It all began with the semiquavers. Bashing through a Bach prelude, I noticed that the dots on the page seemed to be dancing in time with the music. That might work okay in a scene from the 1940 Disney animation Fantasia, but when you’re out of practice, you need the notes to keep still. So I stopped practising.
The next clue was my creeping reluctance to read the papers. Once an avid consumer of news, I’d become incapable of reading an article from start to finish. Short attention span, I thought. Just another victim of the collective Attention Deficit Disorder afflicting us in the information age. (Strange, though, that I could still listen to a two-hour radio documentary without a problem.) So I cancelled my newspaper subscription.
Next there was the Light Deficit Disorder. My bedside lamp had served me well for decades, but now it was too dim, so a second lamp was installed above my head. Late at night, though, and even with two lamps glaring, I still found it hard to get through more than a few pages of a novel before having to close my eyes. I reluctantly considered resigning from my book club.
By now, any sensible person would have figured out what was wrong, but when you’ve experienced a miracle your senses sometimes desert you.
Fifteen years ago, I couldn’t see clearly past the end of the bed. Trying to find my way back to my beach towel after an ocean swim was like a Burke and Wills expedition. I needed a guide to help me find my way onstage for the opera productions I was involved in. Without glasses, I couldn’t navigate my way to my front door, let alone to the other side of town.
Then, at the turn of the millennium, I paid a man with more than a decade’s worth of specialist medical training an awful lot of money to sedate me, prop open my eyelids and slice off a tiny section of each eyeball. When I awoke, I could see everything.
Trees that used to look like plates of mashed peas when I took off my glasses suddenly had individual leaves on their individual branches. Blackboard menus in restaurants were legible, and actors on distant theatre stages were recognisably male or female.
My spectacles were donated to the local op shop and I invested in my very first pair of non-prescription sunnies. Through the miracle of modern ophthalmological medicine I now had 20-20 vision, and I felt super-human.
So you would understand my reluctance to admit that those halcyon days had come to an end. Laser eye surgery might have cured my short-sightedness, but as far as I’m aware no one has found a cure for old age. Like practically every other forty-something on the planet, I was succumbing to the sad inevitability of age-related long-sightedness.
Driving from one place to another might still have been a doddle without glasses, but as soon as I strayed from my usual routes and needed to look up the street directory, I was stuffed. Printed street names that used to look like logical sequences of letters from the Roman alphabet now looked like trails of squashed ants.
The good news was that I didn’t have to give up piano practice, newspapers or my book club; the bad news was that I had to rejoin the human race. The first time the optometrist led me to one of those back-lit racks of spectacles and asked me to choose a new pair, I panicked and fled the store.
I felt like shouting: I AM NOT READY TO HAVE A DISABILITY AGAIN. I don’t want to fish around endlessly in the bottom of my bag for glasses, leave them behind at cafes, accidentally swap them with my partner’s, forget that they’re perched on top of my head, or sit on them when I leave them on the beach towel. And I don’t want to have to attach them to one of those little plastic chains that cartoon grannies wear around their necks.
But resistance was futile. Returning to the optometrist, I ordered the cheapest frames they had and, when the new glasses arrived, I put them on, bought a newspaper and read it from cover to cover. Then I finished the novel my book club mates had raved about six months ago. And I loved it. Then I went to the piano, opened up Bach’s 24 Preludes and Fugues and began to play. The notes stood still and the accidentals stuck to the notes. As I began to enjoy the sound of the music again, I remembered that my hearing is still superhuman. For now, anyway.
(This column was first published in The Big Issue, No 378, 12th April 2011)
If you haven’t caught up with the Danish crime series ‘The Killing‘ yet, you’ve probably had less sleepless nights than the rest of us.
The series was broadcast on SBS television in Australia in 2010, but I’ve only recently watched it (all twenty gripping episodes) on DVD.
‘The Killing’ (or ‘Forbrydelsen’ as it’s originally titled in Danish) is being broadcast on TV in the UK right now, hence the recent spate of newspaper articles focussing on Sara Lund (the lead female character) and her woolen jumper collection.
In honour of this growing popular cultural obsession, we’ve been workshopping a few thesis titles, in case any Lund fans would like to turn their obsession into a post-graduate qualification.
Feel free to pinch one of these, and we’d also welcome your own contributions to the list (send them in via the Contact page on this website):
1) ‘Knit One Purl One: potency and subversion in Lund’s performative persona’
2) ‘Tightly Wound: the repression of Scandinavian sexuality in a post-Feminist state with particular reference to the the post-patriarchal performative discourse of Sara Lund’s jumper in Forbrydelsen’
3) ‘Passionless Post-Fashion Praxis: the captioned capture of post-feminist cache’
4) ‘Hand Wash With Care: re-imagining the Scandinavian screen-based sweater-crime sub-genre’
5) ‘Lund, Lanolin and Liminality: the agrarian fashion aesthetics of Danish TV crime’
6) ‘The Missing Body: emptiness and absence in the embodiment of empathy as expressed by Sara Lund’
I know we love to sentimentalise victims. When bad stuff happens to people, we assume they’re saints. Journalists are the worst offenders. Even tax-dodging, cartel-concocting captains of industry become national heroes when they get ill or die, according to the newspapers. But I refuse to let my embarrassment about the worst narrative clichés of my profession prevent me from stating what I believe to be true: the residents of Christchurch are the nicest people I ever met.
Two years ago I spent a week in this geographically-displaced English regional town, performing in the Christchurch Arts Festival. The niceness began even before I arrived. Boarding the plane from Melbourne, I observed a couple of young New Zealanders helping a hunched elderly lady to put her hand luggage in the compartment above her head. A couple of moments earlier I’d overheard one of them saying quietly to the other ‘Gosh it’s a bit funky round here, isn’t it?’ Perhaps they didn’t realize that the faint smell of faeces was coming from the old woman they were about to help. Perhaps they did, and it didn’t matter. Either way, they smiled benignly at her and made sure the door of the compartment was firmly shut on her scuffed bag.
