Songs from Northam Avenue

Qanun, oud and Vietnamese zither meet alternative/indie/rock in Bankstown. Does that tweak your curiosity? It did mine.

In a nutshell this album is the product of two artistic residencies undertaken in Bankstown by Toby Martin through Urban Theatre Projects (UTP). Read about the origins of the project here. Listen to the artists interviewed on ABC RN here. Buy the album here. It’s worth every cent and more.

In the radio interview (link above), Martin says that the album isn’t documentary, but to me it feels part documentary, part social and political commentary. The songs talk of local people and places but Martin takes artistic licence with these, diverging from or embellishing truth. Maybe that makes it a musical work of (very recent) ‘historical fiction’? A work where place, people, time and landmarks are important but where the fashioning and telling of a good story through music and lyrics takes precedence. And the stories on the album are of the good sort.

However you define it, there is definitely an element of “observation” to it, but interestingly, Martin was both the observer and the observed. He sat in people’s front yards to write, watched by the locals as they passed by. Occasionally someone would stop, like the man named Lim, who sang Martin a Vietnamese song. Martin notated it the way he heard it and then wrote and arranged a song around it – he named it, “Lim’s Song”.

This might be my favourite track. Musically it is interesting – featuring the Đàn bầu, a Vietnamese single-stringed zither that echoes the vocal melody. Traditionally, (as Dan Lan, the performer, comments in video excerpts shown at the concert at Carriageworks – pictured above) this instrument  is used in songs of heartbreak and longing. Lim’s Song is such a song. But it is also much more. To me this song (and how it came to be) epitomises the beauty and meaning of the whole album – it’s essentially a metaphor for multicultural Sydney, where cultures interact and influence one another and the product of this interaction is something completely new and completely unique, authentic and current.

Another favourite is Olive Tree. A song of displacement, intergenerational disconnect and youth disaffection. It’s a beautiful song that features oud and qanun more prominently, with a big sweeping, longing chorus. The intro to City Central Plaza jumps out and grabs you with Dan Lan on vocals doubling the bended notes coming from the synth –  it sounds a bit like a theremin in the score to an old sci-fi movie – and it’s pretty cool. And you can’t help but smile when listening to Spring Feeling, where a choir of kids join in the chorus, “I’m in love with the world” and “I’m glad I’m not dead”.

Songs from Northam Avenue has been playing pretty much on loop on my phone for the last week. I’ve been reflecting on why I like this album so much. Musically it is interesting. It drew me in as I listened to place the non-Western instruments in the band: the softly spoken oud is heard at the quieter moments at the edges of songs and the ends of phrases; the qanun shines at times with its characteristic melismatic embellishments (at the hands Mohammed Lelo – well-known in local Iraqi/Arabic circles and beyond as a master of the instrument); the various Vietnamese zithers and coin percussion pop out at times and recede at others. Sitting underneath, driving the songs along and articulating them for the listener is drum kit brilliance (by Bree van Reyk). Toby Martin leads the way out front – part singer, part storyteller, part tour-guide as he takes us through songs of place and displacement, belonging, extremism, racism, love, friendship, contentment and more stuff of life.

Ultimately though, I think the reason I like the album so much is because I can see/hear parts of my own stories reflected in it. Having lived most of my life in places very much like Bankstown, this album hit home personally for me. In the radio interview mentioned above, Martin says that the album is not just about Bankstown. I agree. But, while the songs transcend place and time, there is also something very local and very temporal about Songs from Northam Avenue.

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