THE STORY OF COMEX IN SONG
'The miles have gone behind us, far away but still remind us
That some journeys have a beginning, but no end;
'Til that final destination, everyman in every nation
Learns to call a wayside brother blessed friend.'
- from Silver Train
This is a story; a story in song of the experiences of 3000 men and women from all over the Commonwealth through the lands of a thousand million people. They are the storytellers. They came from every background and profession as volunteers, prepared to take the risk and adventure. Their most enduring impression was of everyday values: 'words, gestures and actions that uplift the spirits and kindle afresh love and respect for one's fellow human beings.' Their lasting legacy is The Green Pennant Awards 'identifying the spirit of adventure with crossing the barriers that divide people' – perhaps the greatest single challenge of our times. Singing is an unusual medium for telling such a story, but is universally understood, relying only on the sympathetic attitude of the listener towards the countries involved, the countries visited and, ultimately, the challenge facing the Commonwealth.
The United Nations Asian Highway, starting from Bazagan within sight of Mount Ararat, provided the stage – 10,000 miles of it - on which the Commonwealth Expedition, Comex, faced a world audience - marching to the tune of Together Unafraid.
The initial composition of Comex was made up of representatives from Australia, Britain, Canada, India, Pakistan and Zambia. Many more followed. And there were stars of course, not many but enough to be going on with.
Chris Nicholls had an excellent voice, and scored most of the music. His brilliance as a guitarist won him a special place on Comex - before he could move on from Oxford University to Moscow with ICI.
Mary Abendroth was another star. She came to represent her beloved Minnesota armed with a well-worn guitar, and a caressing voice. She returned to the United States with 'a Comex star and two bars!'
Brenda Stevens look leave of the Bank of England to serve Queen and Commonwealth; her vivid personality and singing will long be remembered.
Norman Leigh was destined for the British Council from Exeter University; but not before he had proved himself on Comex which he did three times: as a driver; a confident member of the choir, and as a contingent leader with a love of versifying when other forms of communication failed.
Celia Congdon was a teacher with an interest in choral singing, but there was little scope for a beautiful voice in a classroom. So it was the long dusty road for her too.
Jane Boston had theatrical ambitions. She could also play the guitar, sing and act with enthusiasm. Her authoritative personality on stage was a bonus, and she was readily adopted by the Heritage Singers of Zambia.
Paul Truby, the musical son of a musical father at Dartington School in the county of Drake, was still a sixth former when he decided to fly the nest and take to the road with Comex. And there were many more - not only from the home country of the Head of the Commonwealth.
Kamal Kant Sharma was a tabla player with a profound knowledge of Indian classical music. He played with the touch of feathers and the speed of butterfly's wing, and could perform exotic rhythms to enhance the quality of singing – good and bad!
Promod Shanker learnt to play the sarod from the father of Amjad Ali Khan – or, at least, was inspired by him. He set aside a promising career as an accountant to honour the home countries of the sarod.
John Mwesa came from a singing family in Zambia. As a director in the Department of Higher Education, he was summoned by his president, Kenneth Kaunda, and instructed to represent the African continent on Comex 10 with the Heritage Singers.
Chris Brown-Syed claimed his place on Comex as a representative of the largest country in the Commonwealth, armed with a young voice and an old guitar, before moving on to Australia for further studies, and then to the University at Buffalo where he was invited to organise a seminar on 'the little green flags'.
The late Stephen Burnett, also from Ontario, was a jazz pianist, and therefore the obvious choice to arrange the music for the Comex musical, KENAKI - based on a 16,000 miles train-ride through the subcontinent on the Commonwealth Express, Comex 9 - that made him the first man to conduct such an event on the platforms of the India.
Kenneth David Kaunda (Speaking as President of Zambia): 'The language of Africa is the language of song and dance. Many people have contributed to these songs - myself included - representing an adventure across the barriers that divide people. They are unstoppable; unstoppable because they are songs of hope and friendship, and there is no doubt in my mind that songs represent the very best way of embarking on that adventure. (Brief extracts from a speech during The Green Pennant awards at State House, Lusaka).
The main body consisted of a large contingent of lesser stars doing its bit with enthusiasm, and making a noise big enough to drown the bum notes whenever they intruded on the reputation of the stars. When the tempo dropped, which it often did, Greg (Lionel Gregory) seized his moment with a spectacular bit of leadership on the Iranian Zarb, or beat the hell out of a Nepalese madal - or a South Indian Madungum.
Credit belongs to all, not only for their unselfish, and unfailing cheerfulness - whatever the circumstances - but because without them there would have been no story to sing about. And as the quality of their singing improved (carried eventually into the Royal Albert Hall) large numbers turned out to greet them. Even the stars looking down on the deserts in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, twinkled with approval – and there was never a hostile act.
But when the multi-talented Kevin Lacy was persuaded to dress up as a Sikh and declaim 'The Long Dusty Road' in the presence of several thousand of his adopted brothers, a great thunder of applause rose up to the heavens, and there it surely remains! ( Please note that I did not write this! Ed. )
It is in the name of them all that this story is recorded with affection; authentic in essence and with generous co-operation at home and abroad: from the BBC, CBC, the Zambian National Broadcasting Corporation, All India Radio, the Director of Music of the 2nd King Edward V11's Own Goorkhas and Mactrak of Musselburgh. As a good Brahman, Kamal Kant Sharma reminded us all that 'people like to sing, that is why God gave them voices,' so we prayed for a little inspiration from that direction too. One day this story may reach the remotest corners of the Commonwealth to encourage - in the words of the Head of the Commonwealth - 'the spirit of adventure which is the finest quality of youth,' and by youth Her Majesty did not mean just those who are young in years, 'but all who are young in heart - no matter how old they may be.'