Smiling was quite a thing in Christchurch. Strangers walking past you in the street all seemed to nod and smile, and many of them said hello. Each hello felt like a personal welcome, as if they were surprised and delighted that you actually chose to visit their town. It was mid-winter and most days the temperature didn’t go above single digits, so I bought some possum socks and felt at one with the other possum-sock, possum-hat and possum-scarf-wearing pedestrians as I walked to the Festival venue each day from my hotel.
The hotel was across the road from Hagley Park, a vast clean green space bounded by a shallow stream optimistically called the Avon River. The park was swarming with ducks, all busy with their complicated social lives. Handsome emerald-necked drakes bullied each other out of the way of Plain Jane ducks, oblivious to the joggers and dog-walkers and hand-holding lovers who criss-crossed the park all day long. I got lost in the Botanical Gardens that adjoin Hagley Park one day and had to be talked out of there by a friend on a mobile phone. There are worse places to get lost.
The Avon River is fed by an underground spring, a taxi driver proudly informed me. It hasn’t flooded in 150 years. Children learn to fish in it, and every five years it’s re-stocked with salmon and trout, just so that every child has a good chance of catching something. Best not to drink from it, he advised me, but it’s pretty damn clear, isn’t it!
Coming from the dry flatlands of bayside Melbourne, it was extraordinary for me to walk out of the hotel each day to the sight of the snow-covered mountains that line both sides of the Canterbury Valley, like luscious slices of lemon meringue pie. One day we caught a bus to the foot of the Port Hills and hiked up to Evans Pass where we stood sucking in that clean cold air and taking photos of each other in front of faraway Lyttelton Harbour. Seasoned trampers passed us on the trail with their nobbly sticks and their nobbly knees and their ever-smiling wind-chapped faces.
By the time we made it to the bottom of the hill our legs were shaking, but we found a café in London Street, Lyttelton with old typewriters and children’s bicycles hanging from the walls beside pictures of Che Guevara and a vinyl-spinning DJ playing hits of the 80’s. The coffee was so good I had to have three cups. Then we ordered fish and chips across the road and ate them sitting on the window ledge of a pub down by the port, enjoying the afternoon sun and licking our salty fingers clean.
Back in Christchurch the Festival people looked after us as if we were their long lost cousins. There was friendly Wendy on the lights, and M the muscley sound guy who’d spent four years living in Melbourne, hoping to make it big as a musician. He and his band mates had been ‘kingpins’ in Christchurch, he said, but they wanted to find a bigger pond, and the word on the street was that Melbourne was the ‘coolest city in the southern hemisphere’ for rock’n’roll.
But the big pond wasn’t so welcoming and he ended up working in JB Hifi selling guitar strings and missing his family. Eventually he came back home to Christchurch and found a doe-eyed girlfriend who was an equestrian star. ‘She doesn’t know much about music but she knows a shitload more about horses than I ever will’, he said.
‘What was it I was trying to get the horse to do? The one after a trot?’ he asked her one night when we were having after-show drinks in the bar. ‘That’d be a canter’ she replied with a patient smile.
When our shows were all finished I didn’t want to go home. I fantasized about coming back in summer and bringing a big lilo and floating all the way down the Avon River to the sea (is that where it goes?) one warm day, lying on my back watching the sun trickling through the fronds of the weeping willows, salmon nibbling at my fingers.
I’d never even heard of the word ‘liquefaction’ back then.
I’ve been watching the TV news this week and I haven’t seen anyone in Christchurch smiling.
Having survived the infamous Clarinet-gate episode of January 2011 (I left my instrument in the Qantas Club Lounge at Melbourne Airport and flew to Sydney to play in the opening gig of PK’s four night ‘A to Z’ Sydney Festival shows at the City Recital Hall – doh! the clarinet was found safe and sound, by the way) I returned home to Melbourne to contemplate (with some relief) a week of listening to other people perform.
On Monday night this week I went to the Melbourne Town Hall to hear the Australian Chamber Orchestra present the first of their 2011 National Concert Season programs with guest baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes. The program was an eclectic mix of old and new, original and re-arranged works. There is always that moment when the ACO first begin playing when you remember just how exquisite their attention to detail is, and how they always perform as if they are one single organism with multiple arms. You know you are in safe hands.
Mahler’s Adagietto (from the 5th Symphony) began so softly, there was almost something sinister in the promise of the ‘forte’ passages to come. It’s a work that provokes (perhaps embodies) intense nostalgia and vulnerability – the perfect emotional state for an audience at the beginning of a program of widely contrasting musical moods.
Artistic Director and lead violinist Richard Tognetti played a cycle of Five Melodies by Prokofiev, pieces that were originally composed as wordless songs. Tognetti stood bent-kneed, as if staggering under the weight of a gold-plated violin (in fact it’s a ‘priceless’ 1743 Guarneri del Gesu) but played with such lightness of touch, the instrument could have been made of balsa wood.
Here’s a question for musical train-spotters: in the first of the five Profofiev pieces, the main melodic motif seems to be exactly the same as the ‘Could you coo, could you care…’ phrase in Gershwin’s ‘I’ve Got a Crush on You’ – did George borrow from Sergei??
After a short orchestral work by Robert Saxton, Teddy Tahu Rhodes was up next (‘up’ being the operative word – he was literally twice the height of some ACO members) and was very charming, particularly in his delivery of Richard Rodney Bennett’s ‘Songs Before Sleep’. They were written less than a decade ago but there is something very olde-fashioned – and appealing – about RRB’s setting of these gothic nursery rhymes.
I wasn’t as enamoured with Tognetti’s chamber orchestra arrangements of ‘An die ferne Geliebte’ (To the distant beloved), a collection of songs by Beethoven that is credited with being The First Ever Song Cycle. I kept wondering WHY you would think that an arrangement of this work for orchestra was a good idea. Art song is so much it’s OWN thing, and that ‘thing’ is so much about intimacy and the duet between the piano and voice, but that intimacy was lost when an orchestra was substituted for a piano. Plus Teddy Tahu Rhodes somehow lacked the gravitas that this kind of art song requires; he kept mugging and flirting with the audience in a very musical-theatre kind of way.
I had similar qualms about Tognetti’s orchestral arrangement of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 3 in D Major. The work lost the sense of an intimate conversation between a few instruments that you get with a quartet. Sure, it was very pleasant to listen to but not nearly as moving as the original. (Maybe Tognetti has too much time on his hands? Hard to believe)
Here’s another question for you: is the fact that Melbourne audience members rarely seem to clap at ‘inappropriate moments’ (ie. between movements) these days a good thing or a bad thing? Is it a sign that only the most dedicated and knowledgeable music fans, those with significant cultural capital, come to classical concerts any more? Or is it a sign that we have ALL now been educated in the etiquette of listening to classical music?
And did anyone else in the audience notice that the clock on the Melbourne Town Hall organ was stuck on 3:47 for the whole concert? Perhaps it’s a deliberate ploy to make us believe that when we’re listening to fine music, we enter another realm, beyond the reach of time. (Or maybe someone’s forgotten to notify the blokes in the Maintenance Depot)
On Tuesday night I attended the joint birthday party for the Melbourne Recital Centre (turning 2) and its benefactor Dame Elizabeth Murdoch (turning 102). They’re both looking in remarkably good shape. After welcome drinks in the (insert car brandname here) foyer, we were seated in the Elizabeth Murdoch Hall for speeches and performances of some of Dame E’s favourite works. (Still feels like entering a United Nations meeting room, with excellent acoustics)
The VIPs lined up on the stage throughout the celebratory concert occasionally looked uncomfortable, and when they got up to speak they had to turn their backs to the audience to acknowledge each other’s esteemed presence, but the speeches were mostly mercifully short and relatively informal. Premier (and Arts Minister) Ted Baillieu even referred somewhat enigmatically to ‘the girls bringing in the chairs’ as being ‘like Jacques Tati’, before describing Dame E as ‘one of my mum’s best mates’. (Simon Crean made the same boast, in a message read out later on the night)
The Murdoch tradition of arts philanthropy will be continued with the addition of a new Elizabeth Murdoch Creative Development Fund to ‘support the Melbourne Recital Centre’s programs’ and ‘nurture talent’. It will include a ‘Great Romantics Prize’, supported by Dame E’s grand-daughter Julie Kantor, and a program to allow more Victorians from disadvantaged backgrounds to attend MRC concerts.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard sent a special message to Dame E, referring to her ‘humility of character’, her ‘deep sense of public duty’ and describing her as ‘a gift and a treasure for our nation.’
And in between speeches we heard a movement of a Mozart Piano Sonata by Caroline Almonte, the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet played pianissississimo by Ensemble Liaison and friends, an improvisation by the Mannins Gould Jones Trio (happy to listen to David Jones and Tony Gould any time, but the cello as jazz instrument just doesn’t do it for me) and a strangely conservative gospel number from the Soweto Gospel Choir (a musical boomerang, from Africa to America and back to Africa again).
Then it was out into the (insert car brandname here) foyer again for more celebratory drinks, after farewelling the birthday girl who (according to her daughter Anne Kantor) said recently ‘It’s so very tiring to be so old but i DO love living’.
Last night it was a very different crowd who turned up at the Forum Theatre for the premiere screening of ‘Murundak: Songs of Freedom’, the new documentary film about the Black Arm Band. I was commissioned to write the program essay for the very first Black Arm Band performance at the Melbourne Festival in October 2006 (I will paste in that essay at the end of this blog) so it was a pleasure to join in the celebrations for this wonderful record of the ensemble’s early work.
Film-makers Rhys Graham and Natasha Gadd and producers Sarah Bond and Phillipa Campey travelled with the indigenous musicians off and on for four years as they toured capital cities and indigenous communities in Australia and then flew to London, filming backstage and on stage as the musicians performed some of the best known indigenous pop/folk/protest songs: ‘Treaty’, ‘Took the Children Away’, ‘Down City Streets’, ‘We Have Survived’, ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’, ‘Yil Lull’ and Goanna’s ‘Solid Rock’.
‘Murundak’ means ‘alive’ in Woiwurrung language, and the film is intensely moving, showing the emotional cost to the singers of re-telling their stories of suffering and survival in song. Bart Willoughby tells the film-makers, ‘Some of us old fellas have this kind of Vietnam syndrome, and we’ve never even been to war’. And most audience members at the Forum screening were quietly weeping, watching footage of the late Ruby Hunter hugging her husband and soul-mate Archie Roach after he performs ‘Took The Children Away’ on the day former PM Kevin Rudd delivered The Apology to the Stolen Generations.
Archie describes the advantages of singing his pain in songs: ‘You walk away stronger, you’re not bleeding, and you haven’t hurt anyone else’. In London, Kutcha Edwards marvels at the experience of ‘singing to the mob who put us in the predicament we’re in’.
BAB founder Steven Richardson, Melbourne Festival Director Brett Sheehy and Black Arm Band members including Emma Donovan, Kutcha Edwards, Dan Sultan, Shellie Morris, Lou Bennett, Bart Willoughby, Rachel Maza, Stephen Pigram and Archie Roach watched the film, then the musicians delivered a high-energy set of BAB songs for the rest of the audience members downstairs in the big Forum auditorium.
