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.

Compromise vs Accommodation. These words were offered by Aanisa Vylet as a bit of advice (or a warning perhaps) to emerging diverse writers working with major theatre companies or seeking to work in the mainstream, where pressure might be placed on an artist to fashion or edit their work in a certain way for it to appeal to mainstream audiences. I read Aanisa’s message as: compromise is necessary but be careful you’re not writing purely to accommodate those audiences or those theatre companies. That is, that creative control and freedom can still be held by the artist in the act of compromising but that control and freedom is given over in the act of accommodation. I really wanted the panel to unpack this idea a little more and to hear personal, individual experiences on this … but there’s only so much you can cover in an hour.

And on compromise also, Andrea James, a Yorta Yorta/Kurnai playwright, spoke really powerfully about her practice of theatre making being an act of cultural survival. In her words, the theatre is still a “dangerous, uncomfortable and unwelcoming” space for many in her community. She explained that even the staging of her work in theatres is itself an act of compromise, but one she thinks is important to make.

Permissions and Preservation.  Jennifer Wong posed a question to the panel about if/how they seek permission from the people their characters/stories are based on before publishing their work. The answers were varied but all pointed to the notion of preservation, with the object of preservation differing for each panellist. Benjamin Law shares his work openly with his family because preserving those relationships is important. Mireille Juchau alluded to preserving the ownership of the stories themselves and the integrity of those to whom they belong – explaining that, as a writer of fiction, she may draw on a memory, a moment, or an interaction to create a new, original story. Cathy Craigie, as a Gomeroi and Anaiwon woman, talked about the cultural importance of seeking permission for some stories, but also about cultural preservation and of the necessity to not tell a story that contains important or sensitive cultural knowledge (like naming a sacred place for example). Omar Sakr doesn’t seek permission but also doesn’t write the life stories of his relatives – even though, he joked, they’d love him to! He talked of early childhood experiences marked not by a tradition of storytelling in the family but by silence and secrets. He said he writes from a place of what he calls “unbelonging”. Again, I wanted the discussion to sit in this space for a little while longer. But that’s always a good thing.. to be left wanting to hear/learn more.

Discomfort (like that experienced by the woman I happened to sit next to in the first session) is not unusual at these sorts of forums, where the issues and discussions often range from challenging to confronting. Earlier this year I wrote about these issues in my wrap of the Beyond Tick Boxes Symposium on Cultural Diversity in the Creative Sector in Sydney. Even since then though – and it’s only been a few months – I feel like we’ve made progress in the way we talk and think about diversity in the arts. I felt like the conversations yesterday were more open, more personal, more nuanced and above everything else, braver than I’ve heard them in the public sphere before. This might be because the speakers were writers – people who are in the business of crafting thoughts and ideas into words and meaning. People who are generally really articulate and eloquent. It may also be because they were talking to a “home crowd” – the audience predominantly CaLD identifying. These could both be contributing factors, but I do think that we’re making progress in the way we talk about diversity in the arts more broadly. 

I got a lot out of attending Boundless: hearing a variety of perspectives and personal experiences, learning of activities in the space and discovering exciting, new (for me) writers. I also came away with a little swag of books I can’t wait to dive into. Mostly though I came away with a sense of gratitude towards those artists that speak their minds without fear or self-imposed filters. And grateful for the audiences and attendees that turn up knowing they’ll be challenged or confronted but still keen to be a part of it all. They’re both brave in my eyes and both essential to moving these conversations forward and to approaching a fairer representation of diversity in the arts.

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.

 

Cross-cultural collaboration in music: Equus offers a sound example

“I’ve been reading Kwame Anthony Appiah’s classic text Cosmopolitanism – Ethics in a World of Strangers. Have you come across it in your travels?”

I Google it and reply, “I am always wary of that ‘citizen of the world’ stance as it is often used by those ‘colour blind’ folk, but this looks like a really good read.”

“He’s definitely not suggesting the homogenisation of cultures into some bland, beige common expression … cue some of that cafe friendly funky ‘world muzak’ ;-)”

The above is from a recent email exchange I had with percussionist, composer, producer, musical director and friend, Peter Kennard. Peter is a bit of a pioneer in the Australian “world music” (not “muzak”) scene, having travelled widely to study non-Western musics extensively and having, over the past three decades, played with the likes of Lulo Reinhardt, Kim Sanders and Bobby Singh, as well as in various ensembles including Sirocco, Heval, and currently, Equus.

His initial email (a response to something I’d written recently about cultural competence as a necessary skill in artistic collaboration and exchange) inspired an offshoot conversation about working cross-culturally in music. I wanted a better view into Peter’s extensive experience in this area. Curious to know more about the motivations, processes and challenges contained within these collaborations between musicians who bring differing senses of identity and different musical heritages together to create something jointly from often seemingly disparate parts, I sent Peter some questions specific to his current experience of creating and performing with Equus. He responded generously:

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Gili: an invocation for healing

We wait in the foyer of the Bankstown Arts Centre. The doors to the courtyard open and we’re guided to a circle pattern on the grass, lined with feathers and cloth. Eucalyptus leaves are smoking in a pile on one point on the circumference of the circle. We’re welcomed to country by a Darug elder then two men sing and play the clapsticks. A group of young women dance inside the cirle. The songs are in language and the dances seem traditional (to my limited knowledge). There’s contentment and maybe a little pride in the dancers’ faces as their eyes meet with those of people known to them in the crowd. I happen to be sitting next to a girl they look up at, smile and nod at often, as they perform the dances one after the other: Ochre, Welcome, Smoking, Spirit, Possum, Willy Wagtail, Wave and Feather.

