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Forever the Renaissance Man

Television: As Harry Belafonte celebrates his 70th birthday, he's moving into more expansive territory musically and has started his own record label.

March 01, 1997|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's a sweet time for Harry Belafonte. Today is his 70th birthday, and he feels "like a kid in a candy shop." Still smoothly handsome, still articulate and thoughtful, he sees himself at the crest of yet another forward phase in one of the most successful careers in entertainment business history.

Tonight, as part of its pledge drive, PBS begins showing "An Evening With Harry Belafonte and Friends," his first U.S. television special in more than 20 years.

Taped last November and December, it showcases Belafonte with musicians from Brazil, Senegal, Puerto Rico, South Africa and other parts of the world. Much of the music is familiar--Belafonte classics such as "The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)," "Jamaica Farewell" and "Matilda"--but there also are newer songs, as well as featured performances by talented newcomers such as Richard Bona, La Tanya Hall and Sam McKelton.

For Belafonte, the performance has a transitional flavor. Speaking by phone from his New York office, his always somewhat hoarse voice a bit rougher than usual ("Somebody just opened a carton with Styrofoam," he says, explaining away a brief episode of coughing), he is eager to discuss what he views as an important period of personal transition.

"What you'll see in the concert performance," he explains, "is the 1996 version of what my classic stuff has been, mixed with some new ideas and thoughts for new material. But my intention now is to kind of leave most of that material somewhat behind me. The new album I've done [his first major live recording in a decade] and the new music I'm looking at will be far more Afrocentric, and will go into places I've never been before."

Belafonte has long worked with African talent, of course, dating back to his early associations with Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Letta Mbulu. But now, as a result in part of the many artists who have migrated to Europe and the United States, he sees African music as "a music whose time has come."

"A lot of young people are gravitating toward it as an experience," he says, "and they're embracing it. I'm just happy that I've been around long enough to catch it by the tail. And I hope it doesn't wag me too hard, because it's going to places that I'm not sure I can reach. But--not to mix a metaphor--I'd love to be a platform on which it's able to step to reach where it has to go."

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Belafonte's plan to move forward musically was solidified via his establishment of a new company in association with Island Records and Polygram.

"The record label," he says, with a chuckle, "is called Niger. And I'm going to have a lot of fun with that word when other folks try to say it. Here comes the N-word again. But this time we're talking about the greatest river in Western Africa. And, because many Americans and people in this hemisphere, including the Caribbean, really don't have any idea specifically where they came from, I like the idea of saying that we are all descendants of the sons and daughters of the Niger River. Since we're looking to go back to the source, to bring that music to the forefront, I thought it was a particularly appropriate title for the label."

Despite his plan to move into more expansive territory musically, Belafonte continues to be a renaissance man of the entertainment world. It has been thus since the beginning of his career. A jazz singer before he discovered the potential in Caribbean music (his opening night gig at the famous jazz club the Royal Roost in the 1940s featured a backup band that included Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Max Roach), he moved on to become a star in music, television, Broadway, nightclubs, concerts and films. In the mid-'50s, his third album, "Calypso," became the first album to sell more than a million copies.

It is very likely that--in film, in particular--his career might have been even bigger had his profound belief in human rights not made it impossible for him to accept roles that he found offensive. He turned down, for example, the leads in "Lilies of the Field" and "To Sir, With Love," both of which became breakthrough parts for close friend Sidney Poitier.

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He has never hesitated, however, to take on roles that offer great creative challenges. His current quest to "look for unfamiliar nuances" led him to the unusual part of the gangster Seldom Seen in Robert Altman's film "Kansas City."

"I took a real step out with that character," he says, "in terms of what my persona is about, what it is perceived to be. Here I am, all of a sudden, this depraved, rotten character. Which kind of woke everybody up.

"At first I thought it was going to be enormously difficult, and I approached it that way. I was somewhat intimidated by all that the character suggested to me. But once I took the first step, and got into it, and discovered that I could get into it, and that much of what that character had to do and say was familiar to me and not beyond my resource, I began to feel great comfort with it."

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