Harry sings his songs

2012-09-21 12:04

After a colourful career spanning decades, Harry Belafonte tells his story in the film Sing Your Song. Lesley Mofokeng has a chat with him on a transatlantic line

The story of Harry Belafonte cannot be told without including the South African struggle against apartheid.

He was at the forefront of the cultural boycott and used his talent to voice his opposition against the injustices of racial discrimination.

It all started when the dashing young man with a chiselled jaw and movie star features hooked up in New York with exiled South African stunner Miriam Makeba, who had a body and a voice to die for.

Henceforth, he would be inextricably linked to the South African story.

This meeting of talents put the African-American star, born in Harlem and of Jamaican and Martiniquan descent, right in the heart of the struggle – so much so that many, up to this day, still think he was married to Makeba.

All of the myths, beliefs and the untold stories of Belafonte take centre stage tonight as his biopic, Sing Your Song, premieres on local TV channel Mzansi Magic.

Sing Your Song has enjoyed critical acclaim at major film festivals around the world, earning the sought-after “official selection” badge at Sundance, Tribeca, Berlin, SXSW, Vancouver, Mumbai, Vienna and Durban.

Actor Robert Redford commented that Belafonte’s was the story of a man that should be told for generations to come.

The film profiles the Calypso star activist’s credentials spanning the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and his connections to Dr Martin Luther King Jr and John F Kennedy, as well as his fighting of the forces of colonial domination in Africa, and apartheid in South Africa.

Interviews by our own luminaries feature prominently to display how deep his connections were with the ANC and Oliver Tambo.

Speaking in his barely audible gravelly voice, the 85-year-old says: “The film is not about the success of Harry Belafonte, but reveals the struggle of people in Africa and the Caribbean, and promotes peace.

"It’s about giving the idea of what the struggle against injustice was about. It’s also about Afrocentric history and the deep bond we have with one another.”

Belafonte says they had 800 hours of film to edit down to just 103 minutes.

“There are some voices in the narrative that had to be left out, as well as some milestones. We needed a lot of footage to show the experience of the 20th century.”

Sing Your Song will put paid to the rumours concerning his relationship with Makeba.

“There is no truth to it that I was once married to Miriam. I have never felt the need to even dismiss this belief. First of all, I was much too old for her and too close to the struggle.

“We kept our lives in the arts and the politics of injustice. Miriam went on to meet younger men than me, such as Hughey (Hugh Masekela) and Stockley (Carmichael). But she never wanted a man in her life really.”

They made beautiful music together all the same.

Their 1965 seminal album, An Evening With Belafonte and Makeba, earned them a Grammy Award and propelled Makeba into the stratosphere of international fame.

Belafonte was already famous for his 1956 hit, Banana Boat Song, and for bringing Caribbean sounds to a wider American audience.

On An Evening they sang some South African folk and struggle songs in Sesotho, isiXhosa, isiZulu and English – and even today the music is timeless and classy.

“There are many memories that I cherish of Miriam. I will always remember the day we met and performed together for the first time in North America.

“It was a very important and creative time in our lives. The power of her art and songs was dedicated to the continent and the liberation of her people from apartheid and colonial domination. She used the platform to speak out against the injustices.

“She was a remarkable person. A part of her history took that diverse interest of multiple marriages and the unfortunate life of alcohol. She was very conflicted by things.”

Belafonte can’t today remember the words to what he calls his favourite song of the lot, Baile Banake (Gone Are My Children), a Sesotho song by a parent lamenting his children who’ve gone to the mines to extract manganese from the belly of the earth.

“Miriam was an excellent teacher and Hugh was a great help too. Many people thought that I was fluent in Zulu and wouldn’t believe it when I told them I couldn’t speak it,” he says.

Talking about the mines, Belafonte proves to still be connected to the politics of this country.

He doesn’t mince words when he offers his critique of contemporary democratic South Africa.

“I’ve watched South Africa through the years and I am deeply concerned and saddened by the shooting down of the miners (in Marikana). The political scene is reminiscent of the dark days of Afikaner rule. Many people would have thought those kinds of mass shootings were long past.

“The government has failed to answer the desperate situations people find themselves in, the poverty and the strife in the townships. The needs of the people have been failed terribly. Those responsible for guiding the destiny of South Africa need a better direction for the poor and the youth.”

In what he calls the “winter years” of his life, Belafonte says he has found a new passion in film making and this is inspired by the need to preserve stories for generations to come.

His third wife is a photographer, Pamela Frank, who also encourages him to document events.

He sees his film as a window into the experience of life in the 20th century.

“Every day, with great regularity, I hear about people who contributed to the struggle dying and taking their stories with them. So I thought, before many more pass away, I should record them.”

Belafonte also bemoans how culture has become a commodity.

“Unfortunately, there is a centralised commercial exploitation of culture. Many of us had hoped that commercial monopoly would not suffocate (culture),” he says.

“I still hang with the traditional school of music. I have no particular commitment to hip-hop. It doesn’t interest me. The rappers are not inspiring and they sound so much alike. Their preoccupation with shaking their booty and sex can be overbearing.”

And now his itinerary has made him a nomad living out of his suitcase.

“I am doing a great deal of promotion for the film. I have been to many festivals to show the film,” he says.
His sense of duty and a strong work ethos still guide his choices and daily schedules.

“There are still a lot of things I want to do. I want to film as many stories as possible. I have no appetite for the injustice of poverty and for cruelty to women. I’ve enjoyed a life where I took up the cause against injustice and will be documenting this.”

Like an old sage, he never runs out of pearls of wisdom. When someone of his years and experience speaks, you can’t ignore him.

“It is in the human DNA, this propensity to express ourselves in such selfish ways. Be it through wealth or power, we have forgotten about our deeper morals and what life is about.

“There are a handful of people who are still revolutionary, but as for most of the extremely wealthy, they have drifted away from our values of growth and humanity, and it’s not peculiar to South Africa. It’s commercialism and materialism that have made us lose our moral vision, the principles that gave birth to Mandela, Sisulu, Tambo and Dr King.

"Because of the raw lust of power, people have become victims. We need to pick up the spirit of Mandela and Dr King, and get back to those values.”

» Sing Your Song is on Mzansi Magic (DStv chann

el 107) today at 2pm, repeating tomorrow, Heritage Day,
at 10am

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