Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Harry Belafonte

  • Paradise in Gazankulu [EMI-Manhattan, 1988] C+
  • The Essential Harry Belafonte [RCA/Legacy, 2005]  

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Paradise in Gazankulu [EMI-Manhattan, 1988]
Anybody who thought Paul Simon was jiving about political lyrics should check this socially conscious malapropism by Miriam Makeba's ex. Banned from South Africa himself, Belafonte sent arranger Richard Cummings and lyricist Jake Holmes in to lay down tracks with Makgona Tsohle, Brenda Fassie, even the Soul Brothers (who turned Simon down), and both representatives made a mess with the boss's full approval--Makgona Tsohle play cream cheese, the Zulu word for power turns into a woman's name, and the interracial love duet with Jennifer Warnes is no less saccharine for being punishable by death. Yet the Obed Ngobeni-backed title song is a triumph--a tremendously hot piece of assimilationist mbaqanga that conveys apartheid's insanity and mbaqanga's joy-pain in English ironic enough to get past the SABC. Did I say Simon wasn't jiving? C+

The Essential Harry Belafonte [RCA/Legacy, 2005]
"There was never a performer who crossed so many lines as Harry," says Dylan of this Harlem lefty turned matinee idol. "He appealed to everybody, whether they were steelworkers or symphony patrons or bobby-soxers." Though this artist-selected double CD bypasses the hit 1957 studio versions of both "Day-O" and "Mama Look at Bubu" for show-band arrangements, it's pretty impressive once you learn to listen through his compromises with conspicuous respectability. He deploys Caribbean percussion as subtly as folk melody, jokes around about sex roles without getting sexist about it, ends a ban-the-bomb verse "Back to back and belly to belly," and keeps the musical-comedy exoticism to a tolerable modicum. Though "Jamaica Farewell" isn't quite "Chances Are," he was one of the decade's prettier balladeers. Born poor, he made himself a folk hero. [Recyclables]


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