Not long ago I was returning a twenty-foot ladder to my friend Ron Carman. He invited me in for tea and we began talking music. He showed me some doo-wop and R&B 78s he still had from his high school days before we began talking long-playing albums. It turns out both of us knew Mark Twain and Other Folks Favorites very well. We spontaneously broke into song with "Man Piaba," a song that had once mystified the 7-year-old me with its wry metaphors.
This friendly serendipity over tea seems somehow characteristic of the goodwill and pure intention of our living national treasure, Harry Belafonte. Not only did he introduce to America folk music from the Caribbean, the British Isles, and our own blues tradition, he did inestimable service to our understanding of South Africa by assisting Miriam Makeba's entry into America, and sharing the stage with her. Soon, a good number of us knew there was such a thing as Xhosa language through "The Click Song."
Makeba and Belafonte each began their respective music careers as jazz singers. Miriam Makeba sang for the South African jazz band, the Manhattan Brothers, and then her all-female band, The Skylarks. Belafonte, who sang live club dates to pay for top notch acting lessons, was actually backed by Charlie Parker, Max Roach, and Miles Davis!
Both singers became political activists. Makeba testified against apartheid in 1963 before the United Nations. Because of that, she lost her right of re-entry in South Africa. Belafonte, long a civil rights advocate, became a vocal critic of George W. Bush's Iraq War, and what he saw as the abridgment of human rights against U.S. citizens. In a sense, the man is like an American griot, unafraid to tell truth as he sees it those who sit in high places.
Whatever your view of his politics, there is no doubt Harry Belafonte has directly and indirectly enhanced our country's collective knowledge of music.