BY SCOTT LEWINGTON
I first met Melanie Shanahan in Hobart 20 years ago. She had moved down there because of her interest in environmental issues. She was active in Greenpeace in Sydney and, like many other activists, had been inspired by the Save the Franklin River campaign.
Melanie was interested not just in environmental issues, but had developed a strong feminist and social justice consciousness, especially around Aboriginal rights. But it was music that was her passion. She was not only a beautiful singer/songwriter, but an accomplished pianist and guitarist. She was influenced greatly by political singer/songwriters, but especially by Sweet Honey in the Rock, so she decided to form her own choir in Hobart called Arramaieda. She saw how music and activism could be a powerful and positive force for change.
Initially, the group was a nine- or 10-woman choir, but eventually reduced to three. I remember being struck at how far they had come in such a short time. They were playing to packed houses and being played on radio as well as touring the country. Melanie had this great stage presence and was very articulate, talking about the issues that affected her, but was also an amusing storyteller.
Arramaieda's first album, More Ways Than One, went on to become the highest selling a capella album in Australia's history. It was a groundbreaking album and one that influenced many singers.
After seven years, Arramaieda finally called it a day, due mainly to Melanie's ongoing fight with mental illness. She was so sick that she couldn't go on in the same way.
After a period trying to get well, Melanie was invited to Melbourne to sing with well-known a capella ensemble Coco's Lunch. But even though she loved the music, she felt she needed to sing political music again, so she left and joined Akasa.
Akasa's self-titled first album went on to win best song and CD in the US Acapella Association Awards. "Walk with me" was a mini classic, and weekly emails came in from all around the world telling Melanie how this song had affected peoples' lives!
Akasa then recorded another critically acclaimed album, World Citizen — a brilliant recording that had crowds around the country flocking to see them. The title track was written in response to Melanie's horror at how the Australian government treated refugees and the government's drive to war.
Her move to Melbourne immediately had an impact. She went on to direct four choirs, two of which are the accomplished Living Out Loud and Yirriba. She was a highly sought-after singing teacher, the director of the first two annual Boite Millenium Chorus Concerts at the Melbourne Concert Hall.
She was active during the MUA dispute, the S11 blockade of the World Economic Forum in 2000, and in support of refugees. Melanie was also member of the Democratic Socialist Party. She felt the suffering of others deeply and was a profoundly compassionate person.
Despite her illness, nobody who knew Melanie could forget how she would light up a room with her bubbly personality. She never complained about her suffering. She used her musical activism as medicine. This is why it was such a shock to many that she would want to take her own life. Melanie died on December 11, 2003. It was a great loss to us all.
Melanie's funeral was attended by more than 700 people and there was a beautiful memorial concert for her the day after.
On the second anniversary of Melanie's death, a huge benefit gig has been organised, with proceeds going to the Refugee Action Collective, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and Green Left Weekly, as Mel would have wanted. We anticipate that this will become an annual institution, bringing progressive musicians and activists together for a fantastic night each year.
The benefit gig is about bringing together all the people whose lives Mel touched in some way, through her music and her commitment to social justice and community. This is not just a commemoration of her tragic death — it's a celebration of Melanie's life and all that she stood for.
The line-up includes an exciting and diverse range of locally based musicians, who all in one way or another were part of Melanie's life:
- Two of the community choirs Melanie directed, Living Out Loud and Yirriba.
- Well-known Melbourne musicians Valanga Khosa and Andrea Watson.
- Up and coming band Custom Kings, recently returned from a national tour, as heard on Triple J.
- Exciting new 12-piece band The Conch, playing an explosive mix of latin, ska, reggae, funk and world music grooves with a message.
[The Inaugural Melanie Shanahan Memorial Concert for Refugees will be on December 10, 7pm at the Coburg Town Hall, 90 Bell Street, Coburg. $20/$10. Phone Jo on 0425 237 286 or Scott on 0409 162 397.]
From Green Left Weekly, November 30, 2005.
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