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Music Becomes Food For The Hungry Print-ready version

by Robert Palmer
New York Times
April 21, 1985

MUSIC BECOMES FOOD FOR THE HUNGRY By ROBERT PALMER Published: April 21, 1985

Recording stars from the United States, Europe and Latin America are discovering that they have the power to raise large sums of money for aid to African famine victims and similar humanitarian causes.

Scores of recording stars in the Latin, reggae, gospel, heavy-metal rock and African pop idioms are banding together to make singles and albums, with the profits earmarked to aid the starving and homeless in Ethiopia and elsewhere. Other pop, jazz and classical musicians are organizing benefit concerts.

The trend was originally inspired by a gathering of British pop stars, recording as Band Aid, whose single "Do They Know It's Christmas?" was a No. 1 hit in Britain during the Christmas holidays and has raised millions of pounds for African famine victims. But the major impetus has been the No. 1 single and Top 5 album titled "We Are the World," recorded by more than 40 American pop and rock stars calling themselves U.S.A. for Africa.

Four million albums, three million singles, 400,000 posters and 140,000 copies of a "We Are the World" book have been sold in the last month. Sales of the album - which includes previously unreleased songs by Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner and others whose disks regularly sell in the millions - have already generated $20 million in relief funds.

Latin Artists Take Part

Julio Iglesias, Celia Cruz, Jose Feliciano and a number of other Latin music stars, calling themselves Hermanos, recorded together in Los Angeles on April 9. A single record of a specially composed song, "Cantare, Cantaras," will be released May 15 by Hermanos Records. An all-star album is being put together for a mid- June release; according to the Hermanos organization, Menudo, Placido Domingo, Irene Cara and other leading Latin musicians have agreed to contribute music.

Although the original intention was to donate most of the money to African famine relief through the U.S.A. for Africa Foundation, Hermanos at present plans to contribute 90 percent to aid the hungry and homeless in Latin America.

Sixty-five gospel artists, including Al Green, Amy Grant and Shirley Caesar, joined the music industry drive for African famine relief on April 3. After ceremonies for the Gospel Music Association's Dove Awards, they assembled in a Nashville studio to record "Do Something Now," a song specially written by Steve Camp and Phil Madeira.

Sparrow, a leading gospel label, is preparing to release the song as a 12- inch single within the next two weeks, credited to Cause - Christian Artists United to Save the Earth. Sparrow has agreed to donate all income from the record, including all artist royalties, to Compassion International, a relief organization, with the provision that the funds be earmarked to aid African nations hardest hit by famine.

In Britain, a group of reggae and pop stars that includes members of UB40 and General Public has recorded an updated version of the Pioneers' now-timely reggae song "Starvation."

In Paris, a gathering of leading African pop stars, including Manu Dibango, King Sunny Ade and Toure Kunda, recorded their own "Tam- Tam Pour l'Ethiopie." A single with "Starvation" on one side and "Tam Tam Pour l'Ethiopie" on the other has been released in Britain, where it has had brisk sales. It is in some American stores as an import. Proceeds are to be distributed by the famine-relief agency Oxfam.

Help From Heavy Metal

Ronnie James Dio, who was lead vocalist in Black Sabbath before he began his successful solo career, has been working with members of his heavy-metal band on instrumental backing for an upcoming metal all- stars session.

Members of some of the most popular heavy-metal bands, including Quiet Riot, Judas Priest, the Scorpions and Iron Maiden, as well as the heavy-metal satirists Spinal Tap, have agreed to contribute performances to the record. The group is planning to call itself Hear 'N' Aid.

Although Ken Kragen, events organizer of U.S.A. for Africa, believes organizers prefer recording sessions to benefit concerts, several such concerts are in the planning stages.

The wives of 39 African delegates to the United Nations have organized the United African Mothers for the Crisis and will present Roberta Flack, Jon Hendricks, Melba Moore, Manhattan Transfer, the National Dance Company of Africa and other artists in a benefit concert in the General Assembly Hall on April 26. Proceeds from sales of the $250 tickets will go to the Secretary General's Emergency Fund for Africa.

