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Paul Robeson In New Zealand

Paul Robeson’s Visit To New Zealand
first posted 31 october 2010 on merrilyn hope.com

Did you know that Paul Robeson, the famous Bass-Baritone African-American concert singer, actor and campaigner for equal rights, came to New Zealand in 1960?
Paul Robeson came here with his wife and his pianist, Laurence Brown, known as ‘Larry’. They stayed here for two weeks and four days, during which time Paul sang to a small audience at the Unitarian Church in Ponsonby Road, Auckland, gave a big concert in the Auckland Town Hall, visited Dunedin, and Christchurch, where he spoke to the railway workers, and Wellington, where he spoke to the striking watersiders.

Today is the 31st October, 2010, and it is 50 years to the date when Paul Robeson gave his concert in Auckland. Today, I went along specially to hear the commemorative talk on Paul Robeson at the Auckland Unitarian Church in Ponsonby Road. This turned out to be a thoroughly informative lecture, with accompanying slides and songs. Barbara Holt, who has researched much about Paul Robeson’s life and his visit to New Zealand, presented the lecture.

Unfortunately, no music review was published by either of the two Auckland newspapers on the concert given by Paul Robeson in the Auckland Town Hall on the 31st November 1960.

Racial Discrimination In New Zealand: 1960 was the same year which saw the ‘Allblacks’ discriminating against Maori players, as they wanted an all-white team to take to the apartheid country of South Africa. This meant that controversy was rife: A large anti-tour demonstration was staged down Queen Street, to protest against the proposed all-white team to South Africa.
Paul Robeson wanted to meet Maori people whilst he was here, to support their gaining equal status in this country. He most certainly would have opposed the idea of an ‘all-white’ team for New Zealand to send to South Africa. He also wanted to meet other minority groups such as the watersiders, who were striking in Wellington at the time.

New Zealand newpapers were obviously nervous about publishing anything too much about Paul Robeson: His voice was one which was speaking and singing out about the need for equality between blacks and whites, and of the hardships which black people had, and were, suffering. Paul’s mother had died in a house fire when he was only six years old. This meant an enormous emotional loss was suffered by him, his father, and his six siblings: The financial burden of a solo parent having to provide for a family of seven children at this time was extreme: There was no government hardship grant to help them out, and, generally speaking, African Negroes had a hard time finding decent employment.

Paul Robeson’s voice spoke out for the underdog, the underprivileged, the poor. Paul Robeson was punished for speaking out about racism in America: Recording companies had been authorized not to record him for some time, and he was also forbidden to sing in public places such as Carnegie Hall. He was only allowed to sing in churches, or for his friends, which meant he could not earn his living as a musician or a recording artist. The churches where Paul was welcomed to sing were the ‘Black’ churches, and the Unitarian churches.

We are fortunate that one photograph of the famous bass-baritone concert star was published by the Auckland Star during his visit here: This is a picture of Paul Robeson as he sings to the new born baby of Auckland Mayor Sir Dove-Myer Robinson and his fourth wife. Paul is singing the song “My Curly Headed Baby” which he sang in honour of Sir Dove-Myer’s Jewish heritage.

Paul Robeson had a huge repertoire of songs from all over the world. He had an all-inclusive attitude, and loved to embrace minority groups by singing songs from their cultural heritage.

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