The stellar career of famed Calypso artist and social activist Harry Belafonte will be celebrated in a musical tribute on his 91st birthday on March 1 at City College Center for the Arts in Manhattan.
The concert at the arts center’s Aaron Davis Hall will be performed by members of the Belafonte Alumni Group — a group of more than a dozen members who performed with Belafonte at some point in their lifetime. Their show will feature a style of performance reminiscent of the days when the renowned vocalist still performed, said the group’s musical director.
“We’re going to plan the evening the way we used to when we performed with Harry in rehearsal and on stage, so it’s going to be a performance from our point of view and our experience with Harry,” said Richard Cummings.
He said the group will perform about 20 of Belafonte’s classic tunes, including “Day-O (Banana Boat song),” “Jamaica Farewell,” “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” and more, as well as some lesser-known songs that spoke to his social activism.
“We’re going to do a lot of fan-friendly songs, but we’re also going to do some of his more poignant pieces of music that pointed out Harry’s self-responsibility to the arts, stage and theater,” said Cummings. “He was always on the cutting edge; we never really delved into that. We didn’t just do hangout music — we did folk music and music from different countries.”
He says the show is going to cover the last two decades of Belafonte’s musical career, along with some earlier pieces.
“It’s going to be about 15 of us performing, and we’re going to touch on every era from 1978 to all the way until when Harry stepped away from stage in 1998,” he said.
Cummings performed with Belafonte — who has Jamaican and Martiniquan roots — from the late 1970s, and became his musical director shorty after. He continued to perform with him until the 1990s, and did shows with him on and off until the Calypso legend retired from stage performing. Cummings said that while Belafonte will not attend the March 1 concert, he is thrilled about it and may make an appearance via video.
“We still talk and he’s very happy about this event and we may connect with him through Skype,” Cummings added. “I think that will be a nice touch for the audience.”
The musical director says the show will bring back memories to some of his biggest fans, and now is an appropriate time to stage it.
“I think that in this atmosphere — especially for people of color but not exclusively — it’s important to know that Harry Belafonte not just an entertainer but a teacher and someone who admonished us to maintain our public outrage at the conditions that have been put upon many of us by government and society,” Cummings said. “We didn’t just come to have fun, we did, but we came to teach folks and honor our upbringing, and that’s important, because the state of art these days is suffering because we don’t understand out history.”
“Turn the World Around: The Music and Legacy of Harry Belafonte” at Aaron Davis Hall at the City College Center for the Arts [129 Convent Avenue between W. 133rd and W. 135th streets in Manhattan, (212) 650-6900, www.cityc
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