by Stephen Hanks


During a time in American history when it appears the struggle for civil rights and voting rights is being engaged anew, it seemed both timely and appropriate for a birthday musical tribute to an iconic entertainer and activist who has been in the forefront of that effort for more than half a century.

Last Wednesday evening, a group of extremely talented singers and musicians who refer to themselves as the “Harry Belafonte Alumnae Association,” came together at the quaint jazz joint Club Bonafide (opened on the third floor at 212 East 52nd Street by musician/composer Richard Bona and restaurateur Lolo Dantonio in September 2015) to honor the living legend who was celebrating his 90th birthday. Led by long-time Belafonte Music Director Richard Cummings (who has been with Harry since 1978), award-winning singer/songwriter Ty Stephens, jazz vocalist Branice KcKenzie, and Tsidii Le Loka (the Tony Award nominated star of The Lion King) a group of 11 singers (including Belafonte alumni Gabrielle Lee, Sharon Brooks, and octogenarian Arthur Bruce Williams) and six musicians (Belafonte alumni Neil Clarke-percussion, Sipho Kunene-drums, Dan Carillo-drums, Chulo Greenwood-bass, Morris Goldberg-sax, flute, pennywhistle) staged a two-set, ten-song tribute to the master and their mentor that was alternately rousing, moving, and politically meaningful.


In the show’s program, called “A Living Birthday Card,” Ty Stephens explained that, “With this show, we wanted to let Harry and the audiences know how much he means to us, individually and collectively, as artists, as human beings, and as family.”



And that they certainly did. The set opened with Stephens leading McKenzie, Lee, Brooks, and Williams on “Pastures of Plenty,” the 1941 Woody Guthrie folk song describing the plight of North American migrant workers that Belafonte recorded in 1964. Percussionist Neil Clarke and Morris Goldberg on flute were particularly fine on this number.


Entering the room from the rear like an African Queen, Tsidii Le Loka led five young backup singers for a rousing whole group number on “Turn the World Around,” a traditional African song that Belafonte recorded in 1977, and which two years later became one of most famous performances ever on Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show. Stephens followed with a poignant version of “Try to Remember,” from the musical The Fantasticks, a long-time staple of Belafonte concerts. Williams chimed in to make the song a lovely harmonic duet. Stephens seemed to be musing about his musical hero when he tenderly sang the line, “When you were a young and callow fellow . . .”


While all of Richard Cummings’ arrangements were first-rate, he outdid himself on that jazzy blues number “How Long Have You Been Blind,” written by Jimmy Curtiss and Floyd Red Crow Westerman, who worked with Belafonte during the 1977 Tour Against Nuclear Arms. One couldn’t help think of the current political climate when the song opened with the lines, “Trouble in the city /Trouble in the countryside/ Can’t sweep it under the rug/ You got trouble you can’t hide . . .” The group added a contemporary update to the lyric with the line, “Trouble in the voting booth.” Goldberg took the number to another level with an awesome saxophone solo. Cummings then brought the set some comic relief on the Belafonte sing-along standard “Matilda,” the calypso story song about a clever gold digger who takes a man’s money “and run a-Venezuela.” This number was the climax of Belafonte’s famous 1959 Carnegie Hall concerts, where with his smooth and sensual baritone, he displayed his ability to sing everything from Negro spirituals to American folk songs to Broadway classics to Calypso tunes (the concerts became an iconic Grammy-nominated Album of the Year). Lee, Brooks, Williams, and McKenzie joined Cummings as the song transitioned in a church choir arrangement, and the musical director made the room roar when during the sing-along he asked for “Just the Republicans.” Nobody sang.



The mid-show African song section featured McKenzie as lead vocalist and Clarke on percussion for “Common Ground,” a standard of South African jazz singer Letta Mbulu, who recorded and sang live with Belafonte during the 1970s. Le Loka and her five-singer support group—Brittani Newland-Rex, Denise Manning, Erica Philpot, Kendrick Mitchell and Kara Green–offered the Miriam Makeba song “Umqokozo (A Children’s Game Song About a New Red Dress).” In 1965, Makeba and Belafonte produced a Grammy-Award winning album, in which they did two duets. Le Loka then took the lead on another Mbulu song, “Hareje.”


When Cummings quoted Harry Belafonte as advising, “Don’t sing anything you don’t like to sing, because that song could become a hit and you’ll end up singing it the rest of your life,” the audience laughed knowingly and knew what was coming—Mr. Tally Mon, who tally me banana. On the classic Jamaican folk song that has become Belafonte’s signature number, “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” the entire room sang along like the hundreds of thousands that do every year at Major League Baseball games during the seventh-inning stretch. Unlike the lyric in the song, this audience didn’t seem like they wanted daylight to come and didn’t wanna go home.



Alas, all wonderful shows must come to an end (especially when there’s another set at 9:30), but not before a rousing entire group number, which in this case was “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” which Belafonte sang—with revised lyrics reflecting the politically-charged times—on a 1968 video to a backdrop of violent scenes at that year’s Democratic National Convention. Given all the controversies surrounding the new U.S. President, if Harry Belafonte was singing this song today, he might again change a few words in this lyric:


Believe me people what I say is true

You know Harry wouldn’t lie to you

Believe me people what I say is true

You know Harry wouldn’t lie to you

Man the Governor he went mad

Arresting all of Trinidad

Oh he made a big mistake

Just some things that Trinidad won’t take


If there was one minor flaw in this wonderful show it’s that the set list wasn’t long enough (what, no “Jamaica Farewell?”). The Belafonte Alumni are planning more presentations down the road and will hopefully add even more of Harry’s memorable standards to the mix.


Happy 90th Birthday, Mr. Belafonte was performed March 1 at Club Bonafide (212 East 52nd Street, between Second and Third Avenues).


Photos: Stephen Hanks