Tonight, Friday February 11th, the St Kilda Festival will showcase the film in a free outdoor screening in the O’Donnell gardens, St Kilda, Melbourne from 8.30pm, and it will be shown on SBS Television later this year, followed by a Madmen DVD release. Congratulations to everyone involved – this is an important piece of Australian cultural history, recorded now for posterity.
Black Arm Band – Murundak program essay – Sian Prior – June 2006
During the past decade, there’s been no escaping the phrase ‘the black armband view of history’. First used by Australian historian Professor Geoffrey Blainey in his 1993 Sir John Latham Memorial Lecture, it has since become a handy rhetorical shield thrown up by those wishing to dispute the history of injustices perpetrated by white Australia against its indigenous inhabitants.
The meaning of the phrase has expanded over the years, as it has penetrated deeper within the public discourse. Originally used to describe the attitude of particular historians, this insidious metaphor now conjures up images of a race of people interred in the past, immobilised by self-pity and (with the active support of their whitefella friends) obsessed with ‘shaming and blaming’.
But as a description of how current generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (and their whitefella friends) have responded to centuries of injustice, it is simply inaccurate, and for evidence of this we need look no further than the outpouring of indigenous popular music over the past four decades.
From the driving country-pop of Vic Simms’ ‘Stranger in My Land’ (1973) to Yothu Yindi‘s international dance hit, ‘Treaty’ (1991), from the bitter-sweet female harmonies of Tiddas’ ‘Anthem’ (1996) to the urban hip-hop of Local Knowledge’s ‘Blackfellas’ (2005), songs have been vehicles for the expression of both anger and pride, for political protest and profound optimism. Many of these songs have been the result of respectful collaborations between black and white artists, authentic examples of reconciliation in action.
As Gunditjmara singer/songwriter Richard Frankland has said, ‘Our songs tell stories of real things, real people and real situations’(1). The subject matter of these songs has been as varied as the individual experiences of their creators, but certain themes have recurred over the years.
There have been songs celebrating indigenous resistance to oppression, such as Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly’s ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ (1991), about the struggle of the Gurindji people for their traditional lands at Wattie Creek. The same story was originally told in Ted Egan’s ‘Gurindji Blues’, recorded back in 1971 by a young member of the Gumatj clan of the Yolngu people, Galarrwuy Yunupingu (later to be named Indigenous Australian of the Year).
Murri singer-songwriter Joe Geia’s 1988 song ‘Kwanji’ celebrates ‘a hard-fighting man… forces can’t seem to put (Kwanji) down’. Paul Kelly’s ‘Pigeon/Jundamurra’ tells the story of an Aboriginal resistance leader whose name is ‘spreading all across the valleys… like a burning flame’ (1989), and in ‘Cannot Buy My Soul’, Kev Carmody reminds us that when it comes to freedom fighters of any race or creed, ‘you may take our life and liberty, but you can never buy our soul.’ (1991)
There have been many songs written that reaffirm indigenous Australians’ connections to place. Some are overtly political, mirroring contemporary struggles for indigenous land rights. In 1989, Alice Springs band Amunda recorded a song called ‘1788’ which poses the question, ‘When will he get back his lands from the white man’s hands?’ The Sunrize Band from Arnhem Land spelt it out loud and clear in their song ‘Land Rights’; ‘So let’s stand up for our land rights ‘cause it’s part of the dreamtime’. (rec. 1990)
Several songs written during the late 70’s, including ‘Bran Nue Dae’ by Broome musician Jimmy Chi, became strongly associated with the dispute over land rights on the Noonkanbah Station in the south Kimberley, between the traditional owners and an oil-mining corporation. (2) That song later became the title of Chi’s first nationally acclaimed musical, and along with his second major work, ‘Corrugation Road’ , is considered a major artistic landmark in contemporary Aboriginal arts.
Other songs have had a gentler message, celebrating the power and the beauty of the land. In ‘Uncle Willie’ (rec. 1988), Joe Geia eulogises the ‘mountains and streams’ that are ‘part of our dreams’. Two years later Bart Willoughby’s band Mixed Relations recorded a song called ‘Our Mother’ which describes how the land ‘cared for us with love and affection, she made us strong’.
Blekbela Mujik’s ‘Kakadu’ describes how the world-famous escarpment ‘stands up like a beauty in the blazing sunlit sky’ and in ‘Nitmiluk’ (the Jawoyn language place name for Katherine Gorge) the band celebrated the return of that place to its traditional owners; ‘You’re the father of this land, break the chains and help to set me free.’ (rec.1990)
Yothu Yindi is just one of a number of Aboriginal bands who celebrated the ground-breaking 1992 Mabo decision by the High Court of Australia (overturning the doctrine of terra nullius) in song; ‘Terra nullius is dead and gone, We were right, that we were here, They were wrong, that we weren’t here.’ (‘Mabo’, 1994) A decade later, Ngarrindjeri singer/songwriter Ruby Hunter performed her songs in a concert called ‘Kura Tungar’ (Songs from the River) with the Australian Art Orchestra, reaffirming her ongoing connection to her traditional lands along the Murray River.
Alongside these artists there have been a number of significant non-indigenous songwriters whose work has responded to the Aboriginal politics of land. In 1982, Shane Howard’s band Goanna released a song called ‘Solid Rock’ which became a hugely successful mainstream rock anthem. The song re-tells the story of European invasion and its impact on traditional indigenous culture;’ They were standin’ on the shore one day, Saw the white sails in the sun, Wasn’t long before they felt the sting, white man, white law, white gun, Don’t tell me that it’s justified, ’cause somewhere, someone lied… genocide.’ In addition to his prolific song writing output, Shane Howard has also worked as a producer, recording many albums by indigenous artists over the past two decades.