There’s a short break and then we’re ushered into the theatre. The rows closest to the stage on all sides are reserved for ‘friends of the artists’, my guess is that this is almost half the seats in the theatre. I sit further back with my own family. An electronic music track is playing. There are projections on the wall at the back of the stage. The young women, in different costumes now and sitting in pairs, sift salt through their fingers and sprinkle it around them. The music echoes the waves of the ocean. We’re later told this song is about salt water healing. Another is about tree sap medicine. Yet another about young women falling prey and finding themselves in abusive cycles.

In this sense, Gili: to iginite the spark (created by Peta Strachan and Jannawi Dance Clan) is also social and political commentary meant to “spark conversation”, (as one of the dancers put it in the Q and A afterwards), on contemporary issues facing young Aboriginal people in urban communities, especially those facing women. It looks back at traditional cultural practices of healing, and asks the question: is there a place for these methods today?

This performance was the first ‘showing’ – a work in progress. Personally, I enjoyed it even in this early stage of development. I liked that it contextualised the different dances (traditional and contemporary) by placing them on different stages – the courtyard and the theatre space respectively. I also liked that this was a work created and performed predominantly by women – among them emerging artist Kassidy Waters (a recent NAISDA graduate currently studying with Sydney Dance Company), who apart from performing, we were told created all the projections and the music, as well as choreographing one of the pieces.

What I enjoyed most though, was my own personal, reflexive reaction to the performance. To me, Gili felt like a gentle invocation for healing, where the space was created for the audience to enter into and contemplate the issues laid before us, interpreted through dance.

Going Beyond Tick Boxes

There’s a renewed energy to work towards fairer representation of culturally diverse artists in the creative sector. Maybe this is a reflection of a broader awareness around issues of diversity more generally in the collective conscious. Or maybe it’s a scramble for new voices, new content and new audiences. Or both.

Whatever the reasons behind the momentum right now, there was hope in the air at the recent Diversity Arts Australia (DARTS) ‘Beyond Tick Boxes’ Symposium on Cultural Diversity in the Creative Sector in Sydney. The gathering saw over 140 creative practitioners, arts workers and industry representatives come together to take the pulse of the sector. The conversations felt circular at times, but the messages and perspectives, very current.

I was invited to attend as a citizen journalist and to write up my thoughts of the day. You can read the full article in Loudmouth magazine here or on the DARTS website here.

Image courtesy of DARTS and photographer Chris Woe

Iraqi Music Festival

The Iraqi Music Festival has become a fixture in my cultural calendar. How do I love it? I could count the (many) ways – but I’ll sum it up with three main points:

1.Heritage/folkloric traditions and contemporary culture are showcased together

Sometimes there’s this divide in the arts/cultural psyche between heritage practices (often seen as outdated, irrelevant and/or amateur) and contemporary practices (often viewed more favourably in the current climate where that loaded and kind of ambiguous word, “innovation”, is used as a marker of value or excellence).

But last night’s showcase music event at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre saw traditional dress/dance/music interspersed with more modern forms in the same program. And this concert sat within the overarching Iraqi Cultural Festival program that comprised of: a visual arts exhibition and program of events by Iraqi-Australian artists exploring memory of place, storytelling and identity; award winning new short films made by Iraqis living in Australia and abroad; and a keynote address by director, producer and civil activist, Mohamed Al-Daradji.

What this annual festival does so beautifully is to ignore that stigma around folkloric forms by placing them within the continuum of cultural expression as it evolves and responds to changing times and environments. And what the festival achieves is even more beautiful – it acts as a vehicle to connect people across place, time and cultures (within and outside of the various Iraqi cultures it represents). So, in that sense it is both a balm for the displaced and a thread pulling tightly across generations and homelands.

2.Arabic audiences know exactly when to clap

There’s a circular debate that’s been running forever in Western classical music circles – that of when an audience “should” clap. We could learn a lot from Arabic audiences I think. There is a definite etiquette around clapping of course. Eg: you clap at the end of a solo/improv section and at the end of each song, but Arabic audiences are also cued to clap and join in the singing at times by the singer on stage. And when they are cued, they respond, en masse and in sync. The audience almost becomes part of the performance, as the music is experienced and enacted together by performers and audience.

And cheering… well… you can do that whenever the mood takes you. And the mood took the guy sitting behind me often. It was great! And if you want to click your fingers, clap along or sway in your seat, or even answer your phone mid-concert (like the guy beside me) … get this… no one cares! No one tut-tuts you or scowls at you. How wonderful, how refreshing… how freeing as an audience member. [Disclaimer: there’s a time and a place for this stuff, right? Don’t blame me if you get chastised for taking duck-faced selfies mid-act at the opera, k?]

3.The inner workings of the ensemble are laid bare on stage

The other really refreshing aspect of the performance last night was just how interactive the musicians on stage were with each other. Head nods, hand cues, big conducting signals at pivotal moments by the leading performer were all just naturally and authentically part of the performance. There was also banter between performers on stage (what looked like in-jokes being shared) and a photographer traversing the stage to get the shots he needed, interacting with musicians and audience while doing so… again…. no one seemed offended in the slightest.

This view into the workings of the ensemble and a performance is exciting for audiences and makes the experience all the more inviting. You feel privy to the (often hidden) dynamics of the ensemble and that just adds a whole other layer of interest and engagement.

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There’s a lot more that I loved about the Iraqi Music Festival, not the least of which is the fact that we are lucky enough to have a maestro like Imad Rahem (pictured above playing violin) grace local stages, or the fact that this music resonates with me on a personal level because of the similarities between it and the music of my cultural inheritance… but I might post about those things another time.