An artwork’s title can be an affirmation. For BelO, 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, 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.
Born in Croix-des-Bouquets, near Port-au-Prince, in 1979, BelO (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 ‘n’ roll, funk,” he says. “It’s a music that reflects the reality of Haiti. Haiti is 1/8 part of 3/8 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 Reference (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), BelO 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.”