After performing more than a dozen songs popularized by Harry Belafonte, pianist and vocalist Richard Cummings Jr., with an ensemble of musicians and singers, finally neared the end of a long night with a rousing version of “Day-O.” “Never record a song you don’t like,” Cummings advised the packed audience Friday at Aaron Davis Hall, “because if it becomes a hit you will be asked to sing it over and over.”
Fortunately, music director Cummings and his talented crew only had to do it once, but there were many other songs to select from the calypso master’s repertoire, and the Belafonte Alumni Group delivered all of them with fascinating rhythm and gusto in tribute to Belafonte’s 92nd birthday.
The Group opened the show with “Turn the World Around,” a powerful version of the evening’s theme, co-produced by the City College Center for the Arts, and then segued into a tender rendition of “Try to Remember” with Ty Stephens stepping from the choir and soloing. He gave the time-worn lament a refreshing tincture of longing.
But there was no lingering in the valley of yesterday when the choir leaped to a level of unrelieved exuberance, and Cummings was in full sway putting a current nuance to the lyric “she took me money and rung to Venezuela.”
The Group touched another nerve with “New York Taxi,” something Belafonte and most Black men in the city know very well when trying to hail one, particularly as they sang, “One twenty fifth and Lenox Please/Don’t you know/the taxi gone with the breeze.”
From the taxi, the next vehicle of exasperation was “Back of the Bus,” and once again the performers conjured the civil and human rights struggle in song. When they sang “boating booth” it sounded like voting booth and in both instances the inference on racism and discrimination was not missed.
The choir—with such tuneful voices as Branice McKenzie, Sharon Brooks, Gabrielle Lee, Deborah Sharpe Taylor and Roumel Reaux, who took a turn or two up front—was ably backed by a musical ensemble that featured Damon DueWhite (drums); Emanuel “Chulo” Gatewood (bass); Gregg Fine (electric guitar); Paul Ricci (acoustic guitar); John F. Adams (synth/keyboards); Morris Goldberg (flute/saxophone and an amusing penny whistle); and percussionist Neil Clarke, whose hands were a magical blur of delight on an assortment of instruments.
Along with a salute to Belafonte, the show was dedicated to the memory of Harold Lee Melvin, Belafonte’s personal assistant, and broadcaster Daa’iya El Sanusi, both of whom joined the ancestors last year. It was good to see several of Sanusi’s relatives in the audience.
Given the spiritual resonance of the performance, the often sacred sound of the voices and instruments, there’s a good chance the beloved departed also reveled in the music. Plus, according to a reliable source, those who had to hurry home from the concert missed a tableau of wonderful food. So, there was nourishment for body and soul.