Students at Boothbay region schools in grades 7 through 12, were treated to the music of Haitian recording artist BélO and his musicians November 2. BélO's music is known as ragganga, which blends reggae, jazz, worldbeat, rock and traditional Vodou rhythms known as rara. BélO sang in his native Creole, but spoke English with strudents.
The students responded enthusiastically to the band with thunderous applause, and whoops and hollers after each song. After the show reviews heard amongst the student body included “Awesome,” “Really great” and “I loved it!”
BélO invited questions about Haiti and taught students a little Haitian response to a song entitled “Jasmine” from his first CD released in 2005.
When he was 11 years old he decided he would become a professional musician. He wrote his first song at 16. Encouraged by friends to learn to play one instrument, BélO taught himself to play the guitar at age 18. He cites Emeline Michel, the Bookman Experience and Bob Marley as artists who influenced and inspired him.
The 33-year-old uses his music and lyrics to promote Haiti; to call attention to people in need, the importance of education for children and childrens' rights, the need for respect for women, and protection of the environment. His fundraising performances have been for Haitian relief, AIDS awareness, the Red Cross, the rights of children, and other causes.
But of all the world's causes, his primary mission is to help Haiti.
“I was always attracted by musicians who had something strong to say,” BélO said. “It's not that I chose to become an activist artist; I was born an activist, and I am an artist, so when you mix the two together …”
When Haiti was devastated by an earthquake in 2010, he was in Paris as part of an artist's residency program focused on bringing artists from the Caribbean and Africa to France as part of a governmental program.
Said BélO, “Since I had to be in the world and not in Haiti, it was a good way for me to help my country; I had concerts to raise money. There was a real need to give hope to my country that's why I called my third CD, Haiti Stand Up.
“I like to say that my music has two missions: first, to help the Haitian people (that's why it is all in Creole) and the second is to show the positive face of Haiti, the culture, the dancing, the food everything ... all the positive things Haiti has to show to the rest of the world,” BélO said.
BélO's appearance at the schools, and later that evening at the Opera House, was through the U.S. State Department's “Center Stage.” Center Stage is a cultural diplomacy initiative that, in 2012, will bring performers from Haiti, Indonesia and Pakistan to venues and schools in small towns and cities in the U.S. for month-long programs. An initiative of the U.S. State Department, Center Stage is administered by New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA), in cooperation with the U.S. Regional Arts Organizations.
Ann Wicks, Communications Manager for the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) explained, “We (NEFA) work with networks of presenters to find those that are interested in hosting not just traditional evening performances but also the related engagement activities in the community (like workshops, artist to artist exchanges).
“As with any presenting organization, there are fees that the presenter pays (these are professional artists), but fees that are highly subsidized by the Center Stage program. There are private funders for the program including the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, and the Asian Cultural Council.
“Because of this support, we are able to bring artists to small and mid-size communities. An added benefit to the program is that we manage the visa and travel logistics.”
Wicks said NEFA works with a panel of arts and culture professionals help narrow down all recommendations made to the State Department.
The performance is an also an “Opera House Goes To School Program,” sponsored by the Knickerbocker Group of Boothbay. The Opera House program director Cathy Sherrill heard about Center Stage last year for 2012 programs, and knew she wanted the Opera House to be a venue. Knickerbocker Group was the host presenter for the Boothbay show at the school and the Opera House.
“It's a big thing for us to have been chosen,” Sherrill said. “Some of the other venues in this month-long tour include the Kravis Center in Palm Beach, University of Florida, Connecticut College, The Kennedy Center for the Arts, and the Academy of Music in Northhampton, Massachusetts … pretty lofty company.”
BélO and the artists who are part of this first program applied to the State Department to be part of the Center Stage program.
“The most important thing, for me, in this program, is meeting people and talking to them about my country and my music and about me,” BélO said. “And, I am learning about them and what they do. It's an exchange between people which is something very positive. It is how you learn.”
A group of 40 attended BélO's show at the Opera House. Some of the audience members were students invited, free of charge compliments of the Opera House, and they were just as enthusiastic about the performer and his music as they were in the afternoon. BélO interacted with his audience, responding to many questions about Haiti from its language to why he became a musician.
What happens after the Center Stage shows? As BélO told his Opera House audience, “There is no better place for me to be than Haiti.”
To learn more about BélO and hear his music, visit www.belohaiti.com.