My work as a musician obviously intersected with my work as a music teacher. It falls here in my sequence of posts on jobs because of my stint in the production of The Barber of Seville whilst I was studying at the College of Law after I finished my law degree, which I have written about previously. But what I want to write about here is my last paying gig.
On 12 April 2003 I accompanied the choir of the Malek Fahd school at a dinner of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils which was attended and addressed by Mr Howard, the Prime Minister of Australia.
I got this gig through a former colleague who had become the music teacher at the school. Islamic education does not place a particularly high value on music – along with the visual (or at least representional) arts. It is probably fair to say that music (or at least secular music) is traditionally considered to be one of the sins of the flesh or closely associated with them. The school had to have a music department beause that was a syllabus requirement, and my friend was it. He had established a choir, mostly made up of year 7 and 8 students. (Incidentally, most classes and other activities in the school are run on a gender-separated basis: the choir was one of the few which was mixed.)
Initially, the dinner was to be held on Good Friday in the school hall which doubled as a gym. A grand piano was hired for this (the school only had an electric keyboard). Ultimately the date and venue were changed to the Saturday on the eve of Palm Sunday at the Sheraton on the Park Hotel in Elizabeth Street in the city.
All of this was very hush hush: because the Prime Minister was coming, security was involved, but more importantly, so was politics. Whilst the arrangements for the dinner were being made, Australia was taking part in the invasion of Iraq: Saddam Hussein’s statue was famously toppled on 9 April 2007. That military adventure had been objected to in the biggest demonstrations in Australia since the Vietnam war, and the spooks who surround the PM feared that his attendance at the dinner would also provoke more of the same. Consequently, the hotel was swarming with plainclothed security agents (you can recognise them by their earpieces and triangular lapel badges) and SWAT-team-type para-militarily clad police (about 50 discreetly hidden in the hotel basement). All of this was the usual self-glorifying overkill: there was no sign of any demonstration as I walked down from my office carrying my music.
Both sides in this encounter had something to prove. AFIC wanted to demonstrate its normality as a part of Australian society in the face of the usual anti-Muslim scares and waves of vilification; the PM wanted to justify himself and reach out to a not insignificant part of the electorate.
The choir’s choice of songs was part of this. These included “Botany Bay,” Click Go the Shears,” “Waltzing Matilda,” “I still call Australia Home” and “I am, you are, we are Australian.” Musically things were a bit scrappy: some of the boys’ voices had broken, and there was a penumbra of semi-pitched vocalisation which wandered up and down in parallel with the tune but without any precise relationship to it. Obviously there was a mix of non-English-speaking backgrounds, and my friend the choir master himself came to Australia from Eastern Europe. In the strophic songs the arrangement of syllables to fit the tune in the later verses was at times idiosyncratic and often diverse.
The kids were very enthusiastic, and not just because of the excitement of the occasion. The impression of aspiration to dinky-di Aussieness given by the choice of repertoire was sincere: kids are sent to such as school, after all, by their parents, and whatever the sectarian atmosphere of the school, the kids didn’t seem much different from any other kids out Greenacre way. Not that I go so far west very often myself.
After the songs were sung, the kids filed off the stage. Mr Howard shook all their hands, as politicians love to do. I sneaked off the other way to avoid this, but I needn’t have worried: Howard was only interested in sucking up to the kids and didn’t bother with the choirmaster and so presumably would likewise have given me a miss.
Howard’s speech was classic “fistful of dollars” stuff: he reminded the audience that Islamic schools were great beneficiaries of his government’s generous approach to all private/sectarian education, and that is true: Malek Fahd school receives more than any other private school, at least in NSW (or so I recently read). Ameer Ali (I think), the president of AFIC, responded with a speech which touched on the then topical foreign affairs matters. It was a polite speech but a firm one: Islamic people were interested in seeing resolution not just of the Palestinian issue, but also in relation to Kashmir. (That is of course where David Hicks first went: his then lawyer, Stephen Hopper, was also present at the dinner.)
The best music of the night was a year 7 or 8 boy who chanted from the Koran quite brilliantly, though I expect most who were there thought of it as Koran first and music a long long way second.
That was my last gig, and so the last tax year when I have been able to claim either a tax deduction or a GST input credit for having my piano tuned.