Tayo Aluko tells of the chance encounter that led him on an extraordinary journey in the company of Paul Robeson.
‘You remind me of Paul Robeson. Do you sing many of his songs?’ asked the lady after hearing me sing in June 1995.
‘I think I know the name,’ I replied, ‘but I’m not sure I know his music.’
How that exchange, and that name would change my life was impossible to foresee at that time, and as I write this from Australia during a sell-out tour of my play Call Mr. Robeson, I am grateful to Mr. Robeson, and to the angel he sent that morning for steering me on that first step on the journey of thousands of miles around the world.
His name would have been vaguely familiar because it must have been mentioned to me on some occasions in my previous life as member of two male voice choirs: Snowdown Colliery Male Voice Choir in Kent in the mid 1980s, and the London Welsh Male Voice Choir a few years later. It is amazing (and embarrassing) how in that time I continued to be naïve to the importance of the connection, because the mutual love between Robeson and the Welsh was born out of a scenario that was replaying itself in my time with the two choirs.
Robeson first came into contact with Welsh miners in London in 1928 when a group of them who had walked there all the way from The Valleys to highlight their plight as exploited workers, caught his attention when singing on the street. That was when (as I retell in my play) he first realised that worker exploitation was colour blind, and that the Black struggle was related to struggles of all oppressed people worldwide. His resulting interest in socialism would lead to his demonisation, and to him subsequently being buried from public consciousness – hence my ignorance of him.
The Snowdown choir were due to compete in the 1985 Miners’ Eisteddfod in Porthcawl, but it was cancelled because of the Miners’ Strike. I now know that Porthcawl goes down in history because in 1957, the miners defiantly arranged for Robeson to perform to them down a telephone line, because his government prevented him from travelling because of his politics. Had I gone to Porthcawl, I would have learnt this story, but the time wasn’t right.
Robeson’s story somehow continued to elude me through the two years with the London Welsh before going to Liverpool in 1989, and another six years would pass before ‘that encounter’. Two months later, I stumbled on his biography, read it, and realised what my existence as an African, as a singer and traveller-of-sorts, had been preparing me for.
I started performing Call Mr. Robeson in earnest in 2008 in England and abroad, and found the name Paul Robeson opening doors to me everywhere. Australian and New Zealand Trade Unions have sponsored this most recent leg of my journey, and I can already feel a warm ‘Welcome in the hillsides’ awaiting me as I prepare to bring Robeson’s inspiring story ‘Home Again To Wales’.
For more information on the tour visit here.
Photo credits requested.