One of the founders of the Warumpi Band, Neil Murray, is another non-indigenous musician who has written prolifically about Aboriginal relationships with the land. In an interview for Rhythms magazine in 2000, Murray said, ‘My entire creative output has been a quest for meaning in this country… people always say that something in my sound… evokes a sense of place.’ (3) His most famous song, ‘My Island Home’, became a hit for Torres Strait Island singer Christine Anu, and an unofficial anthem of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
In the introduction to their book ‘Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places,’ (2004) authors Peter Dunbar-Hall and Chris Gibson write that ‘music is used to sing the past into the present and the future’. (4) This is nowhere more evident than in the use of traditional languages, both in the names of indigenous bands, and in the lyrics of their songs.
Until the 1980’s very few Aboriginal pop musicians had sung in language. Country singer Isaac Yama was a pioneer, performing his original songs in Pitjantjatjara in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s (5). When jailed singer/songwriter Vic Simms recorded his song ‘Stranger in my Land’ in Long Bay, back in 1973, he sang ‘The black Australian has his pride, his culture and his dreamtime’. But the fact that this song, and all the other songs on his debut album ‘The Loner’, were written entirely in English, could be seen as evidence of the stifling of that culture.
Ten years later, things were beginning to change. Languages that had been forbidden in many missions and schools in the first half of the twentieth century would find new expression, and new audiences, in the songs of artists like Joe Geia, and bands such as Blekbela Mujik, Tiddas, Yothu Yindi and Warumpi Band.
According to Neil Murray, the Warumpi Band’s debut single, ‘Jailangaru Pakarnu’ (Out from Jail, 1983) was the first rock song to be released entirely in an Aboriginal language. ‘Warumpi’ is another version of ‘Papunya’, the name of the central Australian Aboriginal community from which the band emerged in the early 1980’s, and is sung in Luritja. (6)
Back in the late 1970’s, however, Jimmy Chi was writing and recording songs with his band Kuckles (featuring Stephen Pigram) which employed Aboriginal language lyrics, including the mini-album ‘Milliya Rumurra’ (1979). Their song ‘Nyul Nyul Girl’ was one of the first to substantially employ Aboriginal lyrics, and one of the first contemporary love songs in Aboriginal language.
‘Yothu Yindi’ means ‘mother and child’, and according to lead singer Manduwuy Yunupingu, the band used the traditional music, instruments and languages of the Gumatj and Rirratjingu clans of North Eastern Arnhem land specifically to ‘create impact for our culture’. (7) Yothu Yindi, Blekbela Mujik, Joe Geia, No Fixed Address, Mixed Relations, Kev Carmody, Coloured Stone and Sunrize Band have all incorporated didjeridu into their song arrangements in recent decades, and many indigenous bands have also used clap sticks. When a re-mix of Yothu Yindi’s song ‘Treaty’ became a world-wide dance hit in 1992, it ensured that the music, the instruments, the language and the political aspirations of the band members reached an international audience.
More recently, urban indigenous rapper Munki Mark has been using his grandmother’s language, Jarwwadjali, the language of the Grampians in western Victoria, and Arrernte, spoken in Alice Springs. (8) The title track on indigenous hip hop band Local Knowledge’s 2005 EP ‘Blackfellas’ also includes some rapping in language.
If indigenous popular music can be seen as an antidote to the image of pathos and paralysis evoked by the phrase ‘the black arm band view of history’, that is not to suggest that all indigenous songwriters have ‘eliminated the negative’ in order to ‘accentuate the positive’.
Archie Roach’s 1990 song ‘Took the Children Away’ is a poetic but unflinching account of the Australian government’s policy of forcibly removing Aboriginal children from their families. Twenty-five years earlier, Bob Randall had written a haunting song on the same subject called ‘Brown Skin Baby’, described by music writer Clinton Walker as ‘the flower in a corner of the dustbin of history’ (9).
The first album of indigenous musician and activist Bobby McLeod, ‘Culture Up Front’, wasn’t released until 1988, but over a decade before he’d been ‘telling it like it was’ for many Aboriginal Australians, in live performances of his song, ‘Sick of Being Treated Like a Low Down Mangy Dog’. (10)
Many of the songs of Murri musician Kev Carmody are inflected by a deep and righteous anger at social injustice. At the same time, they are informed by a sophisticated critical understanding of Australian political relations. In ‘Strange People’, he sings ‘Technology enslaves, the media blinds, our money in the bank supports environmental crimes, strange, strange people inhabit this earth’ (rec. 1995)
But alongside the anger there is an equally deep well of optimism in the lyrical output of Kev Carmody, nowhere more evident than in the song he co-wrote with Paul Kelly, ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’; ‘This is the story of something much more, how power and privilege cannot move a people, who know where they stand, and they stand in their law’.
Perhaps it is in the words of Joe Geia’s bicentennial lament ‘Yil Lull’ (1988) that we can find the quintessential mix of grief and hope, acknowledgement of the past and optimism for the future, that has characterised indigenous popular music in recent decades; ‘I sing for the red and the blood that was shed… and I’m singing for the gold and the new year, young and old… now I’m singing just for you…’
The texts listed below will amply reward anyone interested in further exploring the work of those artists – and institutions – who have been the ‘spear tips’ of this contemporary music movement. Places like CASM, for instance, the Adelaide-based Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music, which was a potent incubator for a number of influential Aboriginal artists during the late 1970s and early 1980s, or CAAMA, the Alice Springs-based Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association which first recorded and broadcast many significant indigenous musicians. Artists like Bart Willoughby of No Fixed Address and Buna Lawrie of Coloured Stone (creators of the enduringly popular song ‘Black Boy’), whose bands toured the country exhaustively in the early 1980’s ‘on the smell of an oily rag’. They have not yet achieved the mainstream recognition they deserve, but they remain two of the most loved and respected indigenous musicians amongst Aboriginal communities.
