If this year’s festival were a race war, right now the dark-skinned brothers and sisters would be winning! I write the morning after attending the all-Aboriginal concert Murundak (Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House). Without being so named, curatorially, this massive, inspiring joyful celebration of survival against odds, with a suitably sharp sting in its tail, serves as the third segment of a fabulous trilogy that has also included Cannot Buy My Soul (Kev Carmody tribute concert) and Ngapartji Ngapartji (Big hArt’s theatre piece still running at Belvoir Street Theatre).
Together, these three events have formed one of the most potent threads of this incredibly powerful festival which, while crammed with amazing one-off events, is even more significant for its cumulative, culture-shifting potency. A good festival, by definition, is greater than the sum of its parts, but rarely is one taken on such an emotional ride. By that I don’t just mean a bunch of feelings, rather lifted up and taken to a new place. In ourselves and as a community.
This Festival has been fortuitous in the timing, coming in so close after the departure of the Howard government. In this fresh context, it takes on more of the character of a celebration rather than a fight. We have hope. Though hope is only hope. I would like to point out that while we are still high on the arrival of the Rudd government, its first action in the area of culture and the arts is to slash the very funding program that could have taken Murandak to the London International Festival of Theatre later this year (to which the show has been invited), where at least ten prominent producers from other parts of the world were planning to check out it out. I wonder if our new Arts Minister, Peter Garrett, who was in the audience last night, is aware of this fact. So far as I understand, he has not been taking calls from several sources who are wishing to alert him to this unfortunate circumstance.
Back to the festival at hand.
There is much more Australian content than we are used to, yet that has not resulted in any dumbing down of the standard of work. For too long Festivals have been seen by their curators as a chance to demonstrate to the locals what our own artists are not yet able to achieve. And in some genres that remains true. But this festival exposes the truth that we can create a fabulous three-weeks of artistic adventure - that is both fun and meaningful - if we look beyond what we are ‘meant to admire’ and to include ‘what we do best’.
About the show last night!
There are some dazzling youngsters in the line-up of the so-named Black Arm Band, who together create Murundak. In particular Dan Sultan and Ursula Yovich, both stand outs on the night. Impressive also was Bob Maza’s daughter, Rachel Maza-Long, who served as our gracious host.
There were performers across all ages, creating another occasion for ‘family’, whole family. A big man, Kutcha Edwards, placed photographs of his parents on the stage and told us how all six of their kids, including himself, were ‘taken away’ before singing, emotions spilling over, Is This What We Deserved - one of several new songs commissioned for this show. Ruby Hunter and Archie Roach sang beautifully, separately and together: Roach’s dark sad narratives once again dragged above the plimpsoll line of melancholy into the realm of beauty by his own hard-worn wisdom; and then there was Ruby’s light-as-air tenderness. Hunter, crowned in exotic head-dress, remains a mystery of nature, more Ariel-spirit than flesh.
Despite time catching up with him, that great elder of the Aboriginal folk-protest form, Jimmy Little, delivered a number of classic songs - as smooth as silk, as ever, and straight from the heart.
Without wanting to sound too politically correct here (heaven forbid), White people in this country have been most fortunate that the qualities of compassion and forgiveness form part of the broader commitment to family and country within Aboriginal culture. And song - the most peaceful of all strategies - has been the other vehicle (alongside resistance and peaceful protest) by which grieving has been processed and change brought about.
While everyone in the concert could be cited for their good work, this would mean running through the contributions of close to thirty artists. But one has to mention the particularly beautiful singing from Shellie Morris, Emma Donovan and Lou Bennett, among the female performers; and Mark Edwards virtuosity on the didgerdoo.
The theme of the night was clearly the ongoing matter of survival and resistance; but it ended on a conciliatory and hopeful note delivered in the form of the only non-indigenous work: Ursula Yovich's overwhelmingly beautiful rendition of Over The Rainbow. Well, kind of non-indigenous. This special version, which includes the melding of lyrics from What a Wonderful World, was first created by the exquisitely voiced Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole who died in 1997 - like so many Aboriginals - way too young.
The good thing is that we do not have a race war on our hands but, in fact, as part of this festival, we have actually encountered another step towards reconciliation. Among the Whitefellas who formed orchestral backup there was some knockout trombone playing from Shannon Barnett. And on piano, from Papua New Guinea, Aaron Choulai was a revelation. There as much joy to be found throughout the evening in the celebration of pure musicality.
Of course we Whitefellas sometimes also have grieving to do. And today it comes after news of the death of Heath Ledger, aged a mere 28. You will all have heard enough about this by now. What an artist we have lost. But loss is part of all our lives: in fact, without death, however untimely, life means nothing. I shall pick up this point in my next ‘e-pistle’ which, in an attempt to catch up on too much going on, will look at the Triffids concert. Several days have gone past since that most interesting encounter which paid homage to the writing of founding member, chief songwriter and the band’s primary ‘voice’, Dave McComb. Who also died too young!
I could add that the sound was poor. It was difficult to hear a lot of the words. That didn't matter to the Kooris in the audience who knew every artist and seemingly every line of every song. Still, as I have mentioned many times in the past, the room (given the Concert Hall's unusual shape) is impossible to wire for sound. But against that, was the ground-breaking honour bestowed upon the artists in being invited to perform together on the most prestigious stage in Australia. Kutcha Edwards wished his parents were there to see how far he'd come. Indeed, how far we all have journeyed towards reconciliation - and we will continue on!
Images of Murundak courtesy Arts House