Harry- My Heart is Down, Lost in Kingston town

Tribute to Harry Belafonte- A true giant, a voice for the voiceless, who walked here in my lifetime

Harry Belafonte

Your life, every aspect of it, was like the mythical Philosopher’s Stone-

The Paras Pathar, as we call it in India, and on which our own

Creative giant, Satyajit, made a film, cast in black and white, as does

Your life story, very black and white, near mythical.

 

Tutored as I was from age ten or earlier, by my Bengali housewife Mother

In a corner of India- about MLK, the scourge of slavery and the brutal

Racism of America, MLK’s Dream- my knowledge, awareness and

Empathy multiplied tenfold once I actually arrived on these shores

 

And the evidence was everywhere, in documentaries, in the books,

In everyday life (the resistance to the MLK birthday started a chapter).

As little as I knew the true, ghastly face of the much-glorified

United States (including vague notions at best of their atrocities in

 

Vietnam, then in full swing)- I recall being totally enraptured by one Voice-

A voice of molten gold, a voice which bespoke of Jamaica and Calypso,

Its humanity, unrestrained rapture, bespoke of a long-oppressed people

Seeking freedom and salvation.  Harry- even at a great distance, know

 

You reached untold millions worldwide, a bridge to humanity

So many such as myself caught the contagion of your lyrics- lyrics

Which brought out the agonies of oppressed hearts with unsurpassed

Poignancy- Come Mr. Tally-man, Tally me banana; Daylight come and we

 

Want go home. Then, as I grew closer to the history of the Civil Rights

Struggle and its glorious icons- I gradually became aware of your own

Consistent, inviolable participation in those history-making events-

Selma, Montgomery, so many others.  Yours was not to simply revel

 

In the glow of your epochal music; your purpose was much higher-

Your heart and soul resonated with unmatched closeness to the Cause-

You joined ranks with MLK, Malcolm, Ali, the other luminant ones

A great wave of reawakening, there was- and, with your Calypso

 

 

You brought an entirely different dimension to the Great Struggle.

Yet, beyond your uplifting Caribbean melodies, you entered the

Innermost recesses of my heart via your utterly soulful, supremely

Stirring, Negro Spirituals.  I must confess that even though I had long

 

Admired the incomparable Paul Robeson in years earlier, and the likes

Of Mahalia Jackson- my first encounter with several Negro Spirituals

Carried on your golden, deeply soulful voice, left an imprint to this

Day indelible inside my being.  Those songs opened an entirely new

 

Vista for me- I realized suddenly that here was an astonishing creation

By long-oppressed Black freedom seekers which actually uses the

Christian imagery, but very differently indeed- most effectively

Establishing the brutality and inhumanity of those who shriek

 

The name of Christ the loudest.  The contrast is absolutely deafening

To any awakened mind.  Yet, not in one single place in these supreme

Compositions do I ever find any hatred, bitterness or vengefulness-

Which would all have been otherwise perfectly justifiable. These

 

Compositions offering solace to the oppressed, degraded and enslaved

Reach a level of nobility and grace which approach in my personal

Experience, only the sublime bhakti songs of Ramprasad, Kamalakanta

And Mirabai, and perhaps the Brahma Sangeet of Tagore. If, perchance

 

Your incomparable Caribbean melodies were to be lost to the world-

My utmost prayer would be that your spirituals survive- for they are

The embodiment of the noblest yearnings of the enslaved human,

Anywhere, triumphing in the domain of the mind over the ruthless

 

Slave-Masters and human traffickers.  I recall meeting your one-time

Fellow “marcher to freedom,” the Reverend James Bevel at an anti-war

Forum at Eastern Michigan University, protesting the criminal invasion

Of Iraq, early 2004, and noticing how much he was immediately drawn

 

To a volume of Tagore’s English writings dealing with the human

Wasteland that was colonialism and its imperial counterpart.  Of all

The human cries against imperial rampage- in East Asia, the

Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and of course here in the imperial

 

Headquarters, the US of A, almost forever in league with colonialists

And profiteers- I feel the deepest cries of anguish from enslaved

Africans are by far the most heart-rending.  Harry- the muted

Messages of that anguish in your spirituals find their voice in Tagore’s

 

Immortal Africa.  Along with Paul Robeson at the forefront,

Bob Marley and other seekers of freedom- you have relentlessly lent

Your voice to humanity seeking freedom, right through the freshest

Imperial rampages of the new millennium, including Iraq and Libya.

