If you asked me to name my favorite Hindi song, I would be hard-pressed to give you an answer. I’ve been listening to Hindi songs as far as I can remember. If you asked me my favorite English song, I would say “Jamaican Farewell” by Harry Belafonte. The word favorite is subjective. How does a song become one’s favorite? In my case, Jamaican Farewell is a sentimental favorite since it is probably the first English song that I listened to. We did not have a gramophone at home and we listened to Hindi songs on the radio. My uncle in Bombay had a gramophone and an excellent collection of records and it was probably there that I first heard Belafonte’s concert at Carnegie Hall but I can’t be sure.
However, I do remember sitting out on the balcony of our house in Kumara Park at night, listening to Harry Belafonte being played on our neighbor’s gramophone upstairs. I was probably seven and I would sit out there with my brother at night while the song would end and the audience would break into a thunderous applause. I learned the lyrics in my music class. Forty, ten-year-olds bawling at the top of their voices would hardly qualify as music but our long-suffering music teacher, Mrs. Jagan would play the piano and try to instill some musicality into us. This was one of the songs that I would try to sing seriously.
“Jamaican Farewell”, “Banana Boat Song”, “Island in the Sun” and “Kingston Market”, all Belafonte songs paint an idyllic picture of the Caribbean. As I listened to the songs I imagined him leading a charmed carefree life in his youth. The swashbuckling West Indian cricket teams of the seventies and eighties reinforced this view. It was only after reading his memoir “My Song” that I came to know that he had an abusive father and his childhood was fraught with difficulties. Incidentally, he was also actively involved in the Civil Rights movement and had bought the life insurance policy for Dr. Martin Luther King which was to become Coretta Scott King’s source of income after the assassination of Dr. King. The concert at Carnegie Hall was a benefit for a boys’ school in which Eleanor Roosevelt was involved in a humanitarian capacity. While Belafonte does talk briefly about his calypso music, his memoirs cover more sweeping topics such as the civil rights movement, race-relations, apartheid and the art scene.
Over time, I collected Harry Belafonte’s cassettes and CDs. However, on a trip to San Antonio, I came across a double LP of the “Belafonte at Carnegie Hall” concert. It is one of my prized possessions now. Once in a while, I play it on my record player at night with the lights switched off. As Belafonte winds down the song singing:
Sad to say, I’m on my way
Won’t be back for many a day
My heart is down, my head is turning around
I had to leave a little girl in Kingston town