The Girl/The Woman

This will sound corny but my biggest takeaway from The Girl/The Woman, was LOVE. I left the theatre with that unmistakeable feeling of a warm, tingling, full, content heart. And this was after spending much of the previous 90 mins either laughing so hard I cried, grooving in my seat to belly dance music or Beyonce, and/or ululating to egg on the audience participation. (OMG…. how embarrassing for that poor guy but what a freaken champ!)

Aanisa Vylet’s play is a coming-of-age story. It’s universal in the protagonist’s painful awkwardness and insecurities in adolescence. It’s universal in her search for belonging, for independence, for freedom and in her struggle to reckon with external and internalised pressures and expectations. 

But in the details of the story, it is oh so local. A girl from Punchbowl, second-generation Lebanese-Australian, trying to fit in at uni as an arts student, wrestling with cultural and religious pressures at home, living almost two parallel lives, moving overseas to pursue a career and some sense of independence. So local. And so close to home for many of us. 

Beyond the coming-of-age theme (or alongside it rather) The Girl/The Woman draws you into the beautiful, complex, heartfelt, wistful relationship between the protagonist and her mother. We see history threatening to repeat itself. We see a mother’s over-protectiveness and judgement, and her fear of being shamed by her community. And we see sacrifice, protection, acceptance, and love. So much love.

The final scene, is so moving that even though I understood very little (in a literal sense) with much of the scene played out in Arabic, I felt no sense that I was missing out on part of the story. It was easy to imagine what was being said. I could make out the meaning through the pitch, the inflection, the rhythm, dynamic and pace of the voices and in each gesture and movement. And I loved, loved, loved the way the play moved between English and Arabic throughout. It felt natural and authentic. Like these characters wouldn’t have spoken in any other way. Far from alienating the non-Arabic speaking audience members, it drew us further into the story.

Diversity in the arts is a hot topic right now – we know that. There’s been lots written and said in recent times about representation in the arts – about how important it is for people of all backgrounds and persuasions to see people like themselves on the stage and on screen – performing, creating, telling their own stories. We know this is important of course. But sometimes the conversation around the lack of diverse stories and of representation becomes so political and tokenistic that the art itself plays second fiddle to a political or social message. This isn’t the case at all with The Girl/The Woman. This is hilarious, heartwarming, moving, entertaining, and wildly talented physical theatre in it’s own right – the “diverse” nature of it is just one part of it’s delight.

The season has just ended but look out for it around the traps in the future. I think (and hope) it has a long life ahead. In the meantime, read about The Girl/The Woman in this insightful piece in Folk Magazine here.

Forge: Intercultural Contemporary Performance

Front row in the Lennox at Riverside. An unfinished pentagram demarcates the floor. The stage is bare apart from it and the floor mics. I coaxed my thirteen-year-old daughter along, though she’d rather be listening to K-pop on Spotify. We watch Annalouise Paul in her latest complete solo work, Forge, and on the way home unpick the dance, music and narrative elements of the show. We talk about Annalouise’s beautiful and poised presence on stage, we wonder if the work is autobiographical and guess at its meaning…

Dance maker, Annalouise Paul, has enjoyed a long and successful career as an independent artist in Australia and internationally. Her artistic practice is inspired by her own cultural inheritance and by the concept of identity as an ever-evolving construct. Off the stage Annalouise is well-known for her activist work in the arts – advocating for culturally diverse practices and artists. She currently runs the Intercultural Dialogues Facebook group with 700 members globally – a place for discussion about arts/culture and for connection across cultures.

I ask Annalouise if she describes Forge as intercultural work. She replies, “I suppose it is. It examines two distinct dance languages that sit inside my body and very much create a tension, and the potential heresy of merging a tradition like flamenco with contemporary dance”. I ask if Forge fits neatly into one genre. She says it is “dance-music-theatre”, explaining that genres are for others to decide, and for boxes needing to be ticked. For her, music can’t be separated from dance, nor dance from story.

