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Belafonte: A Man True to His Words

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The difference between Harry Belafonte and most entertainers is like night and day-o, daaaay-o. He believes, for instance, that the role of art isn’t just to show life as it is, but to show life as it should be.

“That is the single most resonant thought in my whole belief system,” Belafonte said in a phone interview last week from his offices in New York; he performs today and Saturday at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. “That is absolutely the philosophy that most drives what I do.

“Some things I can read and be bathed in poetry and like the rhythm of the language. Other things I can read make me want to be in touch with the human family. If I look at a piece that inspires me to wonder, to think, to want to know, to want to touch, to want to relate to, then I believe that work has significance.”

Life as it should be, according to Belafonte, would include music education in the schools. As part of the nationwide, summerlong Discover Grammy Festival, his local performances support that cause through projects of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences Foundation.

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In addition to the larger effort, the Friends of the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts has arranged for 50 students--from the Orange County High School for the Arts, Long Beach public schools and Rosie’s Garage, an after-school homework program for underprivileged kids in southeast Los Angeles--to attend a sound check and question-answer session with Belafonte before tonight’s performance and then stay for the performance itself.

Belafonte hopes every audience member will hear a call to action.

“In a movie or in a song, people can be touched deeply enough to go beyond themselves, into the community and into life, feeling better about who and what they are,” he said. “When people are caught in a place in which they can find no way out, does art give them enough instruction, enough of the proper nuances, to make them feel they can extricate themselves?

“ ‘We Are the World’ made people want to go out and deal with Africa. It wasn’t just that it was celebrity-driven,” said Belafonte, one of the driving forces behind that 1985 famine-relief record. “It showed life as it was, that here are our hungry, tired, poor, devastated, but also here is what we can do about it. . . .

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“Along those same lines is ‘We Shall Overcome,’ ” he said. “People were inspired to march, to sing, to go to prison, even die.”

Let’s face it: Harry Belafonte is part of the world at its best.

President John F. Kennedy appointed him cultural advisor to the Peace Corps, and he was the first member of the entertainment industry to be so named; he served for five years. He was chairman of New York state’s Martin Luther King Jr. Commission for seven years and helped create the commission’s Institute for Non-Violence. He was the second American to be appointed a UNICEF goodwill ambassador.

A tireless worker for the causes in which he believes, Belafonte has received the Albert Einstein Award from Yeshiva University, the Martin Luther King Peace Prize, Kennedy Center Honors for excellence in the performing arts and the Nelson Mandela Courage Award (its first recipient); in 1994, President Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Arts.

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Flip back 40 years, and Belafonte was the King of Calypso, popularizing such West Indian songs as “Banana Boat Song,” a top-five hit on both sides of the Atlantic. “Calypso” was the first LP to sell more than 1 million copies. “Belafonte at Carnegie Hall” spent the most time in the top 10 of Billboard’s albums chart until Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

Several decades later, he also has a film career under his belt, including “Carmen Jones,” “Island in the Sun” and last year’s “White Man’s Burden” opposite John Travolta. He’s currently starring as a gangster overseeing a jazz club in Robert Altman’s latest film, “Kansas City.”

That’s not a huge jump for Belafonte. One of his first singing jobs was as an intermission act at New York’s famed jazz club, the Royal Roost--with a backup band that included Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.

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In Cerritos, he said he’ll be working with a new sound that is “80% world beat, 20% everything else that exists. Much of my music is driven by Afrocentric harmonies and coloration. Even the language of the lyrics presents images outside the rhythm of European or American consciousness.

“These songs talk to the human condition as it exists in South Africa, the hopes and aspirations. . . . Even songs that come out of the Caribbean have a new suit of clothes. ‘Banana Boat,’ ‘Island in the Sun'--people will instantly recognize these songs but be fascinated how they sound and look.”

At least one of those songs has proved itself capable of withstanding any number of suits of clothes. A version of “Banana Boat Song” by the Tarriers folk group was a top-five hit in 1956 (a year before Belafonte’s version also reached the top-five), and comedian Stan Freberg had a hit with a satirical version. But even Belafonte was surprised to hear of a contemporary version called “The Ballad of Hideo Nomo” chronicling the Dodger pitcher’s rise to fame.

Silly?

“It sounds like it, just in the telling,” Belafonte said. “But, you know, sometimes it’s possible for a work of significance to run so deep in the psyche of people that they feel very much at ease doing what they will with it, replicating it in many ways.

“I’m thinking of ‘Beetle Juice,’ ” he said, referring to the 1988 movie that featured “Banana Boat Song” prominently. “Perhaps the movie’s most hilarious scene is of the people sitting at that table singing my song--and they didn’t even tamper with the words.”

Belafonte turns 70 in March with plenty on the front burners. (“Just another birthday,” he said, but one he’ll probably spend with wife Julie, his four children and two grandchildren.) For starters, he reports an “inordinate” number of film requests since “Kansas City” came out.

“ ‘Kansas City’ is for me the finest work I have ever done as an actor,” Belafonte said. “It sits in the middle of a film that is hugely different. Robert Altman takes his actors way beyond themselves. . . . When you walk that walk, when you’ve been through that, it is something to be really relished, to be put in a very special place in one’s library of experience.”

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His next definite film commitment is to another Altman project, “Amos and Andy.”

He’s also producing, with director Jon Avnet (“Fried Green Tomatoes”), a miniseries dramatizing South Africa’s apartheid history for ABC-TV and Turner Entertainment; co-producing Jonathan Demme’s film about the U.S. civil-rights movement, “Parting the Waters”; and directing “Port Chicago Mutiny,” about a gross miscarriage of justice involving black soldiers during World War II, for TNT.

A two-hour musical television special for PBS is scheduled to air in March; Sony will distribute the home video. Negotiations with Sony are also underway for an album sometime next year.

Belafonte was initially stymied when asked which brings him more pleasure, singing or acting.

“That’s like giving me a room full of children and asking me to choose,” he said.

He chose.

“Standing before audiences, that’s the best, that is the emotion that excels the most,” he said.

“As much as I love ‘Kansas City’ and want to make dozens of them, in the final analysis I grew up on theater, performing before live audiences, and that has a resonance for me that cannot be surpassed. If I were left to one device and all I could do was that, it would be performance.”

* Harry Belafonte performs today and Saturday at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. 8 p.m. $38-$55. (310) 916-8500.


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