Obit: Singing along with Harry Belafonte

How the 'King of Calypso' brought sweet harmony into my life

by

Allan Jacob

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Published: Wed 26 Apr 2023, 4:57 PM

Last updated: Wed 26 Apr 2023, 5:10 PM

Harry Belafonte always got people singing with him unlike current pop stars, though Ed Sheeran comes close. I hum and often hear myself sounding whiny with Ed but always sing along smoothly with Harry, who passed away on Tuesday aged 96.

In fact, anyone can sing with the ‘King of Calypso’. Harry wasn’t a crooner in the Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Dean Martin or Andy Williams mould. He never ventured out to become one. It just happened. He was folksy and got into the swing of things; his silken voice sounded normal and unpretentious. It was unique and made him a legend in his own right.


My wife often teases and taunts that I can’t get the lyrics right when I teach my daughter breathing techniques to hit, and hold those high notes. I retort that music is more than words, like love, if I may steal a line from a song by Extreme. I often wonder how we keep the harmony at home but I think there’s some strange melody that underlines the marital bond. We stick like glue.

When I sing along with Harry, it all comes together, and the harmony is palpable at home when he is in joyous form with Shake, Shake, Shake Señora. His smooth baritone sets the mood, the music is lilting, calm and lively. Indeed, it is uplifting - Ed Sheeran, better note.


What was special about Harry was that he could be folksy and funny like in A Hole in the Bucket. But there was a serious side to Harry’s music which opened my eyes (and heart) to human longing and suffering when I was less exposed to it while growing up as a bored child in the eighties. I remember listening to him on the radio singing Jamaica Farewell, but it’s Angelina that stuck in my head. Angelina, Angelina!

I later rifled though an uncle’s prized cassette collection and found a treasure trove of Harry’s albums. I borrowed two which I never returned to his home in Jay Mahal in Bangalore and my uncle never forgave me for it. Oh, to relive the joy and pangs of boyhood with The Banana Boat Song!

The numbers were eclectic. They were joyful and sad in equal measure, but happiness was Harry’s best friend. It surprised me that it came from a man who had been displaced and was finding his place and voice in a big, bad world as he settled in the United States from the Caribbean.

There was an inexplicable sweet-sadness in the music that carried no bitterness, though Harry had every reason to feel lost after his experience as a child and an adult during the Civil Rights Movement. What made him stand out was his ability to blend activism with music. He could belt out hit after hit with a smile while masking his sadness with a serious activist streak.

There was a deeply spiritual side to Harry too. It flowed in his impeccable rendition of Mary’s Boy Child. No one sang it better than him and he is credited for bringing the Christmas favourite to popular consciousness. It’s soft, tender and divine. That’s why I believe in music.


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