I ask a few more questions. Annalouise is as articulate, dynamic and deep-feeling in words as she is in performance. Read on for the full interview and my endnotes. First published in The Music Trust’s Loudmouth Magazine here.
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Tip of the Spear

His first album was named Subversive.
This latest release: Tip of the Spear.
The liner notes credit his militia – a long list of vocalists alongside a couple of instrumentalists that feature on the new album.
Track one is titled First Casualty.

There’s a pattern here, right? You can see where this is heading.

The media release Pat flicks me reads almost like a warning:

“His latest offering is on that good Melbourne hip hop, soul, jazz tip. While it will still put him on an ASIO watch list, the sharp lyricism provides informed articulated critiques as well alternatives to the current dominant paradigm. Delving into ideas, theory and reflections around homogenous culture, economic structures, resistance, systems of learning, illegal detention, invasion, collective depression, utilitarian norms, love and more.”

For some artists, their art-making, politics and activism are one and the same. Patrick Marks, aka Pataphysics, is such an artist. In track 2, Frames, Pat protests oppressive political structures. In track 3, Shake The Roots, he protests greed and corruption. More protests follow. Track 4 – The dumbing down of the citizenry through mass institutionalized schooling. Track 7 – War, dispossession, colonization. Track 8 – Australia’s abhorrent and dehumanizing treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. You get the gist.

Now, I do love a good protest song. And it’s obvious this album is full of them. So Pat really ‘had me at hello’ so to speak. But what is even more impressive than his intelligent and critically thoughtful lyric, is that the album really holds it’s own musically.

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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

New breed ethno-jazz in Sydney

“Wow”… In that moment of taut silence that hangs between the end of a piece and the first clap from an audience member, I heard someone at the next table say that one tiny but massive word like they really, really, meant it. “W-o-w”.

If the focused quiet while the band was playing, emphatic applause, and various expressions of praise and admiration overheard throughout the night are anything to go by, I think everyone else in the room was wowed by the Zela Margossian Quintet as well. The quintet, with only a handful of performances under their belt, was featured in this year’s Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival.

Their set included several of Zela’s original compositions, which often draw on Arabic and Armenian folk idioms, as well as two arrangements of pieces by internationally renowned composers: Parsegh Ganatchian (Lebanese-Armenian composer and conductor of the early 20th century) and Ara Dinkjian (Armenian-American contemporary oud player and song writer). Zela’s music has been 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.

Zela has pulled together a band of virtuosic performers and brilliant improvisers, well-known in local jazz and/or world music circles: Stuart Vandegraaff (woodwinds), Elsen Price (double bass), Adem Yilmaz (percussion) and Alexander Inman-Hislop (drum kit). Together they play with an undeniable synergy, ease and joy. At times playfully competitive on stage, they were rousing and impressive as performers, both individually and collectively. Zela herself was delightful and gracious in performance and in speaking to the audience, generously offering personal insights into her journey as a musician across her old and new homelands.

Raised in Beirut, Zela moved to Yerevan in her early 20’s to study at the Komitas Conservatorium. She migrated to Australia nine years ago and is currently studying jazz at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. I spoke with her, seeking to map her journey across continents and musical styles and experiences. I also wanted to learn more about the workings of the quintet itself and how it came to be. Zela’s answers to my questions came with the same warmth, sincerity and authenticity she exudes on stage, and offered a more nuanced understanding of her particular brand of jazz and her emergence as a jazz pianist and composer in Sydney.

Read the full article/interview in Loudmouth, Music Trust E-Zine here.

Image credit: Aren Gaspar

Brave and Boundless

I sat next to a stranger and asked about the earlier sessions I’d missed. “Challenging” came the response. When I prodded a little she said something like “white people were talked about a lot” and made a sweeping circular gesture that framed her face – fair-skinned, light-haired. Her discomfort was evident. I asked if she was a writer. She is. We got distracted by having to move seats, then the panel started. Later I wished we’d had the chance to continue that conversation.

