Land of Calypso

Nearly a century under his belt and visibly undeterred, social activist and retired stage performer, Harry Belafonte, the King of Calypso celebrates his 90 birthday today, March 1.

If I find it a pertinent thing to celebrate here,  its not only because I have vague aural and visual memories as a toddler of old aunts dancing to his and Miriam Makeba’s music, but more precisely because hollywoodian cinemascope blockbusters were –in times past– sometimes the only access to parts of the world that are now only a Googlemap away.

It used to be the case that discovering new landscapes, experiencing wildernesses and foreign cultures meant going to the movies. Yes, the movies.

Enter Hollywood, Technicolour and African Queeens. Enter Belafonte. And the balmy breeze of the tropics. From banana songs to latin dance…Cuba, Brazil, Jamaica, Argentina…can it get any hotter?

American cinema of the late 30s, 40 and 50 distilled for public spectacle the rhumba craze, and samba, mambo madness and calypso, cha-cha-cha, tropicalissmo and other tutti fruitti ladies dressed in bananas. The tropics were synonymous with sensual dance, freedom from convention, an unwelcoming unfamiliar landscape, fierce animals, strange vegetation and unusual fruits…some of them forbidden.

From the cool pace of the Island in the Sun with Harry Belafonte to the B stage Hollywoodian voodoo films starring Bela Lugosi; from Carmen Miranda cameos to trekking through some jungle with Bogart, the luxuriousness of the tropical setting meaningfully got the most out of the saturated colours and wide screens of the Technicolor era.

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Island in the Sun, 1957

A sonorous landscape of loud and colourful inhabitants, a vegetation unlike any other, –unless one had seen action in the recent world wars in the pacific or africa–  the heat and the light, the humidity and the carnivourous insects were all central to the cinematic experience.

(I will return periodically to the landscapes of cinema in future posts.)

I can only imagine what effect the perenially elegant Belafonte, jamaican martiniquais, an elegant outsider of sorts (not unlike his contemporary the bahamaian Sidney Poitier) must have had on the imaginaire of those who went to see his films or those like it.

Happy Birthday Mr Belafonte.

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