An uplight at the front of the stage glows red under a layer of sand. Sweeping the red dirt from the light, it transforms into an outback campfire and the audience is immediately transported to another time, place and culture.
The light dims and the image of a soaring eagle appears, projected onto a huge screen, as Trevor Jamieson sings the hauntingly beautiful Far Away Home/Gungalaira, written for the film Tracker by Rolf de Heer.
Minutes later I am totally transfixed as Lou Bennett's powerful voice, backed by subline, soul-rending harmonies, sings me back to country; the sensation is so strong I can smell the eucalyptus-scented woodsmoke and feel the dust being kicked up by the rhythmically dancing feet on the screen behind.
This is dirtsong, an experience of Aboriginal song, culture, language and spirit, performed by the incredibly talented Black Arm Band, whose membership brings together some of the cream of Australian musical talent from every corner of the country, at different times including Lou Bennett, Stephen Pigram, Deline Briscoe, Dan Sultan, Shane Howard, Archie Roach, Greg Sheehan, Mark Atkins and Emma Donovan.
As the mood lifts and falls, the images behind the screen reveal its different people and places, bringing a bittersweet view of Australia, highlighted by phrases and quotes from author Alexis Wright, whose Miles Franklin-winning work was the original inspiration for the piece.
dirtsong makes a statement about the loss of so many Aboriginal languages, as well as the associated community ties. It is performed in 11 different languages - a vast number in our English-only culture, but a mere drop in the ocean of the hundreds that were spoken in Australia before European settlement. It is a joy to be reminded of the talent this nation holds; the didgeridoo solo performed by Mark Atkins is nothing short of extraordinary, and a joyful video of children shimmying at a school disco forms a delightful backdrop to one of the more up-beat songs, which blends jazz, rock and country with a joyful mix of movement.
Originally created as part of the 2009 Melbourne Festival, it is being performed this year to mark the 20th anniversary of the Mabo Land Rights decision.
Get to see it if you can. It'd be un-Australian not to and it's a great way to celebrate the historic decision and aboriginal culture.
The Black Arm Band Company presents
In association with Melbourne Recital Centre and PBS 106.7FM
Original text: Alexis Wright
Conception and stage direction: Steven Richardson
Venue: Melbourne Recital Centre
Date: Saturday 1 September 2012 -- 7:30 pm
For more information see www.blackarmband.com.au.