MUSIC

Bridging Haiti’s Grooves for Good: BélO Rocks His African Roots to Inspire Change at Home in Haiti and Abroad

Frederic Dupoux
Posted Oct. 25, 2012, at 2:44 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 26, 2012, at 9:57 a.m.

Sunday, Nov. 1, 1970 6:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Location: Strand Theatre, 345 Main Street, Rockland, Maine

For more information: Bay Chamber Concerts; 236-2823; baychamberconcerts.org

BélO, Haiti’s outspoken groove innovator, interweaves the Afro-Caribbean depths of Haitian tradition with a progressive voice for social and political transformation. BélO keeps the socially conscious spirit of reggae alive, while drawing on the vibrant sounds of his artsy native town of Croix des Bouquet, and a globally informed, upbeat pan-African vibe. It was there BélO first performed as a shy grade-schooler, and recorded his first tape.

Summers, he spent time with his grandparents in a remote village, where he heard and experienced vodou, Haiti’s unique mix of spiritual and musical traditions that permeates all aspects of rural life and helps support social cohesion.

Both before and after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, BélO has made music and performance a powerful platform for addressing issues and transforming opinion. Whether singing to children in orphanages or raising awareness of AIDS, BélO knows exactly why he does what he does, as audiences across the U.S. will experience in September and October 2012 thanks to BélO’s participation in Center StageSM (www.centerstageUS.org).

“With the love I have for my country, I can only give back,” he reflects. “I make music because I really want things to change, and I believe in the power of music to do that. For that reason, Center Stage is very important to me as an artist. Not only will I be able to learn more about the American culture, but I can also share my culture with a broader audience and show the good side of Haiti.”

An initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Center Stage brings compelling contemporary artists from Haiti, Indonesia, and Pakistan to the United States to engage the American people in cultural diplomacy as a way to create opportunities for greater understanding. Administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts, with funding from the Asian Cultural Council, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, this public-private partnership is the largest public diplomacy effort to bring foreign artists to American stages in recent history.

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In a country where music is everywhere singer, songwriter, and guitarist BélO grew up, hearing Latin-inflected, high-energy Haitian konpa and the rising wave of vodou-rock bands like Boukman Eksperyans, as well as French pop and Jamaican music from dancehall star Buju Banton to Bob Marley.

Yet BélO also experienced another source of deep musical influence: “I think the music I heard in the countryside when I used to go on vacation impacted me a lot,” BélO recalls. “If you were in my neighborhood with me as a child, you’d be between two different worlds. In town, we’d listen to pop and rock and reggae. On vacation, we’d listen to vodou music. We’d hear how people would make music while they worked. How the woman doing her washing at the river would just sing so naturally. She doesn’t do it to express anything. She just sings. I learned a lot from that.”

BélO’s own music—which can leap from R&B grooves to clever jazz-inflected chords, from punchy brass to undulating bass—further evolved as he gained international acclaim in Europe and made friends in the Francophone African music scene in Paris. Whether jamming with members of Malian icon Salif Keita’s band or recording with bass players from Benin or ngoni (West African lute) performers, BélO feels the powerful connection between diverse African sounds and his own native blend.

“Haitian music has kept a lot of what roots music from Africa was four hundred years ago,” BélO explains. “We’re just one small island. But you can find rhythms from different countries from across the African continent. It makes our traditional music very rich.”

Other rich traditions from Haiti permeate BélO’s songs, including the intense expressiveness of the Kreyòl language and the warmth of Haitian hospitality, something, BélO notes, you really have to experience firsthand to believe. “It’s hard to describe how kind people in Haiti can be,” he says. “They’ll give you their shirt to wear and their bed to sleep on, no matter how poor they are.”

This generosity of spirit powers BélO’s polished, often urgent, always catchy songs and permeates his onstage presence. Whether playing on a porch or for presidents, BélO longs to engage his audience in ways that go beyond culture and language. At a recent concert in Miami, for instance, he was moved by the story of a young fan, who spoke no Kreyòl but had dreamed about a particular song. “It’s crazy,” he laughs, “to make that kind of impression. That’s what music can do.”

Yet it is other dreams that BélO strives to spark in his listeners, dreams that insist that things can get better, even in a troubled, divided land. “We’re starting to have movement in Haiti. The youth are seeing that something can change. That it’s not up to the president to stop violence or clean up the neighborhood. It’s up to us,” BélO says. “Artists are trying to give good positive messages now. I hope, if we keep on, that in ten or twenty years, we’ll have change.”

“I was chosen to be an activist artist,” he exclaims. “It would be easier to earn more money or be more popular doing love songs. But I was born an activist musician. I live it, I feel it, and I have a vision.”

Center StageSM will bring 10 ensembles from Haiti, Indonesia and Pakistan to the U.S. for month-long tours from June-December 2012, connecting artists with diverse communities across the country. Residencies will include performances, workshops, discussions, people-to-people exchanges, and community gatherings.

Center StageSM is a public diplomacy initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. It is administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts in cooperation with the U.S. Regional Arts Organizations, and with additional support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Asian Cultural Council, and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. General management for Center StageSM is provided by Lisa Booth Management.

On Thursday, November 1, 2012, BélO and his band are performing at Maine State Prison as part of Bay Chamber Concerts’ Community Engagement Program. BélO is also hosting a free, unplugged “artist encounter” on November 1 at 6:30 pm at Bay Chamber’s Music School in Rockport village. He will perform a live concert on Saturday, November 3 at 7pm at the Strand Theatre in Rockland. Tickets are still available by calling (207) 236-2823 or online at www.baychamberconcerts.org

Based in Rockport, Maine, Bay Chamber is a 501 (c)(3) registered nonprofit organization dedicated to transforming lives through high-quality concert programs, music education and community engagement. Bay Chamber acknowledges the importance of all musical languages and encourages people of all ages and abilities to explore them both in concerts and in the classroom.

Bay Chamber Concerts presents music year-round at a variety of venues in Midcoast Maine. The annual Summer Music Festival in July and August and Performing Arts Series from October to June both showcase a variety of classical, jazz, world music, dance and film events.

A 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization for over 50 years, Bay Chamber’s Music School, located in downtown Rockport, offers private instruction, group classes, orchestral opportunities and other music education to local musicians and community members of all ages and abilities.

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Calendar Listings:

Date: Thursday, November 1, 2012

Time: 6:30pm

Location: Bay Chamber’s Music School, 18 Central Street, Rockport, ME 04856

Title: Unplugged “Artist Encounter” with Haitian Reggae Star BélO

Media Sponsor: Down East Magazine

Description: A free encounter with Haitian musician BélO who will discuss Haitian culture, messages in his songwriting, and answer questions. In addition to performing samples acoustically, BélO will take questions from the audience. Admission is free, seating is limited to 60 people.

Price: FREE

For more information call (207) 236-2823 or (888) 707-2770; e-mail info@baychamberconcerts.org; or go online at www.baychamberconcerts.org

Date: Saturday, November 3, 2012

Time: 7pm

Location: The Strand Theatre, 345 Main Street, Rockland, ME 04841

Title: BélO

Media Sponsor: Down East Magazine

Description: Haitian star brings his distinctive reggae, jazz, Afro-Haitian sound to Maine

Price: $35 (Ages 21-35: $25, Under 21: $10)

For more information call (207) 236-2823 or (888) 707-2770; e-mail info@baychamberconcerts.org; or go online at www.baychamberconcerts.org

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