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."
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...
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.
was among kindred people.
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.
B A C K -
and Photos Copyright 2005 Glen David Short