Harry Belafonte flew into Reykjavík this week to welcome Iceland to the UNICEF community. One of his first acts, on asked about the weather during Reykjavík's coldest November day in 100 years, was to say, "It's not so cold." On the spot, he sang a charming melody about walking in Iceland in the frost.
He then jumped from interview to interview supporting the charity for which he is an ambassador. Maybe it's hard to look bad when representing UNICEF-this is not the charity that sends photos and once had Sally Struthers as a rep-but Mr. Belafonte was so incredibly cool.
In what was for me a highlight in television arts, Belafonte sat down for an interview on a local talk show with ebullient schoolboy Gisli Martin. He beautifully skated through an interview of somewhat inane questions, including, of course, "How do you like Iceland?" but also, and this from a fellow guest: "Did you write ´We are the world´?"
Here is where he started to reach new levels of hip. Asked by Gisli Martin if he still performed, he said no. Not at all. Then he went into a fantastically phrased 8-minute response explaining how the music industry is now filled with industry people, not music people. How there's only room for Britney Spears types. All this with Iceland's Britney, a woman named Birgitta, exactly one foot away.
I couldn't help laughing. What a gaffe, he doesn't know who he's sitting next to, I thought.
Not at all. As he finished explaining that he wished musicians and people with training (in music not fitness), might someday retake the industry, he paused, looked over at Birgitta, and said "Excuse me", acknowledging that she might have a different opinion. It was not offensive. Trust me. Just cool.
Of course, as I said, the point of the response was that he doesn't perform and won't until he sees some positive change in the music industry.
Gisli Martin asked again. Again he said no. He doesn't make exceptions, but someday, when he does change his policies, he promises he'll come to Iceland.
And then Gisli Martin said that the band was going to play "Banana Boat Song" and that Belafonte could just talk them through the text. Belafonte, quite firmly, said this is blackmail, and that a brief mention off the air would have been appropriate.
Then the ambassador to UNICEF got up, relaxed and smooth, walked with the cast over to where the band was playing, and let loose his trained voice for a few bars.
To give some idea as to how good it sounded, as I write this, the photographer just came into today saying he saw the most amazing thing on TV, described Belafonte, and said about the performance "That was just perfect."
As another co-worker told me: "It was like God almighty was speaking. He spoke and all of Iceland was silent in front of their TVs." BC [email protected]