Toronto musicians pay tribute to Harry Belafonte

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By Lincoln DePradine

Harry Belafonte

On March 1, on Victoria Street in Toronto, a group of musicians hosted an event titled, “Calypso with Pimento’’. It was a birthday celebration and tribute to Harry Belafonte, the late Jamaican-American performer, actor, humanitarian, and civil rights and political activist.

“He made history in so many ways,’’ entertainer Henry “Cosmos’’ Gomez, who performed at the March 1 Toronto show, told The Caribbean Camera, in commenting on the death of Belafonte. “He’s a giant whom we have now lost. He got the name ‘calypso’ on the world stage, on the map.’’

Belafonte was born March 1, 1927, in Harlem, New York, to Jamaican parents. He died Tuesday of congestive heart failure at his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He was 96.

Belafonte was one of the most prominent African-American figures of his generation, with friends such as the late civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr; Academy Award-winning actor Sidney Poitier; and Andrew Young, the former US Congressman who also served as mayor of Atlanta.

Belafonte, who participated in protest marches and benefit concerts and also helped organize and raise support for them, was someone who grew more radical with age, according to Young.

The famous 1963 “March on Washington’’ included organizational work from Belafonte, who also bankrolled the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

When King was assassinated, in 1968, Belafonte helped pick out the suit he was buried in; sat next to his widow, Coretta, at the funeral; and, continued to support his family, in part through an insurance policy he had taken out on King in his lifetime.

Belafonte’s other public-profile activities have included serving as a United Nations goodwill ambassador; organizing a cultural boycott of South Africa during the racist apartheid system in that country; and taking a lead role in the Live Aid concert and the all-star recording, “We Are The World’’, both of which raised money to fight famine in Africa.

In addition, Belafonte coordinated Nelson Mandela’s first visit to the United States after Mandela’s release from South African prison in 1990.

From 1932 to 1940, Belafonte lived with one of his grandmothers in Jamaica and always kept close to his Caribbean roots.

He was the co-star of the 1957 movie “Island in the Sun’’, which was filmed in Barbados and Grenada.

“Island in the Sun” was banned in several southern cities in the US, where theater owners were threatened by the Ku Klux Klan because of the film’s interracial romance between Belafonte and white co-star Joan Fontaine.

Belafonte’s first widely released single was “Matilda’’, which was recorded 70 years ago – on  April 27, 1953. However, he captivated wider audiences with a breakthrough 1956 album called, “Calypso’’.

The album included songs such as “Jamaica Farewell’’ and “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”. Both tunes reached the top of the Billboard album chart and stayed there for 31 weeks.

Many of the compositions recorded for “Calypso’’, including “The Banana Boat Song’’ and “Jamaica Farewell’’, gave songwriting credit to Caribbean-American Irving Burgie, whose mother was Barbadian. Burgie, who wrote the lyrics of the Barbados national anthem, died November 29, 2019, in Queen’s, New York. He was 95.

“We are thankful for all his contributions, not only to music but also to the civil rights movement,’’ Gomez, a former Calypso Monarch of Canada, said in tribute to Belafonte. “His contribution to the proliferation of calypso music is enormous and we have to be always aware of it and appreciate of it.’’

Belafonte was married three times; most recently to photographer Pamela Frank, who was by his side when he died Tuesday.