Singer, songwriter, producer, actor and civil rights activist, 91 year old Harry Belafonte is a legendary name in the history of American culture.
His Calypso album was the first to sell a million records in the U.S. and again in Europe. And he popularized a form of Caribbean-influenced music that holds fast to its place in the great American songbook.
At 91, Belafonte is still kicking it. His music has reached across the 49th parellel recently in a tribute album created by the Quebecois artist Florence K. and the producer Nick Petrowski.
They assembled an all-star cast of performers including Katie Moore, David Myles, Alex Cuba and Warren Spicer to prepare an album of 15 Belafonte songs called We Love Belafonte. The album was released this past October to much acclaim. On Friday night the group will gather again to play Belafonte’s music in the Babs Asper Theatre of the National Arts Centre.
One of the performers Friday night is Alex Cuba, the Latin Grammy/Juno winning singer-songwriter who calls Smithers, B.C. home. When he spoke with ARTSFILE he was in Montreal attending the folk alliance conference.
He said he was pleased to have been included in the Belafonte project even though he didn’t really know his music all that well beforehand.
“They (Florence K and Nick Petrowski) put together an album in Nick’s studio with different artists from all over Canada to celebrate (Belafonte’s) music. We got a good sound and we all fell in love with his music.
“It is amazing music, very meaningful,” Cuba said. “Harry, throughout his entire career, was an activist. He is someone who is very important to celebrate and bring once again to the people.”
Each of the artists did three songs on the album. “I was lucky. I got to do Jump In The Line, one of the most popular.” Jump In The Line was released by Belafonte in 1961 and is one of his best known hits. (Cultural reference: It closes out the Tim Burton film Beetlejuice.) Cuba is also singing Mama Look A Boo Boo and the less-well known Brown Skin Girl.
“Growing up in Cuba I wasn’t exposed to his music that much. For me this was about rediscovering him and going deeper and finding more about him. I have to tell you I fell in love with his story,” Cuba said.
“What attracted me to the project also was his activism. He produced undeniably something with meaning in his music. There is so much music out there today that is just for the sake of … I don’t know … money or getting to No. 1 on the radio.
“It is important for an artist to do meaningful things to inspire people, to raise human consciousness the best way you can,” Cuba said.
Belafonte was an active campaigner for civil rights in the United States in the 1950s and ’60s. He was a close friend of Martin Luther King, Jr and he was active in many humanitarian efforts. He was one of the singers on the We Are the World recording for African famine relief in 1985. He has ben a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and his humanitarian work was acknowledged by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2014.
“What also speaks to me is that he was one of the first American black artists to break through and to sell a million records. Even so he kept his art meaningful. He didn’t sell out and that is very inspiring to me,” Cuba said.
In the concert on Friday evening, Cuba will play a traditional Cuban instrument called a tres, which is no mean feat as the instrument is tricky to play as it features three sets of two strings each.
Cuba, who was born Alexis Puentes in Artemisa, Cuba, was trained on the guitar in his father’s (the guitarist and teacher Valentin Puentes) group of 24 guitarists.
While he didn’t have an album this year. Cuba is featured in a duet on the Grammy winning album Sincera by Claudia Brant.
“I have worked with her a lot since 2010. We collaborate a lot.”
He has, however, just finished mixing a new album with the first single coming out on Feb 22.
“We will release a single every month until the release of the album won in September.
“This album is very personal. I recorded all of the instruments myself — percussion, bass, guitars —and that was a lot of fun. The goal was to get the same vibe when I first demo’d the songs in my home studio. So the record is very minimalistic in a good way I think.
“It was a very meaningful place.”
The finishing touches were put on the record in Toronto in January.
“Now it’s ready. The album has six duets on it including one with the legendary singer from Cuba, Omara Portuondo, who was brought to the world’s attention by the Buena Vista Social Club.” Cuba also recorded a duet with the rising Mexican star 21 year old Silvana Estrada.
“I have been going to Mexico lot and doing a lot of co-writing there. I did one with her so having her on the record was a no brainer.
“To my surprise Mexico City is now the place in the world where my music is played the most on Spotify. It is huge market, some 21 million people. I’m going there more and more.” Watch out for that border wall.
We Love Belafonte with Alex Cuba, David Myles and Florence K.
Where: Babs Asper Theatre, NAC
When: Feb. 22 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca