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Harry Belafonte Fell Asleep? Not With Me......
Wide Awake and Fascinating
There was no possibility of sleep.
Harry Belafonte was too busy being charming, informative, charismatic, witty, scintillating, brilliant, bright, sagacious and erudite.
But not just with me. With an eager audience of 1499 other people.
Worth the Long Drive
Saturday June 2nd was a slightly rainy, slightly chilly evening in the Welsh border town of Hay-on-Wye.
I looked up at the surrounding hills and inhaled my first proper breath of fresh air since leaving Birmingham some 50 or miles away in the Midlands, UK.
The hills which sheltered us were green and vibrant, the mood in the specially made Writer's Village pulsing with the magical promise of giving life to new literature as creators and readers united.
After a long drive on a seemingly endless Roman road, I was filled with excitement at the thought of seeing screen icon, civil rights activist, performer and all round nice guy, live on stage in little under an hour.
Way Back When
In the 1970s a black person on television was a reason to call relatives in another city and tell them to stop whatever they were doing and 'watch right now,' in case they missed the rare event.
When that black person spoke eloquently, sang like an angel and had the figure and face of an Adonis, never mind that they were in monochrome, it was reason to buy a whole pack of airmail envelopes and notepad and write a letter home to the West Indies to share the news.
Come Back Liza
I was familiar with the Jamaican folk tunes brought to a wider public by Harry and others.
These were melodies that coloured his childhood in the Jamaican countryside where he'd been sent from New York after his father had left his mother.
Songs such as; Coconut Woman, The Banana Boat Song, There's a Hole in My Bucket and Jamaica Farewell had been the songs of my youth too as I'd sung them in primary school assemblies and concerts.
And many years later as a singing teacher I'd taught them to younger generations of eager singers.
But I didn't know that Harry, charged with looking after Marlon Brando's girlfriend whilst they were on a film set, had been so captivated by her that she became his second wife.
A simple lunch date turned into a long-lasting official union that produced good-looking off-spring. He didn't say if Marlon came to the wedding.
I'd been too young at the time to understand black America's battle for civil rights, so when the screened documentary of Harry's life highlighted his gargantuan role in demanding justice for our people, I was rapt.
Here was a man marching next to Dr Martin Luther King Jnr.
Here was a man who encouraged thousands to persevere in hope of a better day.
Here was a man who risked his life as the Klan tailed him down a dark and lonely country road in America's deep south never knowing if he would reach the safe house alive and in one piece..
A Special Man
Here was a man who used his celebrity status for good.
Here was a man whose career was almost ruined because a white woman, Petula Clarke, touched his arm as they sang a duet.
Here was a man whose brilliant television series was cancelled because he refused to bow to bigots who insisted on having a cast of either black or white dancers, not both.
Here was a man who had been unspeakably gorgeous in his youth, distinguished in his middle aged and was now 'walking calmly towards the end of his life,' to use his own words.
And I was sitting only feet away from him.
How else would I know that Harry Belafonte, contrary to that live TV interview, (the one scheduled by an American breakfast news show at a ridiculous hour of the morning - no wonder he fell asleep!) remained totally alert and involved during a wonderful evening of film, music and discussion?
I can honestly say that when Harry spoke with such elegance, grace and compelling magnetism, sleep was the last thing on his mind.