When I was a Three-year-old, I remember listening to many songs on the Radiogram almost everyday. This was apart from what I heard on All India Radio. My uncle in the US had got this ‘Grundig’ Radiogram. It was always one of the elders in the family who switched it ‘On’ in the evenings. I used to keep my ears glued to the stereo and imagined the singers and the instrumentalists to be sitting inside the huge Radiogram. I used to peep through the stereo but would find no one inside.
I loved hearing to Raghavendraswamy songs by Dr. Rajkumar, Bhadrachala Ramadas Keerthanam by M. Balamuralikrishna, Siri Siri Muvva, Shankarabharanam, and Pt. Ravishankar’s sitar. Another memorable one was ‘Belafonte at Carnegie Hall [LIVE]’.
Right from the cover showing Harry Belafonte standing with the mike, the magnificent black cover double-LP set fascinated me. It does even now. My dad used to play it so often that even before learning ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ or ‘Ba Ba Black Sheep’, I had memorized Belafonte’s version of Hava Nageela and Matilda.
By the time I was in my Fifth class, the Radiogram had stopped working and a few years later, the LPs, Radiogram and my uncle’s other belongings shifted to his home here in Bangalore.
During my college days, I bought a double cassette pack of the same LP featuring Belafonte at Carnegie Hall. Fortunately it had all the 19 songs with the Introduction. I say ‘Fortunately’ because recently I heard in a music shop the CD version of the same concert. The CD contained only fifteen of the original 19 songs, omitting “Take My Mother Home,” “Man Piaba,” “All My Trials,” and “Merci Bon Dieu,” songs that are included in another recording. I remember my uncle telling that the concerts (recorded on April 19 and 20, 1959) were put on as benefit fund raisers for two schools.
While it was drizzling outside yesterday evening, I was hearing to the ‘Belafonte at Carnegie Hall [LIVE]’ cassettes which took me back in time. I feel this is one of the best live recordings ever. If you close your eyes you can almost feel as if you are sitting in the audience. I love the introductions to songs and the audience participation in the last song “Matilda”. With the opening number “Wake Up, Wake Up, Darlin’ Cora,” Belafonte shares with the audience the impassioned song of a man who has a confrontation with his boss and must now take to the road, holding key notes for several extra beats to prolong the song’s wailing sadness as he bids goodbye to “Darlin’ Cora.” With his strong, slightly husky voice and ability to hold a note forever, he follows this with a Lead belly song, “Sylvie,” in which he changes the lyric from a work song to a jailhouse plea. The tempo increases throughout this set through “Saints” and “Day-O,” and the audience participates. Belafonte explains the history of “Saints” and as an alternative sings it as an old English madrigal. Priceless piece.
The second cassette begins with the calypso novelty song, “Mama Look at Boo Boo,” in which he plays the role of a man whose children say “My daddy can’t be ugly so,” a statement so ironic that even he chuckles. “Man Smart, Woman Smarter,” continues the fun and the calypso beat, with hand-clapping, as he prepares the audience for several foreign folk songs–“Hava Nageela” (one of his most famous songs), “Danny Boy” (sung almost completely a capella), and “Cu Cu Ru Cu Cu Paloma,” a charming Mexican song in which the orchestra makes bird sounds throughout.
The concert is divided in three sections: “Moods of the American Negro,” “In the Caribbean,” and “Around the World.” All the hits are here: “Day O,” “Jamaica Farewell,” “Mama Look a Boo Boo,” and others, plus calypso, folk songs, chain gang songs, spirituals, and songs from other lands.
Controlling his volume from a whisper to full-out wailing and the tempo from a slow ballad to wild calypso and street dance (in “Saints”), Belafonte is at his peak here, in total control of his audience.
From the opening trumpet fanfare and brief orchestral overture to the epic 13-minute version of “Matilda” (which set a standard for audience participation), the album never lets up. It is exciting, poignant, thrilling, intimate, and at times, spontaneously hilarious. My uncle says that Belafonte’s mastery in front of an audience was never better displayed than here, a mastery that has resulted in him becoming one of the most popular concert draws in history.
2. Darlin’ Cora
4. Cotton Fields
5. John Henry
6. Take My Mother Home
7. The Marching Saints
8. Day O
9. Jamaica Farewell
10. Man Piaba
11. All My Trials
12. Mama Look A Boo Boo
13. Come Back Liza
14. Man Smart (Woman Smarter)
15. Hava Nageela
16. Danny Boy
17. Merci Bon Dieu
18. Cu Cu Ru Cu Cu Paloma
As a guide between the songs, Belafonte talks about his heritage and the impact that music has had throughout his life and travels. “Man Piaba,” a calypso retelling of a “facts of life” lesson, is a consummate example of how Belafonte seamlessly weaves his stories into songs. This climaxes with an audience participatory version of “Matilda,” in which different sections of the orchestra, acoustic combo, and even audience are encouraged to sing along. As not to disenfranchise anyone and all in the best of fun, Belafonte even solicits responses from such unlikely participants as “women over 40” and “people on scholarship.” It is this type of unification of all people — through song and personal discovery — that became the bedrock of Belafonte’s enormous popularity regardless of age, sex, or race.
For sheer scope and genius of performance, this is the quintessential Belafonte package. Recorded when his voice was at his best, the fun of the live recording as well as the wonderful choice of music make the recording fun, easy and joyful to listen to over and over and over again. My favourite English album of all time. And every time I hear this album, it makes me want to go to Jamaica.