The elevation of Costa Mesa is officially listed as 101 feet above sea level. But one corner of the city felt like it was floating a few feet above the rest by the time Harry Belafonte ended his nearly three-hour concert/consciousness-raising session Friday at the Pacific Amphitheatre.
The veteran singer and activist displayed a renewed sense of commitment, sparked in part by this year's public response to humanitarian projects like USA for Africa (which Belafonte helped initiate), Live Aid, Farm Aid and others.
Belafonte's involvement in African famine-relief efforts as well as his concern about the escalating struggle over apartheid in South Africa were evident in a show that emphasized African musical forms over the Caribbean styles for which he is best known. Not only did his 12-piece band include three South African musicians, who made extensive use of African-derived polyrhythms throughout the show, but Belafonte also turned over the spotlight to South African singer Letta Mbulu for a half-hour set of African and English-language songs in the middle of the program.
That's not to say, however, that the evening was a somber, humorless exercise in music education. Deftly moving between the serious and the silly, Belafonte often had the crowd laughing, whether it was with a barb aimed at Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell or an impromptu joke in response to a vociferous fan.
But even with the emphasis on the music and percussion of Africa, he included a few pop ballads ("Try to Remember"), and even a musical nod to another ethnic group ("Hava Nagila"). The concert's dominant tone of rhythm 'n' relevance was set with the opening song, a lilting, Caribbean-flavored rendition of Bob Dylan's poignant "Forever Young."
Naturally, at the end of the performance he got around to his mid-'50s hits, "Banana Boat (Day-O)," and the still-touching "Jamaica Farewell," in which he enlisted the willing participation of the 8,000 fans on hand for a massive sing-along.
What is remarkable about Belafonte is not so much that even after all these years he is still outspoken or that he is continuing to experiment musically, but that he accomplishes both in front of middle-aged, upper-middle-class and--in this case at least--almost exclusively white audiences. (Belafonte and Mbulu were also scheduled to play the Universal Amphitheatre Saturday and Sunday.)