An Evening with BélO
When the lights dimmed and the stage came into focus, a man appeared, crossing quickly toward the bongo-like drums situated in the back corner. He tapped out a quick beat and then gestured for us to do the same by clapping our hands together. We did so and he tapped out another beat. We responded again. He continued to create these beats one after another, always pausing for our echo – until finally, we had a tempo going. Congas, these drums were called. And they set the beat for the start of a very entertaining show.
It wasn’t long before other men began filing in: a drummer who quickly found a beat to match that of the conga-player, a bassist whose amplified rhythm provided a tremendous sound to bring that beat to the next level, and two guitar players who quickly found the beat and strummed along. Instrument by instrument, the stage came alive until finally, one empty spotlight remained.
The man of the hour then emerged, his beaming smile strong as he took the microphone and burst out with the opening lyrics of the song.
BélO, the vocalist and acoustic guitar player from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, played Nov. 13 and 14 at the Squitieri Studio Theatre of the Phillips Center at the University of Florida in Gainesville, as part of a Center Stage tour.
“I am BélO,” he shared at the start of the evening. “I am from Haiti. And I have come to share with you the music of my country, of the Caribbean.”
And so he did. The performance was a lively expression of Haitian music, somewhat a mixture of reggae, Rara and jazz.
It’s true that a variety of instruments built the show’s sound, from the deep bass that brought the music toward our very cores to the handheld shaker that provided a simple (but well-placed) backdrop to some of the quieter songs. However, a most impactful element of the performance came from BélO himself. His voice, which inhabits a range most could only dare dream of achieving, awed audience members – even in its subtler moments. His songs spoke to everyone, Creole-speaking or not. The man’s passion poured through his every word, often reaching beyond the microphone, as if appealing to the world with each note.
When he stopped to catch his breath after a number of delightful songs, BélO turned to introduce us to the members of his band. He did a good job with this, particularly highlighting newest member Ume, a young vocalist and guitarist, like BélO, who is working to break out on his own. Ume’s voice was a sharp contrast to BélO’s, but a refreshing one. When he sang, the room lit up in the same way that it had with BélO’s first notes earlier in the night.
Yet BélO’s music also holds another unique quality – in that it deals with the social issues of his home, Haiti. His songs are not the mainstream pop music of teen radio stations today. Instead, he chooses not to make the “music people want to hear,” but rather the “music people need to hear.” He sings of many important matters, including poverty, lack of education, and those people broken by devastation. This decision marks him not only marks him uniquely as a musician, but also as a man – and it unquestionably earned him a hearty round of applause from the audience.
Because the inviting theatre lends itself to an interactive atmosphere, artists have closer proximity to audiences during concerts. BélO did not fail to take advantage of this, claiming that this night was to be a “conversation.” The man consistently asked for audience participation throughout his performance, requesting that we repeat lyrics (“If you promise to sing, you must sing,” he joked), that we clap our hands, that we ask questions, and most importantly, that we “enjoy.” I know I certainly did.
-Tara Thomson, University of Florida student volunteer