Peter Martins has choreographed "We Are the World" for the New York City Ballet; it will have its premiere next Tuesday at the New York State Theater, Lincoln Center. The U.S.A. for Africa organization is planning to collect contributions from the audience and the artists.

How It Began

Concerts intended to raise money for humanitarian projects or for issue-oriented organizations such as the antinuclear movement's MUSE have been around for many years. So has the telethon concept of radio and television programming, which has been effective in raising funds for the study or treatment of a number of serious diseases.

But the idea of assembling a galaxy of pop stars to make hit records for the benefit of famine relief, with the artists donating time and services and the record company turning over all net profits, began last fall with Bob Geldof, lead singer for Ireland's Boomtown Rats. He co-wrote the song "Do They Know It's Christmas?" and assembled the group of British pop stars (and members of the American group Kool and the Gang).

From a strictly musical standpoint, these recordings have been a mixed blessing. "Do They Know It's Christmas?" has a sentimental lyric and treacly arrangement, and its underlying message carries more than a hint of cultural chauvinism - "We" know it's Christmas time, but "they" don't.

The U.S.A. for Africa single, "We Are the World," is a more solid piece of music. It starts somewhat blandly, but gathers momentum and emotional punch about half-way through, especially when Ray Charles begins kicking the rhythm along. "When Ray comes in, it's like hearing the soul of America," said the pop singer Lionel Richie, who wrote the song "We Are the World" with help from Michael Jackson. "But our idea was to make the song an anthem that anybody could sing."

From this point of view, the song is remarkably successful. The catchy refrain is quickly memorable. One hears it being hummed and whistled everywhere. On April 5 at 10:50 A.M. "We Are the World" was broadcast simultaneously by hundreds of radio stations in the United States and abroad and over Muzak systems and the Voice of America.

Album Is a Hodgepodge

The album "We Are the World" is a hodgepodge; too many of the songs sound like rejects from the stars' most recent album sessions, though several were newly written and specially recorded. The album's nadir is the almost unbearably glutinous "Tears Are Not Enough," sung by Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and other Canadian artists.

The most absorbing and powerful music that has come out of the benefit-record trend thus far can be found on the British single pairing "Starvation" and "Tam-Tam Pour l'Ethiopie." The majority of the artists heard on these songs are largely unknown outside their countries, and their performances sound urgently genuine.

The U.S.A. for Africa Foundation is merchandising official T-shirts, sweatshirts, posters, buttons and pins, along with the single, album and book. At a news conference on Thursday, the foundation announced that it had begun legal action against manufacturers and vendors of bootleg merchandise in New York, Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles.

Martin Rogol, the foundation's executive director, noted that the organization and artists involved hope to contribute to long-term solutions for some African problems.

"We studied the roots of the situation," he said. "We found that the famine is part of a larger crisis that's a legacy of European colonialism, political instability and corruption, and ambitious industrialization programs that have left farm and grazing land to be swallowed up by the advancing desert. Thirty years ago, Africa as a whole was self-sufficient in growing its own food. Today, it raises barely half the food needed for survival."

Mr. Rogol said the first 35 percent of the funds would go for immediate relief, with emphasis on medicine and food. "The second 35 percent," he said, "will go for agricultural aid, to help the African nations hit hardest by the famine become self-sufficient in terms of growing their own food. Another 20 percent will go for long- term economic development in those countries, and the final 10 percent is for aid to the hungry and homeless in our own country."

Some observers have been wondering where the present trend is heading and whether any other cause - humanitarian or political - is likely to benefit from the financial clout wielded by groups of pop stars and other entertainers. "This issue is the most basic and important of all, the issue of life," said Mr. Kragen. "We're dealing with the most basic human needs, food and shelter; if you don't have them, you can't survive."

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