A gay mens’ choir member has spoken movingly of the darkest times of his life when he lost beloved close friends and neighbours to the AIDS virus crisis of the 1980s.
Cardiff singer Nigel Lewis, 63, who grew up in Bridgend, vividly recalled the heartbreak of seeing men in the prime of their lives physically and mentally deteriorate as AIDS and HIV ripped through whole communities.
Among the thousands of victims of the virus was a near neighbour called Graham from ‘across the road’ who Nigel recalled suffered tortuous feelings of desolation and alienation compounding the physical ailments of AIDS.
Now Graham and the others who fell victim to the disease are being commemorated as part of an innovative heritage project.
Nigel’s honest, open reflections are among those of fellow choristers who have helped create an evocative new song paying tribute to all those in Wales who died during the AIDS epidemic.
It’s one of 10 songs that will appear on an album called Unlocked (Datgloi in Welsh) that was commissioned by the charity, Live Music Now Wales, involving five different communities across Wales.
The aim was to strengthen their connections with their local areas through song at a time when the world was in lockdown.
Others taking part include refugees in Cardiff, care home residents in Anglesey, school pupils in Gwynedd, care leavers in Swansea and men in Bridgend.
According to Nigel, many had also endured prejudice, discrimination and even rejection by their families and friends during the AIDS epidemic.
The song, This Tree, This Man, has been written by Cardiff singer and musician Jordan Price Williams in collaboration with the award-winning choir, the South Wales Gay Mens’ Chorus.
The song, which also drew inspiration from the ‘Red Ribbon’ AIDS Memorial Tree in Gorsedd Park, Cooper’s Field, Cardiff, is available to download through Live Music Now Wales.
All the songs are inspired by differing aspects of Welsh culture and heritage.
Live Music Now is the UK’s leading musicians’ development and outreach charity specialising in bringing outstanding music experiences to vulnerable groups.
Last year marked its 30th year in Wales and this project is a key part of its anniversary celebrations.
Live Music Now Wales director Claire Cressey said the album is an especially significant achievement given that it was produced during the challenging period of a national lockdown.
She said: “All the musicians did exceptionally well to produce such original, powerful and expressive songs while confronted with the emotional and practical difficulties posed by the Covid-19 lockdown.”
She said the project, supported with a £10,000 grant from the Welsh Heritage Lottery Fund, had a two-fold benefit. It gave much needed work to struggling musicians unable to perform live during pandemic restrictions, and it has created a lasting musical record reinforcing stories of local heritage and emphasising the value of community.
Jordan, 31, who was one of five musicians involved in the project, said though there were extra challenges having to complete the project while in lockdown.
He explained: “In one way it echoed some of the anxieties and fears that were ever present during the height if the AIDS crisis. But of course there were stark differences too. The determination of the whole world to throw everything possible at fighting COVID-19 was not there with AIDS. In many quarters it seems there was almost an attempt to brush the virus off as a ‘gay disease’ which didn’t really affect the wider community.”
Jordan confessed that until working on the Live Music Now Wales project he had not fully appreciated what the gay community of previous generations went through.
He said: “As a younger man living in a more tolerant era we enjoy legal rights and freedoms which were simply not there in the seventies and eighties. It is only through talking to some older members of the chorus that I have gained a greater understanding of how much they suffered and the isolation these men felt.”
Jordan researched his song via online group sessions with the choir and he also conducted some one to one interviews via video conferencing sessions.
He said: “These were hugely helpful and offered some less effusive personalities a chance to open up and talk about their feelings on a more personal level.
“In regards to the Red Ribbon AIDS Memorial Tree, what struck me most is that as a gay man in 2021 I had never really given it much thought. Many of my generation are not even aware of its existence never mind its huge significance.
“That’s why I wanted it to be central to the song. The idea that people can walk by that tree and not know how much it means to so many people within the community, that is a measure of how society has changed. We must never forget the reasons why this tree, this memorial is there.”
Retired BT engineer Nigel remembers the tree being planted in 1994 by Cardiff man Mike Phillips and his friend Martin Nowaczek.
Nigel said: “Mike is now in his fifties having lived with HIV for many years, but Martin died, aged just 27, not long after the young sapling was planted. It is now a fully mature tree. The idea was always that it would be a place where people could come and remember lost loved ones and on World AIDS Day red ribbons are tied to the tree in their honour.”
Nigel ties a ribbon for his own lost friends, including Graham Fleetwood, who Nigel only discovered had been diagnosed with AIDS when he met him at their local hospital.
He said: “I had gone there to get tested, which I still do regularly to this day. I saw Graham sitting in the waiting room. I asked how he was and he said ‘not good Nige, I’ve got AIDS’. It was such a terrible shock. I had no idea. He said no one knew and he made me promise not to tell anyone. I could see the sense of loneliness and isolation was agonising and that was in addition to the virus itself.
“He only lived across the street and I’d had no idea what he must have been going through. He was such a lovely, quiet, unassuming man. When it was his 50th birthday I took him a cake. I told him if ever he needed anything to call me any time, don’t hesitate, but not long after he was gone.”
Choir chair Craig Stephenson, 57, said the age range of the Chorus varies from members in their twenties to their seventies.
He said: “We are a welcoming safe space and we are an audition-free choir.”
Craig grew up in Barry and has been based in the Cardiff area for many years and recently retired from his job as Director of Engagement with the Senedd Cymru/Welsh Parliament.
In the 2021 New Year Honours he was awarded an OBE for services to the Senedd and also for his work promoting equality and diversity.
Like Nigel, he also recalls some of the dark times of the eighties and knows of people who lost a number of friends.
He said: “The freedoms we have now were hard won and the fight to gain such rights shouldn’t be forgotten. That’s one reason why we were so pleased to work with Jordan and create this new song.
“He is a fine musician who has captured the essence of the story behind the tree. We’d all love to work with him again on similar projects in the future.”
Jordan also worked with another Cardiff based group – The Oasis Refugee Centre – to produce his second song, titled I Have a Story.
Other tracks on the album were written by accomplished musicians Angharad Jenkins, of Swansea; John Nicholas, of Bridgend; Tom Owen, of Anglesey; and Patrick Rimes of Bethesda.
The Unlocked album can be downloaded for free but there is also an option to make a donation in return for the download. All contributions will help future Live Music Now projects and aid developing musicians of all ages across Wales.
The charity is also planning to release some accompanying short videos about the community organisations and projects which inspired each song. The album was recorded at Cobra Music Studios, Newport.
The Unlocked (Datgloi) songs are:
Dyma Cariad – produced with help from Glanrhos Care Home
Sunbeam Sublime – produced with help from Denise Reagan of Anglesey
Just another day – produced with Bridgend Ironworks/ASD Unit
Alright on the night – produced with Maesteg Town Hall/Men’s Shed
Rosehill Quarry – as title, produced with the quarry organisation
Roots Foundation – as title, produced with the foundation members
Jordan Price Williams
This Tree, This Man – produced with SWGMC
I have a story – produced with Oasis Refugee Centre
Creigia Top Deiniolen (rocks above Deiniolen) – produced with Ysgol Brynrefail, Llanrug
Morio (seafaring) – produced with Meddyg Care Home, Criccieth