BélO expresses love for his much-maligned homeland.
By Wade Tatangelo
http://tampa.creativeloafing.com/gyroba ... oid=335430
Creative Loafing Tampa
It seems every media reference about Haiti is bad news: hurricanes, kidnapping, political upheaval, disease.
It is, after all, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The island nation recently witnessed the fury of Tropical Storm Noel. On Oct. 31, it was reported that more than 90 people were killed by severe flooding. A week later, a news story maintained that HIV was introduced to the Western Hemisphere through Haiti "in about 1966." Haiti needs to keep its U.N. peacekeepers in the country for at least several more years.
The overarching impression: Life in Haiti sucks. It's not exactly the stuff that tourism board dreams are made of.
BélO aims to alter that image.
The Haitian reggae/pop star wants his homeland looked on as fondly as any other beautiful Caribbean island, with the attendant booming tourist industry that goes with images of white sand beaches and azure waters -- like, say, Jamaica.
He's not so naive, however, to think that a simple PR campaign is the answer to getting his nation into the pantheon of Caribbean hotspots. That's why many of his songs implore his fellow countrymen, especially the nation's youth, to trade in their guns for guitars.
"I'd like all Americans to know Haiti is a good country," BélO says. "It was the first free, independent [African-American] country in the world. We in Haiti, we are peacemakers.
"There's trouble all over the world," he continues. "Problems all over the world. [But] we have a lot of good things in our country."
BélO speaks via a weak cell-phone connection. He's in the Dominican Republic. To get his car fixed, he had to cross an international border. Such is life in Haiti.
I first contacted BélO's manager, who is in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, earlier the same day. I asked him how the city looks in the wake of Noel.
"It's very hard to tell a difference before or after," he says. "This place is always a mess."
Not in BélO's eyes.
Born Jean Bélony Murat, the 27-year-old singer came to international acclaim (except, of course, in the United States) with his debut album, Lakou Trankil. The disc earned BélO, who sings in French and Creole, the Radio France award (the equivalent of our Grammy) last year for best new artist. His music harkens to the one-drop, acoustic-guitar-based style of classic reggae, augmented with contemporary synth and amplified bass. One of the disc's most poignant songs tells the true tale of five young men dying during a failed attempt to flee Haiti for Miami.
BélO sings the words in a high, gentle voice over a softly strummed acoustic guitar. A subtle string section and flute underscore the chorus. Even without understanding a word he's singing, it's clear that the subject matter is tragic -- and personal.
"A story of five young men who took to the sea," BélO sings in French:
"To go find a fork in the road/ These young men were tired of misery/ They had to go and leave family far behind."
(Trust me, it's much prettier en francais.)
Later, after the men have been adrift for days without food or water, the one young man says he "would prefer to throw himself to the sharks" than return to Haiti.
"The cream of the country has all gone (they're all gone)," BélO sings.
When he makes his Gulf Coast debut Friday at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center as part of the Latin arts festival Arté 2007, it will be only his third appearance in the United States. (The other two were New York and Miami.)
He's recording his second album at studios both in Tampa and Miami, but insists he has no plans to leave his homeland for a brighter future here.
"I cannot change Haiti if I'm not in Haiti, so I don't want to go anywhere else," he says. "That's why on my album there's the song ['Istwa Dwol'] telling the history of five young boys who leave the country. Young Haitian people need to stay in the country. If everyone goes, Haiti will never change."
I ask BélO if he thinks the United States should be doing more to help his homeland. He pauses.
"If U.S. could do something to help Haiti, it would help both countries," he said. "[But] U.S. can't change Haiti. Only Haitians can change Haiti."
In musical style and persona, BélO takes his cue from Bob Marley, the man who single-handedly made Jamaica a hip tourist attraction despite the fact that that country isn't much safer than Haiti. When BélO walks the streets of his homeland, he's instantly recognized and asked to sign the shirts on peoples' backs. But the young musician sounds humble when discussing his role as a Haitian ambassador.
"I am not a superstar," he says. "I am a missionary. So, I'm not here to show off. My music is real, not business music. I want what Bob Marley wanted for the world: peace in the world."
And so we realize that BélO isn't just an idealist, he adds:
"Tell people my second album is going to be excellent."
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