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

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)

Since Ali Died

The word poet, derives from the Greek, poiētēs, meaning he who makes, fashions, creates.

It’s a fitting description for Omar Musa, who uses as his materials – verse, music, story and us, the audience – to ‘make’ Since Ali Died, on stage before us, with us.

His tools are many. He’s a disarming and sometimes self-deprecating humour, essential when you need to take the temperature of the room quickly and react to it even quicker. He’s a true talent as a lyricist, hip hop artist, performer, raconteur and poet (the ‘writer of verses’ kind). He is also possessed of an easy going kind of ‘relatability’.

In Since Ali Died, Musa weaves together songs from the album of the same name, poetry from his collection, Millefiore, along with new material and playful exchanges with the audience. As cliché as it sounds, he takes us on a journey … kind of literally.

Picture a boat with Musa and his hero, boxing icon Muhammad Ali, travelling down a “restless, brown river” (Musa’s words) through memories of Musa’s boyhood in his hometown of Queanbeyan. He draws us into a hazy imagery of beautiful, sometimes painful, often really funny, always believable, stories and raps of his father, mother, troubled friends, and of a deep, unrequited love.

The river, of course, is an allegory of Musa himself, of his own struggles and his own path in life as the artist he is, one that has seen him branded “un-Australian” and placed him at the receiving end of the worst kind of vitriol for daring to call out racism and other injustices he has seen and lived. True to the essence of the hip-hop and spoken word genres it straddles, Since Ali Died, is as personal as it is political. And it’s very, very current. I took my teenage daughter along and she loved it just as much as I did.

She loved the beats the most, and that it was “personal and emotional”. My inner muso (or maybe it’s my inner ‘Westie’) loved the bass vibrating up through the bench seats of the Stables Theatre and Musa in rapper mode, most of all.

As a musician, he’s even better live than on recording, bringing a bigger energy to the songs, intense but still contained, through his movements as much as through his voice. (He has this one move – a pivot or a kind of pop – that he does when the beat drops or at a break … and it’s really, really, good).

And Sarah Corry? Love. Love. Love. She joined Musa for two songs and was just gorgeous. Smooth, rich but sweet, sweet vocals. She also brought a real counter-balance to the masculine energy in the room.

Since Ali Died is at Parramatta Riverside Theatres from 22-25 Jan and I’m tempted to see it again there in the knowing that the audience might be more of a ‘home-crowd’. It’s the sort of show that needs a certain type of energy from the audience to feed it, and Musa is the sort of performer that goes from really, really, good to pretty fricken brilliant with that.

First published on Audrey Journal

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

Right here. Right now.

In the program note, Artistic Director, Rosie Dennis describes Urban Theatre Project’s latest site-based, experiential and multifarious arts offering as an “ode” to the history and people of Blacktown.

And Right Here. Right Now. (RHRN) definitely felt like an ode to place for me. Not an elaborate, exultant or pompous kind of ode (something the word might conjure for some) but a musing, light-hearted, deep-feeling and honest kind of ode. Think Pablo Neruda’s Odes to Common Things.

Part installation and performance, part urban guided tour, part welcome dinner, RHRN is a bit like a choose-your-own-adventure where you’re not quite sure what the journey holds or how it finishes. You’re both observer and player moving through a series of scenes or sites…

RHRN is a joyful, honest, intriguing, curious, playful and delicious experience all at once. But it’s real delight lies in it’s praise of the ‘common’ – everyday places and people are remembered and hero-ed, and well they should be.

Read my write-up for Audrey Journal in full here

 

Forge: Intercultural Contemporary Performance

Front row in the Lennox at Riverside. An unfinished pentagram demarcates the floor. The stage is bare apart from it and the floor mics. I coaxed my thirteen-year-old daughter along, though she’d rather be listening to K-pop on Spotify. We watch Annalouise Paul in her latest complete solo work, Forge, and on the way home unpick the dance, music and narrative elements of the show. We talk about Annalouise’s beautiful and poised presence on stage, we wonder if the work is autobiographical and guess at its meaning…

Dance maker, Annalouise Paul, has enjoyed a long and successful career as an independent artist in Australia and internationally. Her artistic practice is inspired by her own cultural inheritance and by the concept of identity as an ever-evolving construct. Off the stage Annalouise is well-known for her activist work in the arts – advocating for culturally diverse practices and artists. She currently runs the Intercultural Dialogues Facebook group with 700 members globally – a place for discussion about arts/culture and for connection across cultures.

I ask Annalouise if she describes Forge as intercultural work. She replies, “I suppose it is. It examines two distinct dance languages that sit inside my body and very much create a tension, and the potential heresy of merging a tradition like flamenco with contemporary dance”. I ask if Forge fits neatly into one genre. She says it is “dance-music-theatre”, explaining that genres are for others to decide, and for boxes needing to be ticked. For her, music can’t be separated from dance, nor dance from story.

