Yulugi launch

Sydney-based cross-cultural music duo, Yulugi (meaning to play, dance in Gamilaroi) launched last night at Foundry616 with their first live performance. And I’m really glad I was there, because I’m super interested to see where Keyna Wilkins (flute, piano) and Gumaroy Newman (yidaki, recited poetry) will take their collaboration and their music from here.

Yulugi offered up to the audience a series of structured improvisations. These alternated between purely instrumental pieces (piano and yidaki or flute and yidaki), and other pieces in which Gumaroy performed his original poetry while Keyna improvised alongside this spoken element. Thematically, the poetry resonated with simple but deep messages as Gumaroy shared his personal perspectives of connection to country, nature, family and experiences of racism. Music and poetry were accompanied by projections of Australian landscape photography by Wayne Quilliam, the images serving as a prompt to the musicians for their inspired on-the-spot music jam and as a stunning visual evocation to the audience at the same time.

The end result wasn’t just cross-cultural, but also cross-artform, and in my opinion really interesting, immersive, new contemporary Australian art music. As pretentious as that description might sound, the music was anything but. Though stemming from divergent musical traditions, this duo works on so many levels. And there is a real sense of a partnership of equals here, no one voice is more prominent or more powerful than the other and there are exciting moments – with both musicians bouncing and riffing off each other intuitively – that make total musical sense.

If there was one thing I was left wanting, it was a more expansive mood palette. Last night’s performance was dynamic, bold and full-sounding a lot of the time, which was cool, but I found myself wanting more of the quieter, reflective, slowly unfurling musical moments to balance that energy. Overall I really enjoyed the set. And I reckon anyone who appreciates improv as a genre, will really appreciate Yulugi. Their next gig is at Johnson St Jazz on May 9, 2019.

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Additional ranty thoughts…

As much as I love this club (their programming is great, the staff are great, the food is good and I’ve only ever experienced audiences that are there, on the whole, to listen to and appreciate the artists), I just couldn’t let myself be as immersed or enjoy the show as much as I wanted to. Kudos to Foundry616 in the first place for providing the space and platform for these artists when not a lot of venue options exist out there, but for me, the distractions of food and drinks being served, of chairs/punters facing away from the stage, of people scrolling on their phones, and of the incredibly beautiful photography projected obscurely on a side wall, where half the audience couldn’t see it anyway, just felt like too much of a compromise. I want to see Yulugi and other artists like them programmed in other types of venues as well – like Performing Arts Centres – you know, the ones that our (public) money funds the activities of. I want to see these artists programmed into the core offerings of these PACs, regularly, and not just as add-ons to some random annual cultural calendar celebration event. I know I’m not alone.

(Header artwork by Mowena Wilkins)

Blak Box Four Winds

Blacktown Showground Precinct is very pretty and very welcoming on this ordinary Sydney summer evening.

Families sit at benches. Little ones run through the water park. The basketball courts are buzzing. Boardwalks stretch through the reeds and over the still water, invitingly. Getting there was easy. Parking was a breeze, too. You get a handy map link and directions emailed to you the day before your session.

There’s a café, a bar by donation set up by Urban Theatre Projects and a temporary performance space for talks and live music – part of the Sunset Sessions that compliment the Blak Box Four Winds installation.

But what I was looking forward to the most, for days beforehand, was setting my phone to flight mode and the promise of silence and stillness.

Before we’re led over to the purpose-built Blak Box, we’re briefed on what to expect and what is expected of us.

We enter, find our seats, get comfortable. The door is closed. The light is low. Some people shut their eyes. Immediately the senses are heightened.

The sand feels nice beneath my feet. I feel more grounded. I notice blades of grass poking through the sandy floor, a curious reminder that there is life growing inside and sprouting inside this seemingly inanimate space we’ve all found ourselves in.

Then, the sounds of piano, violin and clapsticks flow from different points behind the walls, followed by the voices of people in dialogue. The four featured artists, all Blacktown locals, are elders Uncle Wes Marne and Auntie Edna Watson, and two young leaders, Savarna Russell and Shaun Millwood.

They talk about identity, fears, family, intergenerational trauma, institutional abuse, culture, language and conservation. The young ask the elders questions. They all share memories. Every breath, sigh, silence and inflection of the voice is amplified in the stillness and low light of the box. It’s an intimate and personal deep listening experience. An emotional one at times, too.

The spoken excerpts are broken up with song and music by Emma Donovan and Eric Avery. At times the music is a lament. At times it’s hopeful, with Emma’s voice like a balm, beautiful, soulful, grainy and deep. There’s an earthiness to every note she sings, a resolve and strength in the resonance of every. single. note. The music tells the same story as the conversations we hear, bridging the contemporary with the traditional; the young with the old.

By the end of the 45 mins in the box, a deep calm had set in. The feeling stayed with me for a long time afterwards. And of course, what still lingers, days after experiencing Blak Box Four Winds, are my thoughts around the very real issues it explores, like how our increasing reliance on digital means of communication is replacing face to face, interpersonal, interaction.

And then of course the question: Is this contributing to the erosion of knowledge and culture across generations or is it helping to conserve it and make it more accessible?

In the words of its curator, Daniel Browning, Four Winds “is a speculation about the future as much as a recollection of the past”.

I felt it in that way too. As January 26 approaches and as plans about how to spend this public holiday are made all around, opinions on dates and on the difference between celebration and commemoration will abound. Maybe this is the perfect time to set your phone to flight mode. To sit in stillness, listen deeply and hear the truth in the stories, histories and messages of First Nations people.

First published on Audrey Journal

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.

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

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:

Continue reading