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Harry Belafonte’s Tempo Is a World Beat
This article by Richard J. Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 24, 1999. All rights reserved.
While he is known around the world for his song "Day-O"
— better known as "The Banana Boat Song" — and for
the movies he’s starred in, singer and actor Harry Belafonte has always
devoted a significant amount of his time and energy to helping people.
Belafonte is not only a folk singer and actor, but also Broadway and
television producer. Clearly, Belafonte is a man of many hats. Yet
the most important hat Belafonte has worn through the last five decades
is that of social activist. When he decided singing folk songs was
more important than singing jazz standards — a decision he made
in the early 1950s — Belafonte knew what he was doing: he was
committing himself to a lifetime of social activism through music.
And, over the years, Belafonte says he has never taken off his "activist"
"I’ve always believed that if you have the good fortune to acquire
a platform that brings a constituency that wants to hear what you
have to say, then the best thing you can do with that platform is
to share it with others who have equally important and wonderful things
to say," Belafonte explained in a recent phone interview. The
normally hard-to-reach entertainer was speaking with the press in
conjunction with his benefit concert for Trenton’s Young Scholars’
Institute at Trenton’s newly-restored War Memorial on Saturday, March
Among the many people Belafonte has provided a helping hand in the
early stages of their careers are Native American folk singer Buffy
Sainte-Marie, folk/blues singer Odetta, the blues duo Sonny Terry
and Brownie McGhee, and South African musicians Miriam Makeba and
"Buffy Sainte-Marie was one of those people I worked with and
supported, and I took her on television with me," he explains
of the Native American singer-songwriter, now based in Hawaii. "I’ve
gotta tell you, she is a remarkable woman. When I first listened to
her perform as a young Native American singer-songwriter, I was absolutely
struck by her great gift and the message she had to bring to America."
But that was in 1961, when Sainte-Marie first came to
Greenwich Village from Maine, where she was raised. More recently,
in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Belafonte has lent a similar helping
hand to the careers of South Africans Hugh Masekela, a trumpeter,
and Miriam Makeba, a vocalist.
Ditto for Odetta. Belafonte was there in New York City in the early
1950s, when a shy, unassuming woman from Los Angeles — with good
guitar skills but a heaven-sent voice — first came to the Greenwich
Village coffee house and club scene. "I marveled at her art and
was glad we were able to do some songs together," recalls the
72-year old Belafonte. He adds that over the next couple of months,
he will lend his expertise to prepare a gala evening to celebrate
Odetta’s 50th year in show business.
Born in Harlem in 1927, Belafonte spent his first six years in Jamaica,
thanks to his mother, who didn’t want her son exposed to Depression-era
Harlem. He began his performing career in 1948 as a jazz singer.
"By the early 1950s I was on my way into the world of folk art,"
he says, recalling what triggered his performing passion. "One
night I wandered into a place called the Village Vanguard and saw
a young man, Leadbelly, and I was absolutely mesmerized by what I
saw in his face and the way he played guitar and the words to his
songs. There was a courage, an energy, and a poetry unlike any that
I’d ever been exposed to before," he recalls.
"I knew right then and there I wanted very much to be a part of
that world, so I went out and found Pete Seeger and Josh White and
all the other folk artists around — and Woody Guthrie, who did
so much to help me. As much as I’d loved singing jazz, I just knew
that folk music held for me a resonance that no other music held."
What prompted Belafonte to turn away from America’s classical music
— jazz — to traditional folk songs, some of them written centuries
ago by white folks? In retrospect, he realizes, "there’s so much
more that can be said for the jazz instrumentalist than can be said
for the people who try to sing jazz. I mean, it’s very difficult,
and very few jazz singers become Carmen McRae or Ella Fitzgerald or
"I just found that in folk music there was a greater palette and
a bigger canvas," he says. "Not only could I do the music
of America, but also of any country I chose to delve into. I could
do songs in Hebrew and songs in Swahili and Zulu. For me, it was a
very rewarding journey."
The acclaimed actor, singer, and Princeton native Paul Robeson was
active in Greenwich Village and Harlem in the early 1950s, and Belafonte
credits him as a major influence. "He was very much around and
very much my mentor," says Belafonte, "and I stayed with him
until he died. He used to be around Trenton and Philadelphia a lot
in the 1950s."
