My second trip to the Kennedy Center was quite different than my first visit. There wasn’t a hipster musician in sight. Instead of a huge letdown, I was left at the end of my second performance clapping and cheering. The performance was by a Haitian contemporary musician, Belo, who mixes reggae with rock, soul and Afro-Caribbean sounds. His performance was part of a Centerstage tour, a public diplomacy initiative of the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Groups from Indonesia and Pakistan during June to December will be performing in over 60 different cities performing and spreading diplomacy through the visual arts. Belo’s message in his music is about Haiti’s poverty.
Immediately upon entering the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage area, I knew that the show I was going to see would be drastically different than the one I saw last Thursday. To warm everyone up, pre-recorded Latin music was playing. There was definitely a different kind of energy in the Center. I was still skeptical, though, when it came to how good the music would be. I was expecting something I would see at a grade school assembly about Haiti. However, my worries were immediately put at ease. The performance was at a professional level, and I could barely sit still. I just wanted to get up and move with the rest of the crowd. Conventional music theory was followed, solos were planned, the sound was mixed well and one instrument did not over-power any of the others.
Belo sang with such verve and power you could literally feel his message, regardless of the fact that it was in Kreyol. Often he would speak in English to the crowd and one of the first times during a song he exclaimed how everyone in Haiti is poor and immediately ended his speech with, “Now you understand,” letting everyone know that the soulful sounds everyone was experiencing was about Haiti’s poorness.
The harmonic reggae style of his singing drew everyone in and often a person would get up in the crowd and move with the music. A large African American group moved and danced to his music. He would have the crowd clap and echo parts of his music. His voice resounded through the center and hit everyone in the crowd on a deep level, where they were immediately drawn in. The songs were shorter and it felt like the message in his music was expressed immediately and with intense power. Solos by his lead electrical guitarist were very contemporary and accented Belos’ singing to attract the crowd even more. At the same time, drums and more classic style instruments, such as bongos. were used to maintain a traditional Caribbean feel.
Belo describes himself as an “activist artist,” and that he was born to produce artwork for a cause. Definitely, this was not a self-indulgent hipster group, who creates a cocktail of incompatible sounds and calls it music. If you want to have to have a truly “ear opening” experience, visit Belo’s site at http://www.belohaiti.com.