Soundlands: relevance and inclusion in art music

Originally published on The Music Trust’s E-Zine, LOUDMOUTH.

Two shows down and two to go… At the time of writing, we are at the half-way point in Soundlands: art music in the suburbs – a series of art music concerts highlighting culturally diverse musicians and music from Bankstown and beyond.

Soundlands as a concept is really just an evolution of earlier concerts I’d produced, like Crossings: Songs from the East, where first-generation Australian musicians originally from Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Greece, all professional artists in their original homelands, pulled together shared musical threads to weave a new contemporary Australian musical picture.

This project, Soundlands, was born through conversations with Vandana Ram, Director of Bankstown Arts Centre, about 18 months ago. We share some core values that made it easy to collaborate: the importance of local relevance in any arts and cultural offering, as well as a commitment to inclusion and to programming that is reflective of our plural cultural make-up as a society. Bankstown, as a region where it is estimated over 200 languages are spoken, felt like a natural home for a series intended to highlight this kind of diversity.

Concert #1 in the series featured the Zela Margossian Quintet. Variously described as “Armenian folk-jazz”, “ethno-jazz” or a “fusion of folk and jazz with traditional Armenian musical influences”, it’s hard to place a neat label on it. And to be honest, even the label “culturally diverse” when describing her music does Zela a disservice. Zela’s music rises above all of these labels. Her music is her own – a product of her unique experiences as well as her artistic and expressive choices.

Zela Margossian Quintet composer and pianist at Soundlands: art music in the suburbs. Image credit: Christopher Woe Photography.

Zela’s music has found a warm embrace in the Sydney jazz scene – deservedly. She also has deep connections and enjoys strong support from the Armenian-Australian community. This isn’t at all surprising of course. But it’s not merely a matter of pride in culture with these fans; Zela’s music and her experience as an artist is relevant to so many people who share a lived experience of being bi-cultural, being first-gen or of having more than one homeland.

Concert #2 featured the Iraqi Folk Fusion Ensemble, a group pulled together for the first time in this configuration. The ensemble is made up of well-known and respected artists within the Iraqi communities, who perform regularly in a range of cultural contexts like weddings and other cultural events. The group is led by Imad Rahem, an Iraqi composer, violinist and former Professor of Violin at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. Also a former member of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra and a founding member of The Australian Arab Music Centre, Imad now performs regularly with renowned Arab singers visiting Australia.

The Iraqi Folk Fusion Ensemble performs at Concert #2 of Soundlands: art music in the suburbs. L – R: Imad Rahem, Suha Gharib, Mohammed Lelo, Carlito Akam, Suzan Ezaria, Fadil Jabar. Image credit: Christopher Woe Photography.

For Soundlands, the ensemble brought the traditional into the present with a program of contemporary arrangements of folk songs. Classical guitar was spliced with the more traditional instruments of violin, qanun, darabouka and voice. According to ensemble member and flamenco guitarist, Carlito Akam, the guitar would not usually be heard playing this music in Iraq. It is the Australian context that has brought these musicians together in this way. It is the Australian context and experiences of migration that produces this music and this repertoire that is responsive to and reflective of the ever-evolving diasporic identities and experiences of artists and audiences alike.

Flamenco guitarist Carlito Akam. Image credit: Christopher Woe Photography.

Feedback from the first two concerts has been positive with comments ranging from how nice it is to enjoy an evening of brilliant music without having to trek into the city, to joy at discovering the vibrancy and delights of the neighbourhood around Bankstown Arts Centre, to of course the impressive calibre of music and musicians, and finally to feelings of gratitude that the familiar sounds of one’s original homeland are not only heard but appreciated here in our cultural facilities and on our mainstages.

Imad Rahem led the Iraqi Folk Fusion Ensemble at Concert #2 of Soundlands: art music in the suburbs. Image credit: Christopher Woe Photography.

With this heartening response so far, I’m very much looking forward to the next two concerts in the series and to what Soundlands may become into the future.

Links

Soundlands webpage and bookings link: https://www.cbcity.nsw.gov.au/arts-centre/whats-on/soundlands-art-music-in-the-suburbs

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