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.
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. Keep up with Center Stage by liking the program on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/CenterStagePage) and following us on Twitter (@centerstageus).
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.