Early History – 20th Anniversary Speech

Miguel Heatwole’s speech for the Solidarity Choir’s 20th Anniversary.

Twenty years ago tonight the Solidarity Choir gathered on the stage of the Sydney Town Hall to sing against the hateful, racist system of apartheid in South Africa. The occasion was a visit, sponsored by APHEDA by Oliver Tambo, president of the African National Congress who was touring the world and gathering support for his people’s struggle for freedom and dignity.

It was chiefly to sing a beautiful anthem adopted by the ANC in 1912 called Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika that the choir was brought together to sing. I’d like to invite anyone here tonight who sang at that first gig to raise their hand and say their name.

I am not an original member of the choir, but I remember how, even from my distant balcony seat at the back of the hall, how passionate and electrifying the choir’s performance of that song had been. I feel sure that when we sing Nkosi at the end of tonight it will be again, passionate and electrifying.

Passionate and electrifying. Exactly what Oliver Tambo’s speech that evening was not. In my own speech tonight I will not be listing in full the organisations that the Solidarity Choir has sung for… trade unions… peace marches…. community centres …. national liberation movements…gay and lesbian organisations ….people held in detention centres….

But to return to the origin story: the choir’s members were drawn from a variety of sources including the ANC itself, anti-apartheid activists, APHEDA, the Gay Liberation Qwire and The Mambologists, a ten member Afro Latin dance band – whose music we’ll have the chance to dance to at the end of the evening.

As I said, I wasn’t there at the outset, but the minutes of our 1991 AGM recount how the first rehearsals began in February 1987, under the leadership of Ricardo Andino, Roger Ellis and Paul Van Ryke. The repertoire was learned in two months at the impressive rate of 3 or 4 songs per night. I recall a conversation years ago with one of the original members who told me that after the choir had decided to continue beyond the first gig, as a permanent institution, the relentless pace of its rehearsals used to serve as a kind of audition – meaning that new members needed considerable skill to join in and keep up with what was going on.

Being soft-hearted lefties the choir was never able to embrace the politics of exclusion. When, in December 1987, I made the decision that would determine the future course of my life, it was a simple matter of turning up on a Thursday night. And so it has always been.

Our policy of inclusiveness has never been seriously questioned within the choir. For all that differing musical standards among our members may at times have challenged us as individuals the high quality of our music when, collectively, we’ve taken it to the public – live, or on any of our three albums – I think vindicates our underlying message, that neither music, nor politics is an exclusive preserve of the elite, and that the voice of community is worth hearing.

I’m not sure why it took me eight months to join the newly formed Solidarity Choir – I’d previously been keen to join the Gay Liberation Quire, after seeing it perform at a demo for Central America. I changed my mind on that one, eventually realising that, in Ken Davis’ words “It would be a little like being the only goy in an all Jewish choir.”

As a young man in my twenties with wide interests and driven to no particular career, I saw countless possible paths leading off to the horizon, if only I were prepared to travel one of them with a lifetime of energy. Among the many alternatives I felt strongly attracted to were: Western choral music – whose intense beauty was too often wrapped around religious texts which I utterly reject – and Human rights, whose claim upon a person can never be joyful, yet cannot morally be resisted. I did enjoy language, both my own and that of other cultures. So I very soon appreciated that the Solidarity Choir’s international repertoire of freedom songs blended these interests. The realisation only came quite a bit later that my career choice had been made.

We’ve enjoyed some very rewarding relationships with other choirs over the years. The first in my recollection was an ad hoc gathering in 1989 for the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Subsumed in the larger group we had to abandon our uniform colours and dress in black, white and “witty pink” [whatever that means] which earned us the chance to sing in front of a truly vast crowd – about 10,000 partying people, whom we soon joined. I had so much fun that night and felt so loved by the group of us who stayed together until dawn, that I afterwards wonder if someone hadn’t perhaps spiked our drinks with ectasy. Don’t suppose I’ll ever know.

Later that same year, disturbed by the ongoing horrors in South Africa, a choir – who are our guests tonight, the Voices From The Vacant Lot – joined us in organising a fundraising dinner, and a fantastic concert which completely packed out the Waterside Workers Hall. In those days the $2,800 we raised was a lot of money, but another measure of our success was the esprit de corps and the lively singing we shared that night. Regrettably it was to be quite some time before our next joint project, which took place in 2005 when Voices took the lead in organising a concert to raise money for the people of Pakistan after the awful earthquake. We are very proud indeed to have them here tonight with us again.

Nelson Mandela’s first visit to Sydney in 1990 was a stupendous event, and involved ourselves, the Voices From The Vacant Lot, The Café at The Gate Of Salvation and some other groups as well. The thrill of singing for such an immense gathering of people won’t be forgotten by any of us. … although I’ll bet that I’m unique in having actually tried to forget it. You see, I had been down to sing a solo that would lead the choir into a very upbeat tribute to Mandela just at the moment he arrived and tens of thousands of people were going completely wild. It didn’t happen… I won’t say why, but many years on I have managed to let it go and now can share in the general nostalgia.

Twice, in the mid 1990s at the National Folk Festival in Canberra, trade union choirs from all around Australia gathered together to make up the largest massed choir in Australia’s labour history. It was as good as it sounds, ‘though in many ways the informal singing sessions we had in the bar were even better! Smaller events in Sydney, Newcastle, Wollongong and Brisbane followed but were no less exciting or energetic. The body of songs developed in those days remains a strong link among the choirs and we are very pleased to welcome tonight members of the Sydney Trade Union Choir, Blue Mountains Trade Union Choir, Canberra Union Voices, and Victorian Trade Union Choir.