In October this year, as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, some of these indigenous musicians will come together to form the ‘Black Arm Band’, for a series of two concerts called ‘Murundak’ (meaning “alive” in woiwurrung language) at the Hamer Hall. The Black Arm Band will include Christine Anu, Archie Roach, Ruby Hunter, Bart Willoughby, Stephen Pigram, Kutcha Edwards, Kev Carmody, Mark Atkins, Lou Bennett, Joe Geia and Dave Arden, joined by Paul Kelly, Neil Murray and Shane Howard.
The concerts are billed as a ‘celebration of music as an instrument of identity, resistance and resilience,’ and are meant as a tribute to the lasting musical legacy of these ground-breaking artists. But they will have another important function; to begin the reclamation (or perhaps subversion) of a highly divisive little phrase, re-defining it as The Black Arm Band’s view of history.
1. p. 24, Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places.
2. p 236. ibid
3. pp. 180 – 181, Singing Australia
4. p. 17, Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places.
5. p. 232, Buried Country.
7. p. 179, Popular Music and Local Identity
8. p. 217, Buried Country
9. p. 22, Blak Times, Meanjin Vol 65 No 1
10. p. 156, Buried Country
– ‘Meanjin’, Blak Times, Vol 65, No 1 (2005)
– ‘Singing Australian: A History of Folk and Country Music’, Graeme Smith (2005)
– ‘Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places’, Peter Dunbar-Hall and Chris Gibson (2004)
– ‘Buried Country’, Clinton Walker (2000)
– ‘The Didjeridu: From Arnhem Land to Internet’, Karl Neuenfeldt (1997)
– ‘Popular Music and Local Identity’, Tony Mitchell (1996)
As we shuck off the old year and steel ourselves for the new (2011 – good lord! 1991 still feels recent to me) it’s worth cranking up the memory machine and noting some highlights of the cultural calendar. I’ll start with books (theatre, opera and film to come later):
‘The Boat’ by Nam Le – this book could be called ‘A Stretch of the Imagination’ (if that title hadn’t already been taken), given the astonishing authenticity with which Nam Le inhabits the minds and worlds of his fictional (and sometimes not so fictional) characters. I heard him being interviewed by Jo Case at the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival in October where Le told us that ‘as writers we need to go to the painful places’. A timely reminder. Read ‘The Boat’ and fall in love with the short story again.
‘Small Island’ by Andrea Levy – I finally caught up with this novel that most book-loving folk read years ago. Suddenly so much about the London i first encountered as a school-girl in 1979 (eg. steel drums bands at school assembly) made sense to me. A great companion to some of Zadie Smith’s best writing.
‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ by Jeff Kinney (parts 1,2,3 and 4) – thanks to Reuben Cumming (aged 11) for putting me onto this stuff. Hilarious. Not just for kids (or maybe for small kids and big kids)
‘Exposure’ by Joel Magarey – a funny/sad tale of a young man circumnavigating the world, trying to negotiate a peace treaty with his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Works beautifully as a rare insight into the fear-filled life of an OCD sufferer, as a travel book, and as a romance.
‘Solar’ by Ian McEwan – I hated most of the main characters, loathed the version of human nature that McEwan offers us, but loved this book about climate change politics. Clearly we’re all rooned – but you gotta laugh or you’ll just curl up inside a dark cupboard and wait for The End.
‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee – it had been about thirty years since I last read this masterpiece and fortunately i’d forgotten most of the plot so i could enjoy it all over again – in bed, in the bath, on the tram, couldn’t put it down. I’ve already pencilled in the next-re-read for 2041.
‘Six Impossible Things’ by Fiona Wood – funny funny funny young adult novel that works as a page-turner for not-so-young adults too. Local, universal, pop cultural, and with a good old-fashioned happy ending.
‘Freedom’ by Jonathan Franzen – finished this one in tears. What an opus of righteous anger. I feel like I’ve met America now – the neighbour who’s gonna take over your street and corrupt your children and fill the drains with sump oil, but bring you delicious fresh-baked cookies after church. As good as ‘The Corrections’, I reckon.
‘Great House’ by Nicole Krauss – poetic, elegaic novel with an ingenious Rubik’s Cube structure, all based on one big wooden desk that has had many owners. I wanted to keep writing down quotes from this novel for later perusal. Another one that had me in tears quite often (but that’s a good thing).
Travel blog: Away from digital distractions, I discovered a different kind of meditation amongst the outriggers of Aas Beach…
Once you start noticing the piles, they’re everywhere you look, in all shapes and sizes. Driving from the crowded Balinese capital of Denpasar towards the north east coast, I start to count all the different types of objects heaped up by humans on the side of the road.
There are piles of bricks and cement bags, sawdust and tiles, timber and kindling and peanuts and rice and stone carvings and religious offerings of rainbow-hued flower petals. And on the heads of women, balanced magically in reed baskets, there are teetering towers of palm fronds and fresh fish, fruits and vegetables. So many piles of stuff that is being made into other stuff, or that no one has figured out what to do with yet, or to be offered up as appeasements to the Heavenly Rulers of All Stuff.
We Australians often worry about the amount of stuff we create and consume, but we are not alone in these habits of heaping and hoarding. Many of these piles are destined for the building sites that, in spite of the terrorist bombings, are still springing up all around Bali. New hotels, shopping centres, schools and houses are chewing up former rice paddies and tropical jungles to accommodate the ever-swelling population of this island of six million people.
It’s my first trip to Bali in twenty years and I’m determined to avoid the heaving tourist centres in the south. Kuta is a hazy memory of Australians behaving badly, and a friend has instructed me to head straight to Amed where, he assures me, the Balinese still live traditional lives in spite of the influx of foreigners.
