Harry Belafonte turns 75 in Cartagena

Cartagena's picturesque Plaza de la Aduana, once a waystation for the slave trade, had a big stage set up, with a giant, white, tiered birthday cake standing off to one side. The free concert had already started when I passed, with different local groups playing reggae and champeta music. I joined the throng and saw that just a few feet in front of me, in the V.I.P. section, a man was wearing a cream jacket, white shirt and an olive tie. You rarely see such attire here in Cartagena, even on a cool March evening such as this. When a photographer asked him to stand up to be photographed, I noticed that the tall man was the center of attention. Not only because of his clothes, but because he was the Guest of Honour for Cartagena's 42nd International Film Festival. It was none other than the great Harry Belafonte, celebrating his 75th birthday, and the woman dressed all in white sitting beside him was his wife Judy.

After he sat down I raced back to my apartment to get my camera. Luckily I live in the adjoining Plaza de Coches. When I returned, the band playing champeta included a troupe of 10 small bikini-clad dancing girls, who bumped and swayed like you would not believe. In between the live music, a big screen to the side projected music video clips of Harry in concert, including the memorable "Island in the Sun". Then Harry was asked up on stage to take the microphone while everyone sang "Happy Birthday". "Many friends said I wouldn't make it" he said. A toast was proposed, and he was awarded the Gran Orden de la Cultura from Araceli Morales, Colombia's Minister for the Arts. He spoke in an incredibly soft and peaceful way, through an interpreter, how he had studied to be an actor in the USA but racism had caused him to turn to music as a way to earn a living. Speaking of the links the Caribbean people have through the bond of music, especially calypso music, he also reminded them that the people of Cartagena share a common history of slavery with those of America. He said he accepted the invitation to attend when he met Festival director Victor Nieto in the Havana Film Festival, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who enchanted him on many occasions with stories about Cartagena. But there was no rest to be had just yet for Mr Belafonte. After he had sat down a reggae group called Vibration Reggae asked him, in English, to come back on stage to sing his song, "Matilda" . He complied, working his way past half a dozen or more little girls backstage who were squealing "Harry! Harry!", to sing the song. He received rapturous applause when his closing words were "...and if you think the Festival de Cine is wasting money on bringing me here, I am proud to say I paid for my own ticket."

I waited for him to climb down the stairs backstage to see if I could get his autograph - I had brought a pen a paper specially for that purpose. He lingered for a while, talking to people and kissing the excited little dancing girls. He even turned around and looked me in the eye when I called out in English "Mr Belafonte... your autograph?"

He looked a bit confused. For whatever reason, he decided not to sign. In any case it was too late, photographers and people from the audience were rushing up and swamping him. He turned away to face a blitz of camera flashes and handshakes and bearhugs from Colombians who liked his speech.

He was among kindred people.

Photo and story copyright of Glen David Short, a freelance writer based in Cartagena. His new adventure travelogue, `An Odd Odyssey: California to Colombia by bus and boat' has just been published by Trafford Publishing. Posted 16 March 2002.

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Text and Photos Copyright 2005 Glen David Short