Listening on Australia Day

In the lead up to the January 26 public holiday, my social media feeds were flooded with news articles, opinion pieces, status updates and long threads of back and forth comments. Each item that referenced Australia Day/Survival Day/Invasion Day spoke to the issues of social cohesion, social justice and of the enduring legacy of colonization. I tried to listen to opinions across the whole spectrum of the change-the-date debate and from a variety of voices. As I scrolled and read and processed and scrolled some more, I kept coming back to one thought: that the act of listening, both in and outside of the musical context, was important.

This year I decided the best way to spend the public holiday – the best way I could think of to mark the day as an inclusive national day of significance – was to attend Yabun Festival. From the website: “Yabun Festival is the largest one day gathering and recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures in Australia, held annually on 26th of January upon the traditional lands of the Gadigal people in Sydney. Established in 2001, Yabun (meaning ‘music to a beat’ in Gadigal language) is a free event that features live music, a bustling stalls market, panel discussions and community forums on Aboriginal issues, children’s activities, and traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural performances. Yabun Festival welcomes everyone to join us in this one of a kind event, which honours the survival of the world’s oldest living culture”. Last year 38 000 people attended. This year it certainly felt like a similarly huge number.

I went with my family. By chance we met the Invasion Day march en route to Victoria Park from Redfern as we walked up Broadway from Central Station and joined the river of people flowing up to the park. We meandered through the crowds around the markets and past the different hubs (Corroboree Ground, Jarjums Zone, Speak Out and Elders Tents), grabbed a bite to eat and then settled in front of the main stage for the music. And then we just listened. We sat with thousands of others in the park, and listened to the voices, stories and songs of the Indigenous artists on stage.

We listened to jazz and swing tunes by Johnny Nicol and band; and to the smooth, rich but bright voice of young Neo-Soul/RnB artist Mi-kaisha. We were moved by her set of original songs and her explanations of how she came to write them. Like how she wrote, Tell Me Why as a response to experiencing prejudice at High School, where a teacher had lower expectations of her compared to her non-Indigenous peers.

We listened to Hip Hop crew, Street Warriors rapping in English and in language about survival and pride in culture; and to Jarrod Hickling’s beautiful, booming Country voice that hinted at his Gospel roots. And we listened to the high energy rhymes and beats of Dobby aka Rhyan Clapham, a young artist best known for his rapping and drumming but not bound by these genres or labels alone – he’s just been awarded the 2017 Peter Sculthorpe Music Fellowship for composition. Unfortunately, the afternoon heat got the better of us and we missed the rest of the acts on the main stage.

As passive an act as it seems, listening itself, whether it be to songs, stories, speeches or perspectives, can be a form of activism. It can be a meaningful show of support and solidarity for a community or movement. Sometimes listening might be a comfortable and predictable experience, reinforcing what you already know and like. Other times it might be a challenging and even transformative experience – it can be educative also, bringing a new awareness or deeper understanding. More importantly, though, a quiet, intentional, focused listening can be an act of recognition and respect. And that seems, to my mind, a good place to start on Australia Day.

First published in The Music Trust’s Loud Mouth Magazine here

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