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Sometimes there’s this divide in the arts/cultural psyche between heritage practices (often seen as outdated, irrelevant and/or amateur) and contemporary practices (often viewed more favourably in the current climate where that loaded and kind of ambiguous word,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

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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Songs from Northam Avenue

Qanun, oud and Vietnamese zither meet alternative/indie/rock in Bankstown. Does that tweak your curiosity? It did mine.

In a nutshell this album is the product of two artistic residencies undertaken in Bankstown by Toby Martin through Urban Theatre Projects (UTP). Read about the origins of the project here. Listen to the artists interviewed on ABC RN here. Buy the album here. It’s worth every cent and more.

In the radio interview (link above), Martin says that the album isn’t documentary, but to me it feels part documentary, part social and political commentary. Continue reading