 

I think I heard him say- take my mother home.

This imagined cry from an agonized Christ about to be crucified-

So closely approaches the deepest apprehension of a mother’s

Bursting heart witnessing the (enslaved) son’s brutal degradation.

 

Bring a little water, Sylvie, bring a little water- now!

Picture the enslaved prisoner (still many victims of racism today)

Crying out for drops of water to soothe their parched lips.  And

There is always the compassionate woman ready to reach out.

 

There’s joy in my father’s house.

The Father’s (heavenly or here on earth) house is the ultimate refuge.

And the joy therein is exactly replicated in Tagore’s most uplifting

Aji shubhadine pitar bhabane amrita sadane cholo jai.

 

Matilda- she take me money and run Venezuela.

And your music was not all other-worldly- they were a product

Of everyday life- humor, irony, deceit, perplexity- it covered

The gamut. Here a hapless fellow gets conned by a wily woman.

 

The woman piaba and the man piaba.

Within which you laid out the ultimate truth- the very best of

Our human compatriots know not the answer to many fundamental

Questions – and not limited to only “’bout the bird and bee.”

 

Jump in the line, rock your body in time (shake, senora).

And there, unforgettably, was young rebel Winona Ryder

Floating effortlessly over the staircase railing, rocking her body

In time.  Whether in Beetlejuice, or a hundred other places-

 

Harry, you ruled the roost, time and again.  Your creativity and

Its vibrancy knew no limits.  You brought untold joy and positive

Affirmation, while within the sanctum sanctorum, your spirit

Was crushed by the persistent, grave injustice haunting our world.

 

In their younger years, I introduced my son and daughter to your

More popular melodies- the Jamaica Farewell, Mama Look a Boo Boo,

More. Your soulful spirituals I hope they will discover on their own-

The searching spirit often finds them naturally.

 

Yet, inexorably, the time for the great Farewell has now arrived

And, left with a world impoverished by your absence- gone from us

Are Poitier, Vidal, Tutu, Zinn and many shining lights- all we have left

Is the wish- come back Harry, come back in all your glory

With you there is no Farewell; come back to this verdant earth

Where, with all its kinks, Life flourishes.

 

Ramprasad Sen- Bengali devotional composer and poet (1718/23-1775).

Kamalakanta-   Bengali devotional composer, yogi, poet (1769-1821).

Mirabai-           16th century Princess of Rajputana, who became a devout servant of Krishna.

Aji shubhadine, pitar bhabane, amrita sadane cholo jai-

On this auspicious day, let us proceed to Our Father’s House of Eternal Life.                              Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Brahma Sangeet.

 

Dr. Monish R. Chatterjee, a professor at the University of Dayton who specializes in applied optics, has contributed more than 130 papers to technical conferences, and has published more than 70 papers in archival journals and conference proceedings, in addition to numerous reference articles on science.  He has also authored several literary essays and four books of literary translations from his native Bengali into English (Kamalakanta, Profiles in Faith, Balika Badhu, and Seasons of Life), and contributed to several literary anthologies.  Dr. Chatterjee believes strongly in humanitarian activism for social justice.

URLs for HB songs discussed:

 

Take my mother home:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yNbAi12eBGY

 

Bring a little water, Sylvie:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ZVc1Yew3tk

 

In my Father’s house:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-A3aYtuFAiI

Matilda:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ZVc1Yew3tk

The woman piaba and the man piaba

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LvN6-RK66Bo

 

Jump in the line

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KU9TxckCXMc

 

Monish R Chatterjee, © May, 2023

 

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