The Beatles to Bangladesh: A Short History of Rooftop Concerts
Perhaps one day music and love will envelope all the terraces and haat-bazar
Let me confess right in the beginning. I did not know of the genre of rooftop concerts till I heard a few of the Bangladeshi songs under the category ‘roof concert’. Mesmerised by the music that seemed to effortlessly travel from Lalon to fusion, Bhaityali to pop, Rabindra Sangeet to Bengali film music, I started looking for references to it on the internet. I did not get many but the few I did showed clearly the glorious origin of rooftop concerts.
Half a century ago, on January 30, 1969 the Beatles gave their final concert in London which became famous as the ‘rooftop concert’. Its recording will give you an idea of why they wanted music to be performed on a venue like the rooftop.
No surprises that the concert was ended by police, just after Paul McCartney finished his improvised song ‘Get Back’ with the words, “You’ve been playing on the roofs again, and you know your Momma doesn’t like it, she’s gonna have you arrested!”
Of course, it has been speculated that this was a last ditch effort by the Beatles to revive the group which did not succeed.
Still, the performance on the Apple’s rooftop is considered legendary. It was also their last last live concert, in which Lennon thanked the audience with the words “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we’ve passed the audition.”
But even before the famous Beatles rooftop concert in London, Jefferson Airplane performed on a New York City rooftop in 1968.
The context for the concert was provided by events like the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the accelerating Vietnam War.
The famous French director Jean Luc Godard wanted to film the radical mood of the times under his One A.M. Project, for which the Airplane were best suited.
The concert began with the band hailing New Yorkers: “Hello, New York! Wake up, you fuckers! Free music! Nice songs! Free love!”
They could perform just one song before the police broke up the event.
Of course, publicity was one of the aims of this short 7 minute concert. As one of the band members Grace Slick later said “We did it, deciding that the cost of getting out of jail would be less than hiring a publicist.”
Watch Jefferson Airplane performing as filmed by Jean Luc Godard:
Almost thirty years later, U2 did their first performance of the Joshua Tree tour atop a Los Angeles booze emporium on March 27, 1987 with just one song: ‘Where the Streets Have no Name’.
The concert was inspired by the Beatles rooftop show in 1969. This was acknowledged in a left handed compliment by lead singer Bono, who said in an interview that “It’s not the first time we’ve ripped off the Beatles.”
Watch the group’s electrifying performance on a Los Angeles roof top in 1987:
But the earliest account I could find of a famous rooftop concert comes from Sao Paulo, where singer-songwriter Roberto Carlos performed in 1967, before Jefferson Airplane or the Beatles.
In the 1960s, Roberto Carlos was known as the king of latin music in Brazil’s rock-n-roll scene.
Rooftop concerts bring out the fact that music moves the sky and yearns to reach an audience. Such a no frills, simple and direct connect with people is unsurpassed in its impact.
This also explains the enduring appeal of the live concert, despite the role of sound recordings in making music consumption so easy and affordable.
When the Bauls go singing from village to village or boatmen sing songs in Bhatiyali while rowing their boats, it is all intended to connect with an audience, whoever or whatever it may be.
Folk ballads like Raja Salhes, Dina Bhadri, Bihula Maya, Alha Udal and many more continue for days on end in rural areas of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, drawing hundreds of people over many nights.
And the Stunning Music of Bangladesh
Exploring the music scene of Bangladesh, I stumbled across a number of fascinating songs performed on rooftops, named Aamader Chhade. The music under this category has great variety and appeal. It combines the folk with the modern for a contemporary look and feel.
For instance, here is a song by the poet, mystic philosopher and songwriter from Sylhet, Hason Raja (1854–1922) named ‘Loke Bole, Bole Re’.
In it he talks about the ephemeral life. Looking at his grey hair he says if he knew how long he was going to be on this earth, he would have built a house of his own.
And you won’t run out of variety in songs from Bangladesh. Here is a song that will set your foot tapping. True folk rock: ‘Parob Lagain’ by Khyada (Ananya):
And this folk song, ‘Saaltole Bela Dubilo’ with its generous doses of the classical touch introduced by the singer, will let you breathe the air of the place from which it originates.
The bhakti tradition of Bengal continues to find expression in the folk songs and music of Bangladesh. Here is an Odiya bhajan going by the responses on the YouTube page:
And how can Krishna not be invoked in a land of rivers? This song, explains the singer, establishes Radha as a strong lady who loves Krishna but on her own terms. Listen to the great pitch of the song and the exquisite control she exercises at such a high pitch of singing:
And here is a roof song rendered by Debdeep in his deep, sonorous voice:
Of course, no Bangla music ensemble can be complete without Rabindra Sangeet - never mind if it does not qualify as such going by puritan standards, which I neither know nor care about. The song cuts deep into your heart, even if you don’t understand Bangla much:
The music of Bangladesh is exquisite and rich. It requires expertise and knowledge to critically examine its nuances which I certainly lack. I only understand that the music sampled here touches my heart, soothes my mind and makes me feel great about this cultural heritage of Bangladesh.
Before I wind up, I can’t stop myself from sharing with you two other songs which aren’t so far part of rooftop concerts but are great songs nevertheless.
The versatile singer and music composer Kaushik Hossain Taposh (who looks very much like Michael Jackson in this song) is a big name in Bangladeshi music. He is also a successful businessman who has invested his talent to earn money and promote music. He set up the popular music channel Gaan Bangla.
The ‘Allah Nobijir’ song by Taposh is in the genre of Coke Studio and beautifully sung:
Finally before winding up, let us celebrate Bangla music with dhol. ‘Bangladesher Dhol’ is a folk song for which S.D.Burman, born in Bangladesh, did a film version long back. Here is Burman celebrating his roots to the beats of dhol:
And this is how it has been rendered in a rich setting by Taposh, with legendary percussionist Shivmani featuring in the performance:
Perhaps one day music and love will envelope all the terraces, haat-bazar, gali-muhalla. It will seep into the air and sea, cast its spell on our hearts and minds, fill our nostrils and sweat, so there is no space left for hatred, dividing us into religions, countries, races, colours and the endless list.