Singing for liberation


By Angela Matheson

SYDNEY — What kind of a choir do you get when the singers have as much say in musical arrangement as the director, and when the repertoire is exclusively about liberation struggles, feminism and ecology?

The simple answer is the Solidarity Choir, formed in 1987 to sing the anthem "Nkosi Sikelel'i Afrika" (God Bless Africa) in Sydney when Oliver Tambo, then president of the African National Congress, toured Australia.

But members of this 100-strong choir, now approaching its fifth anniversary, say running a non-hierarchical, democratic, a cappella group which draws its repertoire from Aboriginal culture, East Timor, Korea, South Africa, Ireland, the Philippines, China and Latin America is anything but simple.

Member Miguel Heatwole, who, on behalf of the choir has recently tracked down a lost song written and sung by the suffragists at street marches and rallies, says, "There's no doubt that musically we're inferior, because many of our singers are amateur, but our international sound and repertoire are unique. We never perform anything that isn't strongly connected to left-wing politics, and the multicultural flavour can't be found in any other Australian choir."

In other choirs, he says, there is little discussion of repertoire — it's up to the director to choose — and in rehearsal there is no input from singers and conductor. The Solidarity Choir, by contrast, actively breaks down barriers between singers, musical arrangers and conductors. The repertoire and arrangements are debated weekly at rehearsal, and sometimes members decide to change an arrangement or even rewrite words.

When the choir performed "The Ballad of 1891, a song about the shearers' strike, the original words, "When they jail a man ..." were amended to become gender neutral: "When they jail someone ...".

"These words probably weren't sexist in the original, but over time that's what they've become", says member Helen Jarvis.

Choosing what to sing is sometimes a hot issue. During the Gulf War, conflict arose when some members wanted to perform pacifist songs at the antiwar rally at the Domain while others wanted liberation songs. The group decided its overwhelming commitment was to support the struggles of liberation movements around the world and voted to sing liberation songs.

Since its early days when members were drawn from the left-wing Afro-Latin band, the Mambologists, and the Gay Liberation Quire, the choir has become open to anyone who wants to sing liberation music. As a result, it is in constant flux. Up to 500 people have passed through the organisation, with a hard core of members whose involvement stretches back over hundreds of performances.

Over the years the choir has supported Central American struggles, national liberation and indigenous people's struggles, gay liberation, community action groups and trade unions. It has sung for a 10,000 strong crowd at the 1989 Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras party and on the Opera House steps for Nelson Mandela's 1991 visit, and in Canberra to protest against Aidex.

The choir is currently arranging a Chinese liberation song sung in Tienanmen Square during the student uprising. "It takes ages to get something in another language like this up to standard", says Heatwole, "but we manage by having groups come in to teach us how to sing them, or sometimes we learn from cassettes".

The group has just produced its second tape, which will be on sale at the choir's fifth anniversary celebration on April 4. Up to 100 members, past and present, will be performing their favourites at the event, to which the public is invited. Other performers that night will include Ricardo Andino, Arameida, Peter Hicks, Alistair Hulett, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir and the Trade Union Choir.

Entry is by donation, and proceeds will go to help finance the film Terra Nullius, the story of a Koori woman, by Aboriginal film maker Anne Pratten-Warrell. At the Waterside Workers' Federation hall, 60-66 Sussex St, from 6.30 p.m.