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BélO, a young singer-songwriter with a high-energy, joyful sound, has been on a mission since the age of 11-one that has since brought him across the United States from his home in Petion-Ville, Haiti.
His tour of towns across America, including New London, is part of a new cultural diplomacy initiative called Center StageSM. It's the musician's first visit to Connecticut.
A program of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts, Center StageSM brings performing artists from Haiti, Indonesia and Pakistan to the U.S. to interact with audiences and create opportunities for greater understanding of their cultures.
On his 33rd birthday, from his hotel room in Massachusetts, BélO, spoke to Daybreak about his music and his role as a musical ambassador for Haiti.
Q. Your music has so many rich influences-reggae, rock, jazz, worldbeat, Ragganga and Rara. Can you talk about the unique sound that you've developed?
A. Just like you can see a mixture of Haitian traditional music along with modern styles and jazz, I think I'm inspired to have this style of music because of the history of Haiti and how people live in Haiti.
Q. You started playing music as a young boy. When did you realize that music is a tool for social action, as well as pleasure?
A. At 11 years old, I decided to be a professional musician. I knew my mission was to be an activist musician; a messenger from my country. I was chosen to do this - I feel this is what I was born to be, not a decision I made for myself. At 14 years old, I created a band with some of my friends - a boys' band singing. I didn't know how to play any instrument. At 18, I started to play guitar and write really social conscious music.
Q. Why did you join the Center Stage initiative as an artist?
A. What I like the most about this program is the fact that it's not just a performance where you play music and go. There is sharing. We have community activities and I can sit down with the people and let them know much more about my country. They have an opportunity to ask questions about Haiti. It's a very important part of the program that I love so much. Of course, doing a show, you can just play music and give two or three messages. But I'm spending one hour talking with American people. It's a way to show them the face of Haiti.
Q. What do you most want people to understand about your country-about the people of Haiti?
A. The most important thing for me is to let people understand Haiti isn't just this poor country people see on the news, on TV. Haiti is also a beautiful country, one of the countries in the Caribbean that's culturally very rich, has a lot to share, and is learning a lot from the world. It's not just hurricanes, or lots of problems in this country-we want you to know that's not all. We have good musicians, artists, hospitality. We want more people to be interested, know the story of this country, and maybe visit our country.
Q. Why is music so important in Haitian culture?
A. Because here in American most people know how to read. But in Haiti most of the people don't. They can't find the message in the newspaper. Music is one of the biggest mediums for them to learn. Not only for entertainment, but to give messages. In the particular case of Haiti, music is very important. In fact, we have a president now who was a very famous musician. They voted for him because they knew him and loved his music, not just because he was a good politician. Haiti is a musical country. To me this is like a tool we can use positively or negatively, but I'm sure everyone will choose to use it positively-it's what I choose to do with my music.
Q. How is the tour going?
A. Very positive so far. I have lots of new friends on Facebook. People love the music.
What: BelO in concert
Where: Evans Hall, Connecticut College, New London
When: Nov. 9 at 8 p.m.
Cost: $22, general admission; $20 seniors; $11 students.
Tickets and information: Call (860) 439-ARTS (2787) or visit http://onstage.conncoll.edu.