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Whether live or on video, Belafonte rules

There's something to be said for the performer who entertains first, educates and encourages a close second. Such artists are a rare breed these days in a pop world fascinated by the morbid and the pained - where younger stars emulate the surliness or melodrama they can so easily ply with their own finesse and never the exuberant joyousness of top acts from 30 and 40 years ago.

At least, that's the case with traditional American pop music today, as in everyone from Mariah to Metallica. It's a much different story, however, when you venture into pop music with a worldbeat twist. There, where someone as deliberately out-of-whack as David Byrne can rhumba to his heart's content, where Selena could make us believe she was born to play norteno, where Gloria Estefan is queen and Luis Miguel is king - that is the sound of sun and fun.And sun and fun's godfather is the incomparable Harry Belafonte. (We'll label the Beach Boys "surf" for the sake of argument.)

Essential in helping to open America's ears to Caribbean, South African and Latin rhythms well before Bob Marley or Hugh Masekela became known in the West, Belafonte remains one of the most amiable performers around and a vital necessity for the uplift of worldbeat now that it has long since embraced its political arm.

Let guys like Manu Dbango, Ali Farka Toure and the Marley boys worry about the collective consciousness of the world. Belafonte, the only man who can sing the word "fumalakachimba" with a straight face, will keep everyone smiling while they search for their soul.

Fans and newcomers alike can get a taste of what he's like live through "An Evening With Harry Belafonte & Friends," an excellent PBS special from earlier this year, now on video (PolyGram, $17.95).

Yes, the actor-singer runs through the big ones - a lulling "Jamaica Farewell," a lively "Matilda" and the eternal "Banana Boat Song" - but it's in the lesser-known numbers, including a few spotlighting Cameroon bassist-singer Richard Bona, that Bela-fonte displays a continued devotion to discovering new sounds and important talent.

Bona's two solo moments, "Eyala" and "Eyando," are especially eye-opening. The artist's velvety smooth alto mixed with his sweetly fluttering bass work envelopes you in its calm, while his commitment to perfection demands undivided attention.

Other players, particularly South African reed-man Morris Goldberg and vocalist Sam McKelton, offer standout performances, particularly McKelton's duet with Belafonte on a warm version of "Try to Remember." But Bona is the true star here and deserving of more attention.

- BREADTH AND DEPTH: The image is flatter, but, a growing number of videophiles say, distinctly better. Among the 16 films released this month in a new video collection from Universal, three - "Psycho," "Out of Africa" and "The Deer Hunter" - are available for the first time in wide-screen, or letter-box, editions.

The other 13 wide-screen tapes - including "Apollo 13," "Schindler's List," "Jaws" and "Waterworld" - are reissues of films in that format, which once was considered weird by many viewers but, distributors say, is now something of a trend.

The terms "wide screen" and "letter box" are synonymous and generally familiar. On a television screen, a "letter box" is formed by placing black bands across the top and bottom of the image, thus flattening the essentially square television picture (1.3 times wider than it is high) into the rectangle (2.40 or 1.85 to 1) intended by the film-maker.

Until quite recently, that bothered a lot of people. "The VHS audience used to think we were stealing something from them: `Why are you putting black bars on my picture and making it smaller?' ," said James Katz, a film restorer at Universal. He and his colleague Robert Harris, salvaged "Vertigo," which is one of the wide-screen videos reissued by Universal.

During panning and scanning, the process by which a rectangular movie is squared for the home screen, as much as 40 percent of the image that appears on the theater screen is lost. Typically, the movies are lopped off at the sides, eliminating characters and occasionally entire scenes.

That was true in "Out of Africa," for example. "It wasn't made to show square, and it came out badly with panning and scanning," said Mike Fitzgerald, vice president of technical operations for Universal Studios. "Psycho," shot for the wide screen in 1961, had similar problems. "With the shower scene, for years we blew it up and lost information on the sides," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "For the first time, you see it the way it appeared in the lens."

The wide-screen versions restore lost material and permit other fine-tuning. The bars still irritate many viewers conditioned to full-screen television, but increasingly collectors are becoming more knowledgeable about the characteristics of the format. Sales of wide-screen videos make up about 5 percent of the market now, which represents a sizable gain over the past year or two.

Much of wide screen's broader acceptance is attributed to bigger television sets. On larger screens, the bars don't seem as intrusive as they do on smaller sets, and viewers are more aware of the images they gain.

Newer sets also take advantage of advances in VHS quality. "As duplicators produce sharper VHS pictures, a lot of these wide-screen additions are more technically pleasing than they would have been 10 years ago," Fitzgerald said. "If you see a picture that uses two-thirds as much screen, you need better quality to make it worthwhile." - Peter M. Nichols (New York Times)