A committed social activist, Robeson was called to testify before
by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and subsequently
denied a passport in 1950. A 1958 Supreme Court ruling restored Robeson’s
right to a passport. He lived abroad in self-imposed exile until 1963,
but returned in poor health. He died in Philadelphia in 1976.
Belafonte says he met Robeson at a pivotal moment in his own career.
This came for Belafonte after his World War II Navy service.
"I’ll tell you what turned my life around was walking into the
American Negro Theater," he recalls. "When Paul Robeson walked
in one day to see us, and I met him, that was the biggest moment in
my career and my life," he recalls, "and this was in 1947."
Belafonte proudly notes the American Negro Theater is now housed at
the Schomburg Center Library in Harlem.
Asked if his tenure in the Navy had an impact on his world view, Belafonte
says it was impossible for the experience not to have changed him.
"Everybody changed from the service," he recalls, "I don’t
think one can go and be involved in the Second World War and not be
a changed man, with Hitler and what had happened as a result of his
racist philosophy. We were told that war was for the purpose of securing
democracy and forever putting an end to dictators and tyranny. I think
it was a little overstated, because it didn’t do that. And when I
came back to America, America was not quite as democratic as it should
have been and was not so generous with its soldiers and sailors of
color," he says.
"When I came back I had to get involved in confrontations at home,
so the war did in fact change the way a lot of us did things in those
days," he adds, noting he became involved in the civil rights
movement in the early 1950s, when Dr. Martin Luther King first visited
New York. A few years later, in 1956, "Calypso," his third
album for RCA Victor Records, was the first-ever LP to sell more than
1 million copies. Clearly, folk music had a power that the record
executives had overlooked. By the early 1960s, the folk music boom
was everywhere around the U.S., in no small part because of the success
Belafonte had with his record.
"I must tell you that what pleases me about that album, `Calypso,’
is it was somewhat ahead of its time, in terms of world music,"
he says. Belafonte notes with pride the interest rock musicians "like
Peter Gabriel, Sting, and David Byrne have taken in world music. I
think the music of the 21st century is going to be world beat music.
America is going to have more chances to explore all kinds of music
from all over the world in the 21st century."
Belafonte’s latest album, "An Evening With Harry Belafonte and
Friends," was released on Chris Blackwell’s Island Records label.
Belafonte’s next album, "Another Night In The Free World,"
will be issued this spring on Blackwell’s new Niger Records label.
In 1960, Belafonte was named by President Kennedy as
cultural advisor to the Peace Corps. He served in that capacity for
five years, traveling to many of the world’s developing countries,
particularly countries in Africa.
"Those were my earliest years of global touring," Belafonte
recalls. When it’s mentioned that he probably didn’t get paid a lot
of money for these gigs, Belafonte laughs. "No, it was not for
a lot of money in those days, or in these days," he says wryly.
Of his War Memorial show, a benefit for the Young Scholars Institute,
Belafonte says he will be accompanied by five musicians and two back-up
The Young Scholars Institute is an eight-year-old non-profit after
school, Saturday, and summer learning center, for grades kindergarten
through high school, that strengthens the skills necessary for students
to excel academically in order to pursue opportunities in higher education.
Targeting inner-city Trenton public school students, its programs
range from tutoring and enrichment outings to SAT prep courses to
college tours, all designed to instill in children a sense of pride
in themselves and their abilities. Founded by Jerri L. Morrison, the
instittue has seven full-time and five part-time employees as well
as a cadre of more than 150 volunteer teachers, tutors, and assistants.
Funds raised by the concert will benefit YSI programs.
"Unless I’m interested in an early death, I can’t ever leave the
stage without singing `Banana Boat Song’ and `Matilda,’ and a few
of those songs that folks associate with me," says Belafonte with
good humor. "But some of the other songs that they haven’t yet
heard, I think will delight them as much."
— Richard J. Skelly
War Memorial, Trenton, 609-393-3220. Gala benefit concert and reception;
donor tickets begin at $150. Concert tickets only are $35 and $50;
for concert tickets call the War Memorial box office at 609-984-8400.
Saturday, March 27, 8 p.m.
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