My driver, a hotel manager called Agus, speaks wistfully of how the island was two decades ago. ‘We used to share things, be collective, but now we are all individuals and everyone wants to go to McDonalds.’ Agus has worked in Seminyak for ten years but is planning to return to his rural village when he is old. ‘There, if you have no food, your neighbour will feed you.’
As we pass through the coastal villages north of Denpasar I stop counting the piles and begin noticing how the jungle creeps back in, trying to re-colonise the space being taken over by building sites; great flowering vines of greenery stretching up and over and through everything, in a race to re-claim the land.
Agus points out a distant mountain that he climbed with his wife when they were newly-weds. They were making a pilgrimage to a temple near the mountaintop, and after their prayers the young couple camped overnight behind the temple. They awoke to find the mountain ringed by dark clouds and the rain falling heavily – but only below them – while the peak remained clear and cloudless at dawn.
The journey to Amed takes three hours and as we turn south-east along the winding coast road I look for signs for Meditasi Bungalows. Meditasi is Indonesian for ‘meditation’, and I hope the name doesn’t imply an expectation that guests will be rising at dawn to contemplate the nature of existence. Having never been into meditation (too impatient), I’m not planning to start now.
The steep coastal landscape is reminiscent of Italy’s Amalfi coast, but where every hairpin bend on the Sorrentine Peninsula reveals a whitewashed town dissected by cobbled streets, Amed’s villages of thatched huts hide demurely under coconut palms. Meditasi is the last ‘resort’ on the road that winds through the village of Aas Beach, and the entrance is hidden down the end of a steep driveway. The manager, Prapta, greets me with a relaxed smile and shows me to my palm-thatched bungalow, one of only four in this small complex. The bungalows have been cannily designed for maximum exposure to nature and minimum exposure to other people. We enter through a private stone-walled garden littered with fragrant frangipani flowers (which doubles as the outdoor bathroom) and climb some winding stone steps to the back door.
The hut is a single spacious room with a double bed and a large balcony overlooking the shimmering sea. Surrounded by pink bougainvillea, the balcony has a second bed for relaxing on during the daytime. Perfect.
Or not. ‘Of course you probably know that we have no internet connection or mobile phone reception here’, says Prapta, and my heart skips a couple of beats. Five days alone in a bamboo hut with no means of communication with the outside world. Suddenly the hours seem to pile up in front of me, empty and aimless. No gossip from friends and family, no online news outlets to keep me in the loop, and no vehicle to drive myself back along the coast to find a phone signal. How will I get through the long humid days?
I’m still in a state of mild panic as I head down to the black sandy beach with my snorkel and goggles. Meditasi is perched on a half-moon bay about 500 metres long and bounded by rocky outcrops. There are dozens of white outriggers pulled up above the tide-line and I clamber around them to find a patch of clear sand. A couple of fishermen are mending nets in the shade but the beach is otherwise deserted. Timing is everything when you enter the water here, dodging between small but powerful waves and watching out for submerged rocks.
I launch out into the deeper water and suddenly, right there below me, is the alternative universe of a coral reef. Clouds of brilliant aquamarine fish swerve away at my approach, and a couple of clownfish rush for refuge to an anemone. The coral shows signs of wear and tear from the outrigger traffic but the variety of different fish promises days of entertainment.
Back on the beach, I am joined by a small gang of local Balinese children aged between six and sixteen. We chat in phrases of two or three words (‘beach good yes’) and then they gather a pile of smooth grey stones and place them in front of me. Under instruction from the eldest boy, they make a series of ‘hotels’ by placing the stones in neat lines in the sand and decorating them with small shells from the shoreline.
The children belong to the families who own the one hundred fishing boats on Aas Beach that go out to sea around 4:30 every morning. Over the next few days it becomes my habit to wake just after dawn to watch the fishermen return to shore, the flotilla of outriggers gliding landwards like waterborne spiders crouched on the surface of the stippled sea.
The beach is narrow and one day I ask a young local called Wayan if he worries about the prospect of rising sea levels. ‘Of course’, he says, ‘because there will be nowhere to put the boats, and without the boats, no fishing and no food’. There are a thousand fishing boats on the Amed coast and their owners also worry about tsunamis. Wayan tells me he feels safe, though, because he lives between two important Hindu temples and prays to the gods every day to make sure the sea is not angry.
I spend the daytime hours reading novels on my sunny balcony, snorkeling on the reef, eating small mountains of nasi goreng at the Meditasi restaurant and having massages. Late afternoons, when the heat recedes, I walk north or south along the coastal road, peering at the carved temples in the villages and nodding to the women who salt baskets of fresh fish and hang them under the thatched eaves of their huts. One afternoon I see a huge pile of straw propped high up between the forks of a dead tree, an ingenious feedlot system for the agile goats who bleat from the side of the road.
And somehow, in the absence of the usual digital distractions, those mountains of empty hours dissolve and flow past in a smooth stream of pleasure. Solitude produces its own meditative trance, and I revel in the opportunity to do just one thing at a time, giving it my full attention. On the fifth day, as I take my last stroll along the beach front, I’m reassured to see that those little rock ‘hotels’ piled up neatly in the sand are still standing, safe and sound above the tide-line.
While the Australian media pack salivates over the scandalous morsels being dished up by Wikileaks, it may be missing an equally delicious manoeuvre going on right under our noses. Although The Greens weren’t able to outwit the major parties in the recent Victorian State election, the party seems to have learnt some lessons from the cunning preference deals which kept them out of the lower house. And I have to applaud their chutzpah. Blackmailing a member of the NSW right of the Labor Party into advocating a new debate over the party’s anti-nuclear power policy was a stroke of genius.
You doubt my conspiracy theory? If not the result of a blackmail attempt, how else can we rationally explain the timing of NSW Senator Steve Hutchins recent demand that a change in Labor’s nuclear policy be on the agenda at the next ALP conference? Surely no one in their right minds would want to alienate once and for all the remaining green-left rump of this formerly progressive party?
