Singer BélO, inspired by his roots as a ‘Native Born’ Haitian and the strength of his country

By Celia Wren,Washington Post

An artwork’s title can be an affirmation. For BélO, the Haitian singer and guitarist known for his catchy reggae- and world beat-influenced music and for his dedication to social issues, the title of his fourth album, “Natif Natal,” serves just that function.

“‘Natif Natal’ is a way for me to say that my sound has changed a little bit, but I’m still Haitian,” the musician says recently, speaking via Skype from the capital city, Port-au-Prince, with his 7-month-old daughter making occasional babbling noises in the background.

In recent years, he has been developing something of “an international sound.” “I started to tour internationally, more than in Haiti, and I made a lot of exchanges with different musicians from around the world,” he says. “My music has become more sophisticated.” But for him, “inspiration comes from my country first.” The Haitian Creole phrase “Natif Natal” — which might be translated as “Native Born” — emphasizes that bond with his homeland.

“Natif Natal” releases this month on the artist’s own label, BélO Music. It will be available Tuesday on iTunes — just a few days before BélO’s Friday performance at Artisphere. The singer’s concert in Rosslyn, Va., is part of the Francophonie Cultural Festival 2014. The D.C. area showcase of performances, films and other events—including at least one pastry tasting — features contributions from about 40 French-speaking or France-entranced countries. (This year’s six-week-long Francophonie festival wraps up April 15.)

Born in Croix-des-Bouquets, near Port-au-Prince, in 1979, BélO (real name, Jean Belony Murat) was only 11 when he realized he wanted to be a professional musician. His environment might have predisposed him to the choice. “Music was all over the house; all over the street; all over Haiti,” he recalls.

About the time he released his debut album, “Lakou Trankil,” in 2005, he took to calling his musical style “ragganga.” “It’s a mixture of Haitian traditional music with all kinds of foreign music — like reggae, jazz, rock-and-roll, funk,” he says. “It’s a music that reflects the reality of Haiti. Haiti is [part of] the African diaspora. We were colonized by the French. We’re so close to the U.S., so close to Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. So we have a lot of influences.”

While touring and crafting his albums “Référence” (2008) and “Haiti Debout” (2011), he has gained a reputation as a socially conscious musician, grappling in song with issues such as HIV/AIDS awareness and the plight of at-risk children. After the 2010 earthquake ravaged Haiti (he was abroad at the time), BélO threw himself into a marathon series of concerts to raise funds for relief work.

But he’s concerned that people recognize the beauty and strength of Haiti, and not think of it as a charity case. “To me, the future of Haiti really depends on Haitians,” he says. “And that’s why, in my music, I keep saying: The change that everybody is hoping for is not coming from above. It is something we have to create.”

Sublime Japanese ceramics

Compared with the globe-hopping BélO, who has performed on multiple continents, the artworks that will be displayed in the upcoming exhibit, “Contemporary Japanese Ceramics by Living National Treasures and Other Masters” at the Japan Information and Culture Center, have led a more restrained existence. But the pieces — vessels with subtle gradations of color by Tokuda Yasokichi III and by his daughter Tokuda Yasokichi IV, a pale green vase with serene gold floral pattern by Yoshita Minori, and more — sometimes do need to change locations. Most of the works that will appear at the JICC, representing about 19 artists, were recently shown in New York City as part of the Onishi Gallery’s contribution to Asia Week New York 2014. And, of course, they all originated in Japan.

So how do you pack up museum-quality ceramics for international travel, not to mention a jaunt down the pothole-riddled East Coast?

“It’s extremely challenging,” Onishi Gallery manager Nao Onda says with a laugh. She and her colleagues tend to rely on wooden crates when transporting delicate artworks internationally, but sometimes use thick, double-packed cardboard boxes for trips within the United States. Inside those receptacles, the secret is to go heavy on padding.

What kind of padding? “Peanuts from Staples” or other office-supply stores, Onda says.

Such mundane swaddling for curator-worthy rarities? “Anything that protects, we’re happy to use,” Onda says.

She says the exhibit at the culture center (a division of the Japanese Embassy) will illustrate the spectrum of effects that can be realized by artists working in different Japanese ceramic traditions. For instance,Minori’s creations, with their virtuosic use of gold leaf, contrast with the “very disciplined” but “very, very powerful” work of Isezaki Jun, a master of Bizen pottery. The latter achieves a “very Zen look. Very minimal, yet very beautiful. Very meditative, in a way,” Onda says.

The exhibit, which is affiliated with the National Cherry Blossom Festival, is not to be confused with the exhibit of contemporary Japanese ceramics currently at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Evidently, when fruit trees bloom, the pottery of a certain country becomes a hot ticket.

Wren is a freelance writer.

Bélo (with special guests Champion Superior Soundsystem), Friday at Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. Visit or call 703-875-1100.

“Contemporary Japanese Ceramics by Living National Treasures and Other Masters,” Thursday-April 29, at the Japan Information and Culture Center, 1150 18th St. NW, Suite 100, Washington. Visit or call 202-238-6900.


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