So I get off the plane at Oliver Tambo International Airport on a crisp clear winter day. The temp is about 5 degrees C but will be about 11 by the time we arrive at Sylvia Vollenhoven’s house in one of the Jo’burg’s northern suburbs. By 10 am, it’s close to 15 degrees and will hit a high of 22. By that time, I will be dead to the world after having taken a bath and washed away the only thing holding me up after four days of next to no sleep, followed by another two days on planes, a day layover in Frankfurt with no sleep at all. Could not sleep no matter how hard I tried.
I crashed. Hard. Six hours later, around 5 pm, Sylvia’s waking me to rush me so I can get dressed and we can get to the dinner. No clean shirts in my bags. Must have been left in the hamper at Jennifer’s in Ottawa. She helped me pack and then move my stuff around. It’s a wonder I have socks with me, with all the chaos of the move.
Sylvia and I rush out to a mall in Sandton (trendy, touristy, pricey but open), find a shop that’s just about to close, and I find a shirt. But my credit card won’t work. So Sylvia hauls out her card, and we get the shirt, and we’re off for a quick change then a quick drive over to the Westcliffe (la-dee-da). Except that after all these years, Sylvia still gets lost driving around Johannesburg. And it’s dark already.
Dumb question: Who’s gonna be there? Belafonte. Harry?? Ya. And Hugh Masekela. And a lot of SA jazz greats.
I’m dumbfounded. Glad I bought that too-expensive shirt.
Harry speaks after a lot of sycophantic babble from the SABC execs, who trip all over themselves about how wonderful they are and what they’re trying to do for SA music. It’s pretty sickening, until that 81 year old man gets up and cuts through all the bullshit.
Born into poverty. Raised by a mother who’s only wish was to have a son who would be educated and do good in the world. He quit before graduating high school but went on to “study acting” while hanging out at the Village Vanguard, a jazz joint in NYC. There he hung with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and more. Eventually, someone asked what he did in life. Belafonte said he studied acting. In response, the guy asked: How do you do that?
One day, after being frozen out of yet another acting gig during that time of history when such things were “normal,” he was invited to fill in between sets at the jazz club. So the bassist will be on stage and together with Belafonte, they rehearse a set that includes “Pennies from Heaven,” because “as on out of work actor, I figured that this song was very appropriate since there i was with my hat out and hoping that pennies would fall into it and I could pay the rent.”
Unbeknownst to Belafonte, as soon as the set began, onto the stage jump Parker and Davis and others who immediately launch into a long complicated and thoroughly different set of music completely upstaging Harry. But it was their way of welcoming him into their world, into their brotherhood. “It was their confirmation of me as a musician. And from that point on I became a successful singer but also the best actor in the world. Because I played a singer who became a success in real life.”
At some point, Paul Robeson became a friend. Robeson who “spoke 12 languages including Zulu, Khosa, Spanish, Italian, French and more. Robeson who wrote in all of those languages too.” The first African American to graduate from Rutgers with honours in law. Who held three doctoral degrees. Rpbeson could have been anything he wanted. But he chucked it all that away, the chance to be rich, powerful, a real establishment player, and said: I want to be an artist because I can do more to change the world through art than if I become a lawyer.
Robeson also set Belafonte and others on a different course in their lives. They pushed against the media, the government, the establishment, society’s attitudes, racism, bigotry and more. How can I change the world when I know it will strike back, push me down, try to silence me and what I have to say? According to Belafonte, Robeson told him to ” Get them to sing your song, and they will want to get to know who you are.”
That was when Belafonte went from competent jazz singer to a folk singer with a message that broke down barriers all around the world.
“There is nothing like standing on a stage in Tokyo, Japan, and listening to 60,000 Japanese voices singing The Banana Boat Song. That is what Robeson meant. And that is what I tell young musicians who come to me. You want to change the world, get them to sing your song. But first, you must find out what your song is. To do that, you must find out who you are and be proud of that.”
I walk out of the hall and into the evening in a trance, after sitting at the table next to two of my heroes (Belafonte and Masekela), listening to that man speak, wondering: Now what the hell am I gonna do for the rest of the month?? I’m here to find out something, and this guy gives me all I need to hear on the first damn day of my South African visit. Shee-it! How to fill the rest of my time. Damn it!
Just to wrap this up, Belafonte also told how a young Miriam Makeba approached him as so many other young South African exiles did during those days. “She sang like an angel,” Belafonte said. But he’d heard it all before. So Belafonte gave her much the same advice he gave to Hugh Masekela, just as Robeson had done to him:
“The world already has a Sarah Vaughn. We don’t need another Sarah Vaughn. We already have an Ella Fitzgerald too. Find your own song to sing, so people will want to get to know you and your peoples and your country.”
You see, I came here for a reason. As a writer, I was told I would find something here and that I must come to South Africa. But there it is — thanks to Belafonte and on my very first evening. NOW what do I do? Where do I go?