Boundless: a festival of diverse writers, was the first-ever festival of its kind – with a focus on Indigenous and culturally and linguistically diverse (CaLD) writers. Co-presented by NSW Writer’s Centre and Bankstown Arts Centre and put together with a bunch of collaborators (scroll to bottom of this page to see them), it saw several panel discussions, workshops for aspiring young writers, a multi-media exhibition of poetry by local students, and readings of some works in progress by emerging writers, drawing to a close with the monthly Bankstown Poetry Slam event moved to co-incide with the festival.

I only made it for the second half of the day but did get to see two great panels. The first, ‘Who’s writing who on stage’, was convened by Sheila Pham with Andrea James, Disapol Sevatsila and Aanisa Vylet on the panel. The second, ‘All in the family’, convened by Jennifer Wong and featuring Cathy Craigie, Mireille Juchau, Benjamin Law and Omar Sakr. (Read all their bios and those of the other writers featured here). Across the two panels there were quite a few moments that grabbed me but a couple of themes that really stood out for me.  Continue reading

Ali’s Wedding and the work of integration

If you haven’t seen Ali’s Wedding yet, you really should fix that. When I wasn’t laughing out loud, I legit had a smile on my face the whole film through, even in the sad bits. Though in those moments it was more a ‘sad-smile’, you know, like the kind you might imagine being peeled away to reveal a longing beneath, a burden of some sort or a pang of regret.

Like all good romcoms Ali’s Wedding is hilarious and heart warming all at once, making light of those painfully embarrassing common human experiences. It also explores (very endearingly and entertainingly) some pretty big universal emotions like: the longing that shadows displacement everywhere; the weight of one’s sense of duty (to family, to community, etc); the regret that is felt when we’re not able to live true to our deepest desires and aspirations; the shame that is cocooned within a lie; the peace that comes after forgiving/forgiveness and reconciliation; and the freedom that comes with redemption – always with a cost.

But what makes Ali’s Wedding different is that these themes are located through the lived experience of a first gen Iraqi-Australian growing up in the suburbs of Melbourne in (I’m guessing) the early 90s, and within the local Muslim community that Ali’s family is very much a part of. It’s this placement that, (in the current climate) makes Ali’s Wedding also a political film – a fact that co-writer and lead actor, Osamah Sami, totally owns. (Read his kindly invitation to Pauline Hanson to get along and see the film here.)

For me, personally, beyond being just simply a great new Australian film, I found Ali’s Wedding intriguing on a whole different level. This has a lot to do with this thing I call my ‘work of integration’. As a first gen Greek-Australian growing up across/between two cultures, I felt (especially as an adolescent) that in order to belong to/in either one I’d have to almost be two different people. Sometimes it felt that these two distinct identities had very little in common with one another. My ‘work of integration’ is the work of reconciling these parts of the self that can feel conflicting. And although this experience can be seen as another one of those universal experiences when framed in developmental terms as that of differentiating from one’s parents and reconciling the generational gap, I think it is a task that can feel harder for the children of first-gen migrants. Put simply, there are more gaps for us to reconcile … and those gaps can feel like massive gaping chasms that threaten to swallow you up whole at times.

In the days after watching Ali’s Wedding I wondered about Osamah Sami’s own work of integration throughout the process of making the film, given it’s based on his own true life events. If I ever had the opportunity, I’d ask him a bunch of questions to satiate my own curiosity:

  • Why did you make this film? What brought you to tell this story?
  • How many parts vulnerability vs. how many parts courage went into the making of the film?
  • Did the making of this film challenge or change your sense of identity? How? (I’m particularly interested in the act of telling/re-telling true stories here, that is, of the sequencing of memories to construct a narrative and the effect this process has on identity).
  • What’s been the response from other first-gen Aussies? Is this different from the response of broader audiences?
  • Is there another film in the works? Please?

Back to the film itself though, everyone I’ve spoken to that’s seen it has loved it. It’s won several awards (including the audience award at the Sydney Film Festival) and is getting great reviews. Read this and this and this. Then, go check screening times and locations here, gather all your first-gen Aussie mates, all the romcom tragics you know and anyone else with half a sense of humour and go see it. They’ll all love it.