Africa still tops Live Aid founder Bob Geldof’s agenda

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

Thiruvananthapuram : Music, political activism and a messianic zeal to put sub-Saharan Africa on the global mainstream still sit easy on Irish musician, author and occasional actor Bob Geldof.

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Geldof – a knight of the British empire for his mission Africa – who is in India to perform at The Week Hay Festival in Kerala Nov 12-14 and address a series of conferences in Jaipur and the national capital, believes that “India is absolutely central to the development of Africa, along with China”.

“Africa now has nearly 850,000 Indians (half of who live in South Africa). They have played a huge part in developing the African economy with their shops and textile trade,” he said.

“Indian trade with Africa has increased exponentially since 1991. But India herself is a recipient of development aid. India may be a rich country but Indians are still poor, like China. The country has to take care of its 800 million poor people in the rural hinterland – it cannot be expected to help the continent with funds for development,” he added.

For Geldof, the Hay Festival was a trip down the memory lane in India – which he still likes to recall with relish. The musician came to India for the first time in 1979 with his band Boomtown Rats on a three-city tour of Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai.

“We played in a hockey stadium in Mumbai in a mutual level of incomprehensibility. People did not know our music. A few nights later, we were in Bangalore on a huge field. There were 30,000 people, a little stage with fairy lights and Boomtown Rats posters resembling Bollywood posters,” he said.

“They had made us Indians with almond eyes and black hair. I started playing Beatles, Rolling Stones and Bob Marley tracks…The crowd thought they were my songs,” the musician said.

“I looked up at the stars, backward at my guys and at the crowd and thought life could not be better. Play music…people would come to see it, we would not know each other; just go around the world,” the musician-activist narrated travelling back in time with MP Shashi Tharoor, who egged him on to bare his soul.

The India tour was also a time of realisations for Geldof. “In this murderous, tyrannical and suicidal century, the miracle of Indian democracy is staggering with all the tensions in the economy and aspirations,” he said.

Africa tops Geldof’s priority till date though his new album is due in January.

“If you want change, you must engage with the agents of change. It was not about money…but a political lobby to bring the situation to a point of conclusion,” he said.

“Within eight months of the Live Aid concert, debts worth $50 billion were cancelled, 42 million children went to school and human brains were turned on. At least 3.5 billion people across the planet joined the Live Aid. We carried a digital petition…do you like our agenda for sacrifice,” the musician said.

At 59, Geldof still cuts a charismatic figure with his scruffy hair, dimpled cheeks, casual style and a ready tune to hum.

How did the transformation from music to Africa activism happen? Geldof blames the “monolithic broadcasting corporation BBC Two for the change”.

“I saw something – 500,000 people about to die of starvation in Africa. That was just the tip of an iceberg. Nearly 30 million were starving. It was such a blow to the human corpus,” he said.

“My wife had put up a sign on the refrigerator that every visitor donate five pounds in a box for Africa. The images evoked rage and the rage was transmuted into shame,” he recalled.

He was assailed with calls from fellow musicians from the US. “The situation was symptomatic of something that needed to be addressed – hunger, ill health, poverty and economic policy,” Geldof said.

And so was born Band Aid followed by Live Aid and the Live Eight concerts between 1984 and 2005 to raise money for the famine victims of Ethiopia.

The charities gave to the world the cult chartbusting single – “We are the World” that transcended race, colour, creed and geography to become the pop anthem for Africa.

“I persuaded former British prime minister Tony Blair to set up the Commission for Africa in 2004,” Geldof said.

The musician serves as an advisor to One Campaign, a humanitarian charity founded by fellow Irishman Bono.