Solidarity Choir to celebrate 10 years
By Miguel Heatwole
SYDNEY — The Solidarity Choir will be celebrating its 10th anniversary and launching a new CD on Sunday, April 13, with a benefit concert for Tranby Aboriginal Training College. The event, at Redfern Town Hall from 2pm to 8pm, will also include the Sydney Trade Union Choir, Vento Del Sud, the Mudlarks & the Born Again Pagans. Admission $10 and $5 concession — kids free.
For the last 10 years, the Solidarity Choir has met every Thursday evening to practice lifting our voices for the left. This we have now done at hundreds of community events, protests, public meetings, conferences, street marches, folk festivals and fundraisers.
It has been a decade of friendship and community as we sought harmony and equality among ourselves, and in this 10-year song of solidarity, each person, whether they remained with us for long or only briefly, has held their part in an important musical struggle for justice and humanity.
The Solidarity Choir started in 1987 when Oliver Tambo, then president of the African National Congress, visited Australia on a speaking tour. In Sydney an anti-apartheid activist, Odile Le Clezio, brought together ANC members and Australian supporters to form a choir to sing the anthem "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" (God Bless Africa) at a public meeting in the Sydney Town Hall.
The choir learned a number of other freedom songs for the event, and afterward its members decided to continue singing together. (The new CD contains three South African songs, plus a medley which is often a big finisher at our gigs.)
The choir's early members were drawn from the ANC, the Mambologists (a prominent left-wing Afro-Latin band) and the Gay Liberation Quire. Before long it became, as it now is, an organisation open to anyone with the desire to sing our kind of music and a free Thursday night.
The composition of the group is continually changing (new members join almost every week), and there is a core of members whose involvement stretches back over dozens, even hundreds, of rehearsals and performances.
The CD being launched on April 13 was put together from live and studio recordings made between 1991 and 1996.
It begins with a song of struggle that turned 100 in the same year that our choir was born. "The International" is a working people's anthem whose words were written shortly after the Paris Commune of 1870 by one of its members, Eugene Pottier. Pottier's poem was set to music some years later by Pierre Degeyter. The interesting counterpoint we use is Englishman Alan Bush's rearrangement of Degeyter's original piano accompaniment.
Some of the other songs on the CD:
"Mantaku" means "our land" in Pitjantjatjara. When Uluru was handed back to its traditional owners on October 26, 1985, the women of the Ernabella Land Rights Choir gave this song its premiere performance.
"Foho Ramelau" and "Kolelemai" are settings of poems by a Maubere independence leader, Francisco Borja da Costa, who was killed the day his newly independent country fell to Indonesia.
"Yim Eul Wihan Hengchingok", or "March for the Beloved", was written by Paek Ki Won in his South Korean prison cell to commemorate the student demonstrators who were murdered by the military dictator Chun Doo Hwan at Kwangju in 1980.
"Xue Ran Di Feng Tsai" originated as a patriotic Chinese army but was appropriated by the students and workers demonstrating in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.
"Tzuúl Tacá" was taught to us by Leonora Orellana, a Guatemalan musician residing in Brisbane who learned it from composer Antonio Vidal.
From Ireland, we have Tommy Makem's "Four Green Fields" and "Bánchnoic éireann ó", the latter a song of exile from those who emigrated to escape the potato famine.
In 1915 an IWW organiser was inspired by the Kanawha Valley coal strike in West Virginia to write new words to an old US Civil War tune, "John Brown's Body", and the result has endured in the union movement ever since as "Solidarity Forever".
In 1912, during a massive strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a woman mill worker carried a placard which read "We Want Bread! And Roses Too!!" The strike inspired James Oppenheim to write the poem "Bread And Roses".
At the same time, thousands of women in England were marching for the right to vote, keeping in step by singing "The March of the Women", composed by musician and suffragette Ethel Smyth.
In Italy too, women were raising their voices to defend their rights. "La Lega Créscera" is a traditional song that was arranged by one of our choir's first directors, Ricardo Andino. Ricardo also arranged "Bella Ciao".
"I Feel Like Going On" is a moving piece in the African-American tradition that came to us from the singing of Ysaye Barnwell on a recording by Sweet Honey in the Rock.
Songs from Australian history on the CD include "Moreton Bay", "The Ballad of 1891" and Paul Kelly's song, "Maralinga".
We close with "The Way Old Friends Do". We learned this song by request of the 1989 Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras committee to sing at that year's celebration.
It isn't a sad song really. But it reminds us how badly we need the support of each other. The world today is full of that same need for compassion, for solidarity. Where love for others is the basis of our politics, and our voices combine to express it, I can think of nothing more beautiful!