Warrangu; River Story

We took the T4 line north on Sunday night. Full carriages snaking along the city’s veins, transporting families, and friends, young and not so young into the heart of the city. On Macquarie Street, we cut through the Eye Hospital grounds and across the Domain – a brisk walk in the dark along the wide, straight, long path towards the Art Gallery of NSW. There we join another line. This one of people, inching around the zig-zagging ramps and scaffolding. There would have been 300 of us. The show sold out its first and second allocation of tickets. 

I’d been eagerly anticipating it since tickets were released a few weeks ago. Actually, since I learned of the scope of the project a couple of years ago. Maybe even before that – maybe since learning that Rhyan Clapham (the artist also known as Dobby) was awarded the Peter Sculthorpe Composer Fellowship in 2017. I felt back then that something big and important would come of it. This work is five long (Covid-interrupted) years in the making. The anticipation was real. The expectation high. And Dobby and his team – on stage and behind the scenes – totally surpassed it with the premiere of Warrangu; River Story.

Warrangu; River Story is a body of work that is uniquely Dobby and completely contemporary Australian. It’s a work that can’t be categorized into any one genre, as Dobby uses all the musical languages and tools he is skilled in to tell the River Story. String quartet, brass, keys, drum kit, backing vocals, field recordings in nature (like the crunching sounds under foot of the dry river bed), recorded monologues and conversations with elders and knowledge keepers of the Brewarinna Shire, raps and lyrical poetry, beats – all are carefully constructed to tell the River Story. This is contemporary music, this is art music, this is hip hop, this is new music, this is activism, all together this is Dobby. 

Musically, the work is a song cycle, with each piece distinct in character and message and easily enjoyed as standalone tracks, but more meaningful when listened through as a whole. Dobby’s layering of sounds and textures feels intuitive. Instrumentation and colours surge or are whittled down at what feels like the right moments, with the strings often employed as a blanket beneath brass, or to create a sense of urgency and drive, sometimes punctuating a line of spoken word, making us pay attention. Piano and drums often propel the rhythm and double the electronic beats in true hip hop style. The sampling of sounds, like in Dirrpi Yuin Patjulinya (The Bird Names Himself), honours the beauty of the Butcher bird’s call in nature, and at the same time riffs off of it to create an entirely new soundscape.

The music is a vehicle though. We’re not there just to listen and enjoy the show. It’s the meaning carried on the music that Dobby wants us to take away. Warrangu tells the story of water mis-management and the devastating impacts to surrounding ecosystems of three rivers in North West NSW: the Barwon, the Bogan and the Culgoa Rivers. It also tells the story of the cultural significance of these rivers. In Dobby’s words (I’m paraphrasing from his speech at the after-show panel) Warrangu “is not a cultural work but it is culturally-informed”. You can read more in the program note here and hear Dobby’s interviews on ABC’s The Music Show here and  Awaye! here. There is care and there is fight in both the music and the message. The lyrics call for action and for holding power to account, they talk of water theft and water rights. They describe grief for how we treat the Earth and its greatest life source, water. 

After the concert, Ryan joins Bruce Pascoe and Badger Bates on stage in conversation. Their messages are powerful. I’m paraphrasing here my take aways: Water isn’t a resource, it is a home. Not doing anything about the problem once you’re aware of it, makes you culpable. When will Governments stop ignoring the deep wisdom of First Nations people in the care and management of the land and water? Why should ‘city folk’ care? Because water is life and because you love your children, don’t you?

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My daughter and I talk about Warrangu; River Story, the music and the message, on the train as it snakes back south. It takes us to the place we are lucky enough to call home, where the Georges River flows into the bay. Bidjigal land. Unceded land. 

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