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

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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BMus + CaLD

That old tape ran on loop in my mind again: Is my voice/my perspective valuable? Am I the right ‘fit’ for this? Old insecurities around belonging and worth were stirred – insecurities fastened to my sense of identity… I decided to brave it and to write about my lived experience all those years ago, feeling my way through a Western classical music degree (BMus) as a student from a culturally and linguistically diverse (CaLD) background.

I was invited to write for The Music Trust’s Loudmouth Magazine recently. It was a welcome challenge. You can read the full article here.

Singular/Plural

Last night the New Beginnings Refugee Arts and Culture Festival was launched with a beautifully curated exhibition on the theme of ‘the singular’ and ‘the plural’ aspects of being. The festival has expanded over the last couple of years to include exhibitions and a series of participatory cultural events at different times in the year, as well as the flagship free outdoors community whole-day festival event at Tumbalong Park, Darling Harbour (save the date – 18 Nov).

I got to chatting with festival producer and Arts Coordinator at Settlement Services International (SSI), Carolina Triana, at the opening of Singluar/Plural. She commented about the importance of being able to respond to need and not be tied into a pre-existing model for the festival. The festival is re-imagined to a degree each year to best serve the artists and communities it was established to support. In her welcome speech, she said the festival is “all about the art” and this was clear by the quality of the exhibition itself as a whole. The mission of the festival is spelled out on its website:

The New Beginnings: Refugee Arts & Culture Festival is a celebration of the artistic vibrancy, cultural expressions and heritage of people from refugee backgrounds

Singular/Plural showcased exactly that and presented it from various viewpoints – the individual as artist, the artist as teacher in the community, artists in collaboration, community participation and celebration of heritage. The call out went to artists both from refugee and non-refugee backgrounds; the open-ended, non-prescriptive approach to curation ensuring different, inclusive, multi-dimensional, pluralistic takes – both by artist and viewer. This is the sort of exhibition I love – not being guided or coerced towards any pre-determined end point; not being asked for any action. Just a gentle invitation to enjoy, contemplate, experience.

Some stand out pieces for me were:
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CaLD arts funding and policy

CALD ARTS FUNDING AND POLICY: THINKING OUTSIDE THE ‘CULTURAL DEVELOPMENT’ BOX

A couple of months ago I was asked to consult on funding strategies, to research relevant grant opportunities and to help write grant applications for a local “multicultural” (they self-define this way) arts festival that takes place in the Inner West of Sydney. I attended this festival, now in it’s 6th year, just last year for the first time and absolutely loved it, so was happy to help out.

Actively seeking financial support for this sort of arts activity again reminded me of the challenges faced by artists and arts organisations practising under the cultural and linguistically diverse (CaLD) arts label; not the least of which is the binary attitudes and dichotomous dialogue around the value of CaLD arts and indeed their validity as serious/professional, contemporary artistic practice. Continue reading

Four Australian artists you really should be following

They’re artists, activists, peacemakers, protestors and performers. They’re word whittlers – especially skilled in carving against the grain. Their art is hewn from music and poetry and their own cultural inheritance. And what excites me the most about them is that they’re re-mapping the borders that define what it is to look/sound/be an Australian artist today.

They’ve been getting some well-deserved attention in the mainstream media but if you haven’t heard of them yet, take some time to follow some of the links below. But let that just be a start!
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