Out of the five or six hundred gigs we’ve done, there are a few that I’d like to call to mind. Some because they were awesome and some because they were awful.

I think I’ll start at the bottom and work up. A great debacle – unrivalled ever since for sheer cacophony – took place on Stonewall Day in 1993. Seriously under-rehearsed we climbed onto the back of a truck near Taylor Square to perform for the rally a song about gay and straight solidarity called All Of Us Together. A few short weeks earlier I’d tasked myself with making a simple two-part arrangement that the choir might quickly learn. However I turned up at the next rehearsal with four parts, and two key changes. Only once has that arrangement ever been accurately sung; in a park several minutes before the gig. I made the elementary mistake [never since repeated] of failing to pull the plug when we abruptly began singing in a variety of different keys. Two or three very uncomfortable minutes later I turned and addressed the crowd’s polite applause, saying “I’m glad the theme of today’s rally is ‘We are family’ because I’d hate to have done that in front of a bunch of strangers!”

For different reasons, the most awful of our gigs ‘though were the memorial and funeral of Donna Burns. Donna was murdered in 1991 before she could see the end of the apartheid system she’d devoted herself to fighting. She loved the Solidarity Choir, but her dedication to the struggle had never left her enough time to join us. I will never understand how her lover was able to speak so clearly and eloquently about her, on that day – it was certainly a struggle for us to sing.

And one violent death in one’s own community teaches us something essential about the enormity of the atrocities going on throughout the world. We’ve often sung at solemn events reflecting the tragedy of terrible losses, like that of Donna, that are suffered on a catastrophic scale by entire nations. A midnight vigil for East Timor during the Indonesian-sponsored violence on the eve of independence was one such. The welcome given to our singing by a community gripped with apprehension and fear for their loved ones was almost tangible that night. I was conducting the choir, my back to the audience, and so wasn’t able to see that the moment we began Foho Ramelau the entire audience rose to its feet.

Strong stuff. It kinda comes with the territory, and yet I do recall one of those very rare occasions when the entire Left throughout the world had a real reason to dance, and sing for joy! When the first democratic elections were held in South Africa, and naturally the ANC won a landslide victory, we were invited to a celebration at the Petersham Town Hall. Thirty of us gathered in a nearby park to warm up and at the appointed time we entered the completely packed hall and sang our way to the stage. The exultant roar that rose up to meet the opening bars of Senzenina was like a drug, a rush of pure triumph…not our triumph admittedly, but it sure felt that way.

Although some of us probably found it difficult to feel triumphant at 5 o’clock one morning in 1998, shivering on the docks at Port Botany, the ultimate failure of the government’s campaign against the Maritime Union of Australia made us feel that our singing on the picket lines, and the solidarity among ourselves, other trade union choirs, and the community of union workers had been a beautiful part of the victory.

It’s natural to remember great events such as these. But I also recall the smallest Solidarity Choir gig in history. As it happened it was my birthday that day and my present to myself was to go stand outside the US Consulate in Martin Place with Mark Westcott and sing Axises Of Evil with him into a shared megaphone.

I’m sure many of us in this room treasure similar small recollections from their lives in the choir – moments when it felt good to stand with, sing with or drink with their comrades. I’m equally sure that we can all recall moments of feeling intensely annoyed with fellow choir members for one reason or another.

So now I’m going to mention the tour. In the northern summer of 2001 two crowded minibuses took 27 people on a tour of England, Ireland and Wales. In one month we did 26 gigs, and we sold so many CDs that we came home with more money in the choir’s account than when we left. Everywhere we went we met fantastic people from choirs similar to ours, impressed them with our music, slept in their homes and probably spent about thirty minutes talking with them. The rest of the time seemed to be taken up with meetings [I won’t call them arguments] about where and when to get back on the buses and drive to the next gig.

The experience taught us two lessons I think. The first would be “never go on tour again.” – or at least not in the same vehicles. The second we learned in Cardiff from Cor Cochion [The Cardiff Red Choir]. These folks were really very impressive. They sounded no better or worse than any other community choir, but what set them apart was the way they took their passion into the streets. They were then nearly 20 years old and had gone out into the streets every single weekend to sing, hand out pamphlets and collect money for various causes – very often for Palestine. It’s an example of activism that we talked about following but never did. Or should I say, haven’t yet. With the approach of the Federal election this year it strikes me that the time is right to get ourselves out to marginal seats and sing for people who don’t already agree with us. After tonight I’m going to take a sabbatical from choir, but when I return in the spring I hope to be part of a new proactive approach to creating political change in this country.

Finally, I want to thank everyone who helped make tonight possible, beginning with you the audience – thank you so much for coming! Thank you Mark, and also Fran for coordinating, Helen for organising the food, Adrian, Maria and Lou for decorations, Terry for publicity, Ann, for taking bookings, and Greg, Tiiu, Carol for the refreshments. Thanks to Peter Miller Robinson for sound, and thanks to APHEDA for staffing the door. Thank you to anyone I missed out who should have been thanked, and above all, thank you to the Solidarity Choir, past and present, for caring about people in distress throughout the world, and making your voices heard so beautifully, so strongly, for so many years.

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