Tally Mon Come, Name Belafonte

At 79, calypso legend Harry Belafonte is vocal as ever -- as a critic of the Bush administration and the president in particular.
At 79, calypso legend Harry Belafonte is vocal as ever -- as a critic of the Bush administration and the president in particular. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 2, 2006

Even friends who most appreciate the complicated package that is Harry Belafonte hark back to that simple soundtrack of America getting its first black matinee idol -- cheesy as the calypso sweetness might seem half a hip-hopping century later.

As Belafonte enters a banquet hall at Howard University Friday to receive an award from TransAfrica Forum, there it is, sea-breezing out of the sound system: Day-o, day-ay-ay-o . . . Come, Mr. Tally Mon, tally me banana; Daylight come and me wanna go home . . .

The luncheon crowd of 225 civil rights activists, foreign policy idealists, celebrities (Danny Glover) and ambassadors (Hugo Chavez's emissary from Venezuela) gives a hip-swaying standing ovation. A big screen flashes snapshots of a career -- Belafonte with Martin Luther King Jr., Jack and Bobby Kennedy, a giant bunch of bananas. But what the crowd most wants to hear is more of the stinging, controversial jeremiad that Belafonte has been laying down this year, red hot like today's news.

He does not disappoint. At 79, the entertainer still knows his audience. He may discomfit -- in fact, he likes to discomfit -- but he never disappoints.

In January he led a delegation (Glover, Cornel West, Bloods, Crips) to Venezuela, met with leftist president Chavez for eight hours, and called President Bush "the greatest terrorist in the world." Back in the United States, he referred to "the Gestapo of Homeland Security." A few years ago, he compared then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to a slave who "was permitted to come into the house of the master."

After each rhetorical detonation, he was duly interrogated by the likes of Larry King and Wolf Blitzer, asked if he wanted to take anything back.

Here at the lunch, speaking for 39 minutes without notes, he takes nothing back.

"George W. Bush will not be in office forever, Mr. Ambassador," Belafonte says, addressing Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez. "It is hard to ask you and the rest of the world to be patient with our brutality . . . Be patient. America is awakening again."

A moment later, working his way into the rhetorical red zone, he adds, "I knew what I was saying when I referred to George W. Bush as the greatest terrorist in the world." (Pause for rising applause and cheers.) "And he has done nothing to try to improve his image."

Such talk has inspired some columnists and editorial writers to suggest that Mr. Tally Mon needs to count whether Belafonte is losing his bananas. Even some allies on the left have wondered whether the old man is going too far. Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation, recently called on people, including Belafonte, to drop the Nazi analogies because, she wrote, they demonize more than they encourage debate.

But if anything, Belafonte is crazy like a fox, and his critics have forgotten that the radical calypso singer has always staked out political ground on the edge of what the mainstream was ready to handle. The edge keeps moving, and Belafonte keeps moving one step ahead of it, afflicting the comfortable.

"It's always the same old thing," he says. "People feel jeopardized if ruling power speaks. When I took up the cause of Dr. King" -- as counselor, fundraiser and bail-poster -- "I was a threat for my middle class and white audience . . . White women ran through the house singing my songs while cooking dinner, their husbands came home and they danced all night to the calypso . . . [Then] I support the 'upheaval.' Oops."

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