Another Australia is my Australia

Yilaalu is “the word that starts the story” in the Gamilaroy and Yuwaalaraay languages. I learned this listening to Nardi Simpson’s recent interview on Awaye! 

Yilaalu is also the name of the first piece written by Simpson in Another Australia, the latest anthology produced by Sweatshop and Diversity Arts Australia, and published by Affirm Press. It is a collection of pieces by First Nations writers and writers of colour that together paint a picture not of an alternative Australia to our reality, but of my Australia and yours. An Australia that holds the ancient living cultures of First Peoples (too often without enough care and respect); an Australia that is scarred by the legacies of its colonial history; that’s been shaped by the many waves of migrations as so many of us have settled here and reaped its many rewards; and an Australia that is a container for all the complexities and dissonances from the collision of all these aspects of its existence today.

The first piece, Yilaalu, situates me as reader exactly where I should be in Another Australia, where First Nations’ voice is first, in several meanings of the word:

first as in preceding all others; 

first as in leading the way; 

first as in in a position of respect and esteem; 

first as in a priority above others. 

Two more pieces by Simpson punctuate and book-end the collection respectively, so the reader is reminded of the continuity of First Nations’ culture and of the fact that this Australia, mine and yours, always was and always will be Aboriginal land. This is an editorial choice made with care and one that I think many readers will appreciate. 

A little disclaimer: I’m not a critic and this isn’t a review. As always, I write about cultural experiences and offerings that excite and inspire me, and that speak to cultural and creative diversity, inclusion and equity. So, it’s in this spirit that I write this commentary on some of the works in the anthology that stood out to me, especially. 

Simpson’s pieces are in language followed by English versions of the text. In her interview on Awaye! she speaks of her process in constructing these pieces, explaining that she starts with English in the writing but that construction actually begins before this with her ‘thinking in culture’. This is a deep insight into the works and makes for a richer reading of them. In Yilaalu, her descriptions of the built landscape as living creatures in nature are poetic and grounding. In the final piece, Warran, she writes so beautifully of the interconnectedness of woman and tree, the oneness of them, and the recognition of kinship in each other. Again, as reader I find myself located exactly where I feel is the right place for me to be in Another Australia  – a position that recognises and revers First People’s wisdom and ways.

Osman Faruqi offers up the second piece in the anthology, A Tale of Two Colonies. This piece is part history lesson (it should be part of the high school curriculum!) and part personal recounting of family histories, revealing the author’s position in the complexity and dissonance mentioned earlier that characterises a lived experienced of being both colonised and settler, in different contexts and across time. This is possibly my favourite piece in the collection, but not just for its rich and nuanced historical detail and perspective. More for its hopeful message in its final sentences. “… nothing is static, immovable or unchangeable. What we call Australia hasn’t always been like this. It doesn’t need to be like this. A series of explicit decisions made by a particular set of people made it like this…”. I don’t want to give away the rest as it is very powerful, but I do want to say that the sense of hope in Faruqi’s ending sentences was amplified for me as I watched a new Prime Minister assume office and a new cabinet, apparently the most diverse (for want of a better word) this country has seen yet, take shape on the news.

Amani Haydar’s writing hits close to home again in Bad Transplant. With only a photo of her groom to recognise him by, a woman makes the trip to Australia from the other side of the world, with hopes and dreams of a new life and new family in this lucky country. She finds duty, subservience and struggle. She finds escape, joy and lightness only in her imagination. Haydar writes the character of Mariam with such truth and care that Mariam becomes much more than a cliched proxy bride in a story that many have told before. If we changed Mariam’s name, she could be my mother, or yours perhaps.

Shirley Le’s Coi Bói is funny and brilliant and familiar to me for different reasons – the appearance of the legendary fortune-teller in Fairfield for one! Everyone in the area when I was growing up knew of this mystic. Apparently the real mystic (unlike the one in Coi Bói lived in some dodgy back alley behind some shops and up a flight of stairs). More than the legend of this character though, and more than the familiarity of place in Le’s descriptions of South West Sydney, it’s Le’s writing from the perspective of a child of 1st generation migrants that is most familiar. We occupy the spaces between belonging and not belonging, inside and outside of family, school, our stomping grounds etc. We know the codes of both cultures and switch between them hundreds of times a day. Le captures this experience effortlessly and with total authenticity.

I Am by L-FRESH The LION, marks his debut as a writer. Many readers will know L-FRESH as a rapper, song-writer, producer and performer. As a rapper, keeping true to the genre, his persona is one marked by confidence and bravado, by ego. Now I’m a fan of his music, but what a beautiful discovery it was to hear his voice as a writer.  His storytelling was gentle and generous in its vulnerability and openness. The piece itself unpicks this very duality, which is one of many he describes, ultimately reconciling the seemingly contradictory aspects of his identity that together make the one complex and complete whole. The detail in this very personal recount is unique and nuanced but the experience is universal. My favourite excerpt is L-FRESH’S description of his grandmother’s and his parents’ gardens in Glenfield – places of abundance, nourishment and connection. I read parts of this autobiographical piece aloud, and it carried a natural and innate cadence and musicality.

