul Hewson, a.k.a Bono, of U2 and the political lobbying which he carried out. Former US President George Bush Jr also found a supporter in him: even though, he said, Bush was not an ideal President of the US, he has done more for Africa than other luminaries such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. His thoughts on Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe was quite vocal- the only resolution was in the latter’s death. Like James Lovelock, Geldof also advocates nuclear power as opposed to wind or tidal energy.

Geldof’s session was the most entertaining lecture I’ve attended so far (the David Miliband one at Sidgwick has faded into insignificance)- it was blatantly politically incorrect, peppered with a healthy dose of f-words and dark humour. His in-depth and wide range of knowledge was impressive: the high-school dropout certainly excelled a Ph.D holder from Tufts. And regardless of whether or not we agree with his rationale, this certainly wasn’t a wishy-washy rocker.

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