A fine working-class cultural event

October 1, 1997

auth = By Mark Cronin

The ACTU Congress in Brisbane earlier this month achieved little of political importance but it did have an interesting cultural offshoot.

On the eve of the congress, 400 people packed the Culture Bank in West End to hear the Victorian Trade Union Choir, Illawarra Union Singers, the Blue Mountains Union Choir, the Sydney Trade Union Choir, Sydney's Solidarity Choir, Newcastle Union Voices and the Qld Combined Unions Choir in the Choirs to Congress concert.

The concert opened with "There is Power in a Union", followed by the "Internationale". The power of 110 voices delivering Degeyter's revolutionary anthem was palpable. Each choir then performed in turn, doing two or three songs from their own repertoires.

The concert's centrepiece was the new work "Union". Commissioned for the occasion, this intricate composition by Mark Shortis, conductor of the Queensland Combined Unions Choir, had a compressed excitement about it as it moved through four shifts in musical ambience. It began with the word "union" being chanted in strange, compelling harmonies.

The next piece, "Roulette", used gambling images as metaphors for the uncertainty of contemporary working life. It was followed by "Colours", an evocation of the colours, banners and people of a street march which started softly but built to a strident climax with the choir steadily declaiming the last phrase, "people united, we are strong". Musical director Mark Dunbar conducted with great authority and dynamism.

There were many fine moments of performance. The Sydney Trade Union Choir's rendition of Maurie Mulheron's "Four Strong Women", about the East Timor solidarity activists in Britain who disabled jet fighters sold to Indonesia, was very moving. So too was "Mantaku", an Aboriginal song which was sung at the handing back of Uluru. The Solidarity Choir performed it with a spoken English translation which made clear the importance of land to Aboriginal people.

The audience also warmed to poet Geoff Goodfellow and singer songwriter Ruth Apelt.

This fine political, working-class cultural event closed with "Solidarity Forever" of course, replete with triumphant trumpet.

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