Sisonke Msimang’s, The Innocence Project, echoes Faruqi’s piece in it’s positionality, where the author shares a personal lived experience as both colonised and settler. Similarly also to Faruqi’s piece, The Innocence Project provides historical facts and context by contrasting the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission to Australia’s Bringing Them Home enquiry into the forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. More to the point, it contrasts the different approaches and actions (or lack of) the respective governments took in the wake of these enquiries. Msimang’s piece also ends powerfully, but in this piece any sense of hope is precarious, dependent on an urgent impending reckoning in its call for truth, accountability and reparations in a future Australia … “In Another Australia, there will be justice.”

Though I’ve only selected a few that resonated with me a little more deeply, all the pieces in this anthology are worthwhile reads. Each one reveals an Australia that is a reflection of who we are today, of where we are right now, and perhaps of what we are inching closer to. And that’s what I appreciate most about the collection, that there is truth on every page and in every version of Australia – mine, my mum’s, your neighbour’s… yours too.

Panbe Zan – a new Australian opera

Panbe Zan (translated as ‘the cotton beater’) is a contemporary electroacoustic opera in seven parts, written by Shervin Mirzeinali. The work is the composer’s main outcome as part of their Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) studies under the supervision of Damien Ricketson at The Sydney Conservatorium of Music. You can view the program and full artist list on the AMC’s website here: https://www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/event/panbe-zan

Panbe Zan is the first in a planned series of works titled Extinct Timbre, through which Mirzeinali seeks to explore forgotten, historical and nostalgic sounds with ethnocultural specific references.

Billed as a “modern Persian opera”, the work draws heavily from Mirzeinali’s Iranian heritage, both musically and thematically. Cotton beating, a now-obsolete Iranian tradition, was performed in preparation for the New Year. With Nowruz just a day away, the timing of this premiere seems a mindful and generous choice.

As ritual, cotton beating centres the home, or to use a word from my Greek inheritance, it centres νοικοκυριό. There is no direct equivalent in English as the meaning of νοικοκυριό encompasses the home and the household, as well as the pride and labour inherent in the acts of caring for these. Cotton beating as tradition, also symbolizes warmth, joy, playfulness, connectedness, and restoration or renewal. Mirzeinali’s work speaks beautifully to each of these sentiments through music and through the action on stage.

Mirzeinali takes the bow-shaped monochord tool of the cotton beater as a starting point around which to build the sound language of the opera, employing acoustic cotton beating instruments of varying sizes as well as the sampled and manipulated sounds of these in the electronic track. Mirzeinali also combines traditional Persian instruments and practices like tar, daf, and classical Persian vocal style with Western classical idioms and instruments, live.

The sonic intimacy of the sections titled Tea Break and Slumber, combined with the dramatic ritualization of these ordinary, everyday acts, were the highlights of the opera for me. As were the moments in the electronic track where the spatialization of sound drew me in immediately and deeper into the work. I wanted more of this. 

Also, the symbolism in Slumber of the toiling matriarch character in her action of darning the quilt, and her placement at the centre of the stage while the cotton beaters and other characters encircled her in the final section, Dance of Cotton, was moving and evocative. The incredibly beautiful voice of tenor, Danial Bozorgi, ringing out above all else in this final section was another highlight, as was the ending celebratory procession.

There were other things to love as well of course. To start with, the unimposing subject matter of domesticity is quietly and satisfyingly subversive of the form of contemporary opera itself. 

Also satisfying was that a local cast of performers and crew of predominantly Iranian heritage created, produced, and performed the work. (I make this assumption from my reading of the names, some light desktop research, and from the expertise in traditional Persian instruments and vocal technique exemplified by the performers themselves). This can be read as more than an imperative artistic choice of course, as conversations around diversity, inclusion, and representation continue to urge and press all of us who work in the arts to do better. I’m glad to see The Con as an ally here, actively supporting and investing in artists and in new work that broadens and challenges what is traditionally considered “mainstream”.

Also, the show was sold out, which should be no surprise at all. Audiences are just people whose most fundamental motivation is to see/hear/feel something that speaks to them. Often they want to have this experience in the company of others with which they share a sense of commonality and belonging.  If your work is “diverse” but your audience is almost completely not “diverse”, then possibly you’re offering an experience of cultural tourism or cultural voyeurism. (And of course, this is done with varying degrees of awareness – sometimes, for example, artists choose to self-essentialize and make work of this nature, and that’s OK). In Panbe Zan, it seems that the lived experience and cultural identities of a majority in the audience reflected the lived experience and cultural identities of the creatives. In my mind, this points to a process of creation that is artist-led and that engages meaningfully and deeply, probably also ethically, with both subject matter and audience.

On a personal note, Panbe Zan inspired a return to writing on the Cultural Omnivore blog after a long two and a half years, because it offered up so much of what I love about new music in Australia. I look forward to more music from Mirzeinali and more new work from The Con like this.

Image credit: Mehrdad Ziaee Nejad

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.