Sofitel Hotel, Collins Street, 5pm
A small girl stands in the front row of her primary school classroom in a long school dress with rolled up sleeves and white bobby socks. She beams with excitement as she belts out her Cyndi Lauper version of Advanced Australia Fair. She sways her hips in time with the wah wah of the keyboard. The music teacher walks slowly along the line of school children one-by-one. She stops in front of the small girl, slowly turns and nods.
This week the painful memory of my first musical rejection at age eight came back to haunt me. I was going to spend an evening with a choir – where there was a distinctly awful possibility I would have to sing.
But Melbourne Sings is no ordinary choir. Launched by talented soprano singer Tania de Jong in 2009, the choir has over sixty members who are from a hugely diverse range of cultural, social, age and economic backgrounds.
Tania started Melbourne Sings because she wanted to build a community where music was the uniting focus. Every week the choir meets to sing, eat, chat and make unlikely friendships. Their philosophy is that everyone can sing and everyone should have the opportunity to be a part of a community.
Quite suddenly, a song sheet was thrust into my hands and the rehearsal began. Conductor Shaun Islip fired up We Are the World and there was little else I could do except let the little Cyndi Lauper in me live again.
Shaun Islip: Melbourne Sings conductor
The choir first started when Tania de Jong sang at the Collingwood housing estates and Clive Scott, the general manager of the Sofitel, handed out food.
Tania mentioned the choir was starting and we just got a huge response from everyone there. We started off with forty people, a large contingent of those were Chinese migrants, some West Papuans, some Sofitel staff and some people from the CBD.
Clive Scott provides the venue, a fantastic buffet and the piano for rehearsals. The songs we have chosen are very simple songs. The Chinese are incredibly conscientious and are usually the first people to go away and learn all the words and then sing without song sheets.
Tania de Jong: Melbourne Sings founder
The choir was a bit of an experiment. The more diversity we can get in it, the more it works. The more the diverse nations, age groups, wealth, the more you can break these things down, and you realise we are the same. We all have hopes and dreams and we have a responsibility to find a sense of self and place in the world. Even if you’ve come from difficult circumstances or you don’t have a job, you can come and sing and there’s hope.
Abrar Kather: choir member
I am a Hazara Afghani. For my first six months in Australia, I was quite isolated because I was sad about what has happened to me and my family. I had no family or friends here and it was very hard for me to adjust. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre was looking after me and they told me about singing in the choir.
I love arts and music, but I’ve never had the chance to sing because there are many fundamentalists in Afghanistan and we weren’t allowed. I have been thinking about human emotions in cultural diversity and how all the emotions are here in a single choir.
The beauty of singing is that it lifts you up and keeps you going. When I listen to We Are the World, the music gives you hope and lifts you up, because it reminds us we are trying to make this world a beautiful place.
Berenice de Silva: choir member
I’m very afraid of the scare tactics that are being spoken about by both sides of politics at the moment about asylum seekers. It’s my view that everyone has the right to apply for asylum, what scares me is the racism from the politicians. I come from a Jewish background and I know what happened in the holocaust, so when people start talking about being scared of people that are different, I don’t like it. The choir is a way of counteracting that fear. When we all go out to sing, the audience sees such a mixture of people and we are all getting in standing side by side, it helps to allay these fears.
Nathalie Mbala: choir member
I’ve been involved for over a year in the choir. I have moved here from Cameroon and the choir is my new community. Western countries have reputation for being very individualistic, but we are all helping each other here.
I have four children. When you sing you really switch off, it’s like you are in childhood again. It’s my own time for me to be myself, to be a little child who gets to play.
Melbourne Sings meets every Tuesday at 5pm at the Sofitel Hotel on Collins Street. If you would like to join Melbourne Sings contact Creativity Australia.