The ALP has been steadily leaking first preference votes to the Greens for over a decade. Not only that, it has been leaking membership, too. When I was working as an environment activist twenty years ago, many of my fellow campaigners were also active members of the ALP, attending local branch meetings, initiating and supporting the passage of green policies through the labyrinthine policy processes of their party. They saw value in working simultaneously with independent interest groups and within a mainstream political party.
Over time, though, most of those people (and the younger campaigners who’ve followed in their footsteps) have migrated to the Greens. Disappointed by ALP policy reversals on key environmental issues like uranium mining and, more recently, by the parliamentary Labor Party’s spectacular failure to tackle the threats posed by climate change and our unsustainable use of natural resources, green-left activists and voters opted to support a party which puts those concerns at the centre of its policy platform.
According to Labor historian Rodney Cavalier, author of Power Crisis, ALP membership in Senator Hutchins’ state of NSW dropped from 19,609 in 2002 to 15,385 in 2009, representing a decline of over twenty percent. In contrast, the Greens national membership climbed from 4889 in 2002 to 10,429 in 2009, representing an increase of over one hundred percent.
The ALP is not alone in facing this leakage problem. Speaking on ABC Radio National last week, Berlin-based politics professor Wolfgang Merkel claimed that in Germany, the membership of traditional social democratic parties has effectively halved over the past decade. In many European and Scandinavian nations, young people who are interested in politics join ‘either NGOs or environmental parties such as the Greens’, leaving labour parties to become ‘elite cartel parties losing their link to the population.’
If the ALP wants to reverse this trend and re-energise its membership base, the last thing it should be doing is trashing its remaining environmental credentials by adopting a pro-nuclear policy. Not only might it be the last straw for many ALP members who are considering abandoning the party, but it makes no economic or environmental sense.
Judging by the US experience, a nuclear power industry would require huge government subsidies to produce energy at an affordable cost for consumers. According to physicist and President of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Professor Ian Lowe, direct subsidies to the US nuclear industry totalled $115 billion between 1947 and 1999. Decommissioning nuclear power plants is expensive and dangerous, and no one has yet found an economically or environmentally sensible (or indeed a politically acceptable) solution to the problem of radioactive waste.
Furthermore, building new nuclear power stations would lead to a short term increase in our carbon emissions, at a time when we need to be quickly and efficiently reducing emissions to slow the pace of dangerous climate change. And even if we were willing to cop that increase, maintaining a reliable, long term supply of uranium ore to fuel those stations would also require increasingly carbon-intensive extraction and processing.
I challenge any Labor Government to persuade the residents of a major Australian city that a nuclear power station is safe enough to be built in their backyard. Our memory banks may be shrinking as digital technologies take over the work of our brain cells, but few Australians over the age of forty won’t shudder at the mention of the word Chernobyl. And which insurance companies would agree to insure an Australian nuclear industry without iron-clad government guarantees to underwrite the risks?
Given the astounding success of Team Wikileaks in sniffing out any dirty political underwear left lying around, surely it’s only a matter of time before this ingenious blackmail strategy is revealed to the world and Senator Hutchins is forced to back down from his patently ridiculous attempt to send more Labor members and voters into the waiting arms of the Greens. Watch this space.
On Friday 19th November I had an opinion piece published in the Age (available online in The National Times about the taboo surrounding the declaration of voting intentions.
On Friday November 26th I’ll be singing some French and German art songs and some original works by local composer Natalya Vagner at a bar called The City Tiler at 115 Bay St, Port Melbourne – 8:30 pm – come along (it’s free).
And i’ve finally dragged myself into the 21st century and got on board with Twitter: you can follow me on @sianprior
I co-hosted The Conversation Hour today with Jon Faine on 774 ABC Melbourne: guests were novelist and fashion columnist Maggie Alderson and presenter of ABC TV’s ‘art + soul’ series Hettie Perkins. We had a lively discussion about the past and future of Aboriginal art and women’s fashion.
The Victorian Writers Centre have invited me to run a year-long series of workshops on non fiction writing in 2011. The program will be out a little later this year, but you can check their website for news of when 2011 enrollments begin.
My article on ’10 Things You Should Know About Reporting The Arts’ is in the October edition of The Walkley magazine. Check out the online edition here.
I’ll be performing with Paul Kelly in some of his forthcoming A to Z concerts in 2011: Sydney 20th to 23rd January (SOLD OUT), Melbourne 2nd to 5th March.
Plans are firming for my appearances at the forthcoming Ubud Writers And Readers Festival in Bali (October 6th – 10th), courtesy of Meanjin literary magazine. I’ll be appearing on a panel called ‘Writers Speak Out’ with Meanjin editor Sophie Cunningham, author Christos Tsiolkas, poet and rapper Omar Musa and non fiction writer Antony Loewenstein on Friday October 8th. I’ll also be interviewing Tony Maniaty, author of the memoir ‘Shooting Balibo’, taking part in a panel discussion on the future of criticism, and running a workshop on reviewing the arts.
(A review of my Reviewing Workshop can be found here!) And on the evening of October 7th i’ll be singing a couple of songs on a lunar theme at the Jazz Night at Casa Luna.
Keep an eye out for my forthcoming profile of debut author Maris Morton (winner of the 2009 CAL Scribe Fiction Prize for an unpublished manuscript) with a focus on her forthcoming novel ‘A Darker Music‘ (pub. by Scribe). It will appear as part of the Readings New Australian Writing series.
And you can hear me playing clarinet on Paul Kelly: A to Z, the forthcoming set of 8 CDs to be released in late September, along with PK’s mongrel memoir, ‘How To Make Gravy‘ (pub. by Penguin).
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