Soundlands: relevance and inclusion in art music

Originally published on The Music Trust’s E-Zine, LOUDMOUTH.

Two shows down and two to go… At the time of writing, we are at the half-way point in Soundlands: art music in the suburbs – a series of art music concerts highlighting culturally diverse musicians and music from Bankstown and beyond.

Soundlands as a concept is really just an evolution of earlier concerts I’d produced, like Crossings: Songs from the East, where first-generation Australian musicians originally from Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Greece, all professional artists in their original homelands, pulled together shared musical threads to weave a new contemporary Australian musical picture.

This project, Soundlands, was born through conversations with Vandana Ram, Director of Bankstown Arts Centre, about 18 months ago. We share some core values that made it easy to collaborate: the importance of local relevance in any arts and cultural offering, as well as a commitment to inclusion and to programming that is reflective of our plural cultural make-up as a society. Bankstown, as a region where it is estimated over 200 languages are spoken, felt like a natural home for a series intended to highlight this kind of diversity.

Concert #1 in the series featured the Zela Margossian Quintet. 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. And to be honest, even the label “culturally diverse” when describing her music does Zela a disservice. Zela’s music rises above all of these labels. Her music is her own – a product of her unique experiences as well as her artistic and expressive choices.

Zela Margossian Quintet composer and pianist at Soundlands: art music in the suburbs. Image credit: Christopher Woe Photography.

Zela’s music has found a warm embrace in the Sydney jazz scene – deservedly. She also has deep connections and enjoys strong support from the Armenian-Australian community. This isn’t at all surprising of course. But it’s not merely a matter of pride in culture with these fans; Zela’s music and her experience as an artist is relevant to so many people who share a lived experience of being bi-cultural, being first-gen or of having more than one homeland.

Concert #2 featured the Iraqi Folk Fusion Ensemble, a group pulled together for the first time in this configuration. The ensemble is made up of well-known and respected artists within the Iraqi communities, who perform regularly in a range of cultural contexts like weddings and other cultural events. The group is led by Imad Rahem, an Iraqi composer, violinist and former Professor of Violin at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. Also a former member of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra and a founding member of The Australian Arab Music Centre, Imad now performs regularly with renowned Arab singers visiting Australia.

The Iraqi Folk Fusion Ensemble performs at Concert #2 of Soundlands: art music in the suburbs. L – R: Imad Rahem, Suha Gharib, Mohammed Lelo, Carlito Akam, Suzan Ezaria, Fadil Jabar. Image credit: Christopher Woe Photography.

For Soundlands, the ensemble brought the traditional into the present with a program of contemporary arrangements of folk songs. Classical guitar was spliced with the more traditional instruments of violin, qanun, darabouka and voice. According to ensemble member and flamenco guitarist, Carlito Akam, the guitar would not usually be heard playing this music in Iraq. It is the Australian context that has brought these musicians together in this way. It is the Australian context and experiences of migration that produces this music and this repertoire that is responsive to and reflective of the ever-evolving diasporic identities and experiences of artists and audiences alike.

Flamenco guitarist Carlito Akam. Image credit: Christopher Woe Photography.

Feedback from the first two concerts has been positive with comments ranging from how nice it is to enjoy an evening of brilliant music without having to trek into the city, to joy at discovering the vibrancy and delights of the neighbourhood around Bankstown Arts Centre, to of course the impressive calibre of music and musicians, and finally to feelings of gratitude that the familiar sounds of one’s original homeland are not only heard but appreciated here in our cultural facilities and on our mainstages.

Imad Rahem led the Iraqi Folk Fusion Ensemble at Concert #2 of Soundlands: art music in the suburbs. Image credit: Christopher Woe Photography.

With this heartening response so far, I’m very much looking forward to the next two concerts in the series and to what Soundlands may become into the future.

Links

Soundlands webpage and bookings link: https://www.cbcity.nsw.gov.au/arts-centre/whats-on/soundlands-art-music-in-the-suburbs

Sauvage: in development

What a treat it is as an audience member to see the first ever outing of a show in development. It’s a special kind of exciting, really. You go in with no specific expectations about what you might see, but with high hopes that you’ll enjoy it.

It also feels like a special kind of privilege sometimes. We’re let in when the work is still a “rough draft” and when the artists/creators are at what I imagine might be their most vulnerable and courageous. And it’s exciting knowing that you (and all the other members of the audience around you) will have an impact on the work as it continues on its journey of development.

Whether you laughed, sighed, fidgeted, focused, gasped, groaned, walked out swiftly or clapped loud and long at the end all matters. The work is being tested on you. How you receive it and respond to it will play a part in shaping how it evolves into the future.

Almost a year ago I saw Aanisa Vylet’s The Girl/The Woman at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta. Before that, months before, I had seen two development showings of the work – one at Bankstown Arts Centre and the other at Belvoir. At Bankstown we were treated to a tiny teaser of the work. At Belvoir, months later, were we given the more extreme, edgier bits, as the point at which a collective audience laugh can turn into a collective audience discomfort was tested on us. The final show was just brilliant by the way. I wrote about it here.

Aanisa’s latest work, Sauvage (Wild), got its first outing last night at Griffin’s Batch Festival. It’s early in development and totally worth seeing. Not only for the privilege and excitement of being a part of the development journey of new contemporary Australian theatre, but because even at this early stage there is lots to love.

Like the way it centres the female experience in it’s retelling of the dutiful daughter/disobedient daughter narratives, at the same time over-laying and playing with contemporary cultural nuances. (The King character, for example, is your average Wog Dad. He certainly has a lot in common with mine, just a slightly different accent).

And Aanisa’s charm, warmth and natural, easy physicality in storytelling is of course the highlight, especially in the moments when she invites the audience into the work. These bits worked really well in the intimacy of the Stables Theatre. Some of my favourite moments in the show were carried by the genie/wild womyn/sage/seer character moving in and out of Arabic and English fluidly, punctuating text with non-worded vocalisations and utterances. This was for me really quite captivating and a bit of an aural treat in quite a sparse soundscape.

I look forward to seeing where Sauvage (Wild) will be taken from here.

If you love being a part of the journey of new work; if you love really fresh new, hyper-local theatre; if you love theatre about and by women; if you love myth and storytelling and play; and especially if you love theatre that centres diverse stories, characters and languages from this melting pot of a city we live in…  then I think you’ll like Sauvage (Wild). It’s on daily at 8:30pm until and including Sat 11th May at Griffin Theatre. Tickets are selling fast.