I ask a few more questions. Annalouise is as articulate, dynamic and deep-feeling in words as she is in performance. Read on for the full interview and my endnotes. First published in The Music Trust’s Loudmouth Magazine here.
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Tip of the Spear

His first album was named Subversive.
This latest release: Tip of the Spear.
The liner notes credit his militia – a long list of vocalists alongside a couple of instrumentalists that feature on the new album.
Track one is titled First Casualty.

There’s a pattern here, right? You can see where this is heading.

The media release Pat flicks me reads almost like a warning:

“His latest offering is on that good Melbourne hip hop, soul, jazz tip. While it will still put him on an ASIO watch list, the sharp lyricism provides informed articulated critiques as well alternatives to the current dominant paradigm. Delving into ideas, theory and reflections around homogenous culture, economic structures, resistance, systems of learning, illegal detention, invasion, collective depression, utilitarian norms, love and more.”

For some artists, their art-making, politics and activism are one and the same. Patrick Marks, aka Pataphysics, is such an artist. In track 2, Frames, Pat protests oppressive political structures. In track 3, Shake The Roots, he protests greed and corruption. More protests follow. Track 4 – The dumbing down of the citizenry through mass institutionalized schooling. Track 7 – War, dispossession, colonization. Track 8 – Australia’s abhorrent and dehumanizing treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. You get the gist.

Now, I do love a good protest song. And it’s obvious this album is full of them. So Pat really ‘had me at hello’ so to speak. But what is even more impressive than his intelligent and critically thoughtful lyric, is that the album really holds it’s own musically.

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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

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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Iraqi Music Festival

The Iraqi Music Festival has become a fixture in my cultural calendar. How do I love it? I could count the (many) ways – but I’ll sum it up with three main points:

1.Heritage/folkloric traditions and contemporary culture are showcased together

Sometimes there’s this divide in the arts/cultural psyche between heritage practices (often seen as outdated, irrelevant and/or amateur) and contemporary practices (often viewed more favourably in the current climate where that loaded and kind of ambiguous word, “innovation”, is used as a marker of value or excellence).

But last night’s showcase music event at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre saw traditional dress/dance/music interspersed with more modern forms in the same program. And this concert sat within the overarching Iraqi Cultural Festival program that comprised of: a visual arts exhibition and program of events by Iraqi-Australian artists exploring memory of place, storytelling and identity; award winning new short films made by Iraqis living in Australia and abroad; and a keynote address by director, producer and civil activist, Mohamed Al-Daradji.

What this annual festival does so beautifully is to ignore that stigma around folkloric forms by placing them within the continuum of cultural expression as it evolves and responds to changing times and environments. And what the festival achieves is even more beautiful – it acts as a vehicle to connect people across place, time and cultures (within and outside of the various Iraqi cultures it represents). So, in that sense it is both a balm for the displaced and a thread pulling tightly across generations and homelands.

2.Arabic audiences know exactly when to clap

There’s a circular debate that’s been running forever in Western classical music circles – that of when an audience “should” clap. We could learn a lot from Arabic audiences I think. There is a definite etiquette around clapping of course. Eg: you clap at the end of a solo/improv section and at the end of each song, but Arabic audiences are also cued to clap and join in the singing at times by the singer on stage. And when they are cued, they respond, en masse and in sync. The audience almost becomes part of the performance, as the music is experienced and enacted together by performers and audience.

And cheering… well… you can do that whenever the mood takes you. And the mood took the guy sitting behind me often. It was great! And if you want to click your fingers, clap along or sway in your seat, or even answer your phone mid-concert (like the guy beside me) … get this… no one cares! No one tut-tuts you or scowls at you. How wonderful, how refreshing… how freeing as an audience member. [Disclaimer: there’s a time and a place for this stuff, right? Don’t blame me if you get chastised for taking duck-faced selfies mid-act at the opera, k?]

3.The inner workings of the ensemble are laid bare on stage

The other really refreshing aspect of the performance last night was just how interactive the musicians on stage were with each other. Head nods, hand cues, big conducting signals at pivotal moments by the leading performer were all just naturally and authentically part of the performance. There was also banter between performers on stage (what looked like in-jokes being shared) and a photographer traversing the stage to get the shots he needed, interacting with musicians and audience while doing so… again…. no one seemed offended in the slightest.

This view into the workings of the ensemble and a performance is exciting for audiences and makes the experience all the more inviting. You feel privy to the (often hidden) dynamics of the ensemble and that just adds a whole other layer of interest and engagement.

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There’s a lot more that I loved about the Iraqi Music Festival, not the least of which is the fact that we are lucky enough to have a maestro like Imad Rahem (pictured above playing violin) grace local stages, or the fact that this music resonates with me on a personal level because of the similarities between it and the music of my cultural inheritance… but I might post about those things another time.