Warrangu; River Story

We took the T4 line north on Sunday night. Full carriages snaking along the city’s veins, transporting families, and friends, young and not so young into the heart of the city. On Macquarie Street, we cut through the Eye Hospital grounds and across the Domain – a brisk walk in the dark along the wide, straight, long path towards the Art Gallery of NSW. There we join another line. This one of people, inching around the zig-zagging ramps and scaffolding. There would have been 300 of us. The show sold out its first and second allocation of tickets. 

I’d been eagerly anticipating it since tickets were released a few weeks ago. Actually, since I learned of the scope of the project a couple of years ago. Maybe even before that – maybe since learning that Rhyan Clapham (the artist also known as Dobby) was awarded the Peter Sculthorpe Composer Fellowship in 2017. I felt back then that something big and important would come of it. This work is five long (Covid-interrupted) years in the making. The anticipation was real. The expectation high. And Dobby and his team – on stage and behind the scenes – totally surpassed it with the premiere of Warrangu; River Story.

Warrangu; River Story is a body of work that is uniquely Dobby and completely contemporary Australian. It’s a work that can’t be categorized into any one genre, as Dobby uses all the musical languages and tools he is skilled in to tell the River Story. String quartet, brass, keys, drum kit, backing vocals, field recordings in nature (like the crunching sounds under foot of the dry river bed), recorded monologues and conversations with elders and knowledge keepers of the Brewarinna Shire, raps and lyrical poetry, beats – all are carefully constructed to tell the River Story. This is contemporary music, this is art music, this is hip hop, this is new music, this is activism, all together this is Dobby. 

Musically, the work is a song cycle, with each piece distinct in character and message and easily enjoyed as standalone tracks, but more meaningful when listened through as a whole. Dobby’s layering of sounds and textures feels intuitive. Instrumentation and colours surge or are whittled down at what feels like the right moments, with the strings often employed as a blanket beneath brass, or to create a sense of urgency and drive, sometimes punctuating a line of spoken word, making us pay attention. Piano and drums often propel the rhythm and double the electronic beats in true hip hop style. The sampling of sounds, like in Dirrpi Yuin Patjulinya (The Bird Names Himself), honours the beauty of the Butcher bird’s call in nature, and at the same time riffs off of it to create an entirely new soundscape.

The music is a vehicle though. We’re not there just to listen and enjoy the show. It’s the meaning carried on the music that Dobby wants us to take away. Warrangu tells the story of water mis-management and the devastating impacts to surrounding ecosystems of three rivers in North West NSW: the Barwon, the Bogan and the Culgoa Rivers. It also tells the story of the cultural significance of these rivers. In Dobby’s words (I’m paraphrasing from his speech at the after-show panel) Warrangu “is not a cultural work but it is culturally-informed”. You can read more in the program note here and hear Dobby’s interviews on ABC’s The Music Show here and  Awaye! here. There is care and there is fight in both the music and the message. The lyrics call for action and for holding power to account, they talk of water theft and water rights. They describe grief for how we treat the Earth and its greatest life source, water. 

After the concert, Ryan joins Bruce Pascoe and Badger Bates on stage in conversation. Their messages are powerful. I’m paraphrasing here my take aways: Water isn’t a resource, it is a home. Not doing anything about the problem once you’re aware of it, makes you culpable. When will Governments stop ignoring the deep wisdom of First Nations people in the care and management of the land and water? Why should ‘city folk’ care? Because water is life and because you love your children, don’t you?


My daughter and I talk about Warrangu; River Story, the music and the message, on the train as it snakes back south. It takes us to the place we are lucky enough to call home, where the Georges River flows into the bay. Bidjigal land. Unceded land. 

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.


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)


Sixteen thousand spinners hang in the narthex that is the Carriageworks foyer.

They shimmer, dispersing the light, casting shadows and patterns on the floor. It’s mesmerising. Its vastness envelopes. But it’s calming too, like sitting in a garden with a breeze blowing, mobiles swaying, chimes chinking.

The rows are ordered like a grid. The brain begins to make out the shapes: starburst … circle … concentric circles. Then: gun (!?) … bullet … tear-drop. The calm now replaced with a menacing. And in that subtle, personal moment of recognition, the exhibition’s message is transmitted and received.

This is Nick Cave’s Kinetic Spinner Forest, the first work you experience as you enter Until.

Until, is a meditation on racism, gun violence and power. The title references the phrase “innocent until proven guilty”, while the exhibition itself appropriates it, then inverts its meaning completely.

Like the issues it highlights, Until is immense and deeply thought-provoking. But Cave’s offering and invitation to us to respond is also beautiful and hopeful. Until is activism as art, coaxing the viewer to think about the issues it casts light on and to question our own response to them, as individuals and collectively in our communities.

Read my full write up for Audrey Journal here.

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.


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.