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

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

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.