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Bob The Builder


Bob Geldof, toll collector for Africa, says nothing is more political than the collection box.

Bob Geldof by popular arithmetic is two parts humanitarian : half part musician: half part charlatan and all parts publican - the world's self-appointed toll collector for Africa.

The co-creator of Band Aid, Live Aid, Live 8 and their spinoffs, now 59 years old, has spent half his life drawing attention to African (particularly Ethiopian) starvation and systemic continental breakdown. And yet Geldof is simultaneously accused of being a megalomaniac with vested interests who manipulates the ebb and flow of aid, picnics with politicians and is hard at work at self-beatification.

There was nothing particularly saintly about him at the Hay Festival, when he loped in, greasy haired and persuasive, to chinwag with Shashi Tharoor about Africa, aid and the artist. "You know I'm not entirely Irish, " he responded to Tharoor's jibe about the political correctness of his knighthood. "My grandfather immigrated to Ireland in the 19th century from Belgium. He opened a cafe in Ireland that was frequented by Bernard Shaw, Joyce and Yeats. " Bob's own father was a travelling salesman who hawked towels, leaving Geldof and his two sisters to their own devices. "Which is why I hardly ever went to school, and don't think I passed any of my exams. I'd stay home and listen to the radio, " he said.

And it was through the radio, that political virus of the 50s and 60s - rock 'n' roll - was transmitted. "Suddenly through the bleakness of zero-economy Ireland came the voices of Bob Dylan and John Lennon talking of other universes and possibilities - that change was possible, indeed that it was inevitable. Rock 'n' roll was the language of change. Black America had felt disenfranchised from the American dream of the time and when you're not allowed that you have the inarticulate scream of rage of people like Little Richard - A wop bop a lu bop, a wop bam boom! But rock 'n' roll was equally about capitalism, songs like Don't step on my blue suede shoes. It meant for one, I've got shoes, second, they're suede so I'm really cool, and third, they're blue so don't fuck with me."

It was his own scream of rage - his and five other young, disenfranchised youth of Ireland - that wrote the music of The Boomtown Rats, Bob's original band that had hits like Rat trap and I don't like Mondays. The band, which was middling at best on the world stage, had travelled to India in the 70s on a tour of Madras, Bombay and Bangalore, rounding up crowds in the ten thousands. "There were people climbing over the wall of the hockey stadium in Bombay, and in the south they were holding up 'Bollywood' posters of us, dressed as Indian heroes with jet black hair. Of course, no one knew any of our songs, so we sang The Beatles and Bob Dylan and passed those songs off as our own. And there, looking across at those thousands of people, I thought, 'Two years ago we were broke with no jobs and now this. Life simply can't get better'."

For Geldof, a sympathizer would say, it got worse actually. In 84, Geldof was shaken by a BBC report by Michael Buerk on the famine in Ethiopia. Popular history marks this as the catalyst that got Geldof to rally fellow musicians to form Band Aid, but that was only the flashpoint. Geldof recalls a rugby match in Ireland years before, that had a visiting South African team, and he couldn't understand why blacks were disbarred from playing simply because of the colour of their skin. He protested with a bunch of others and stalled the game. "To do nothing was to be complicit in the crime, " he said.

Over three decades, Geldof has built the most successful brand of music for aid, and generated billions in sympathy taxes. The inaugural Live Aid project in 1985 brought home roughly 150 million pounds, and the figures have only cumulated. To the charge that his concerts were a vehicle for self-promotion, with no representation from African musicians, he shot back, "These aren't cultural programmes but political lobbies, which is why you need the numbers and the acts that get those numbers. To include African musicians would be tokenism."

Today Geldof is on the inside of several political advisory groups that don't just generate aid, but determine policy, trade proposals, debt negation, and so on. Critics have carped about his methods and the credibility of his actions, which is why he self-reflexively said, "People in the Western world today can't say the words Charity and Love without postmodern, ironic quotation marks. But within eight months of Live 8, 42 million African children went to school. For change you must engage with the agents of change. When a billion people put a rupee each in a box - then it becomes political. Then you can take those billion people and force them on politicians to change things and you can force them to acknowledge you care. "

It might have been the echoing acoustics that said 'Like I do'.

Reader's opinion (1)

K. Padmakumar VarshaNov 22nd, 2010 at 17:19 PM

i like the bit about passing off bob dylan and john lennon as own music

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