Sunday 12 June 2016

Dirtsong - Music Review

What: Dirtsong
When: 26 March
Where: Darebin Arts & Entertainment Centre
Performed by:  Black Arm Band and Paul Dempsey

Black Arm Band is a collective of renowned indigenous singers, musicians, performers, and actors.  They showcase and celebrate Australian aboriginal music, experience, and identity.  First presented to sold out houses as part of the 2009 Melbourne Festival, Dirtsong is a powerful musical journey through Australia’s cultural heartland inspired by the words of Alexis Wright (Miles Franklin Award winner).

Set against a stunning backdrop of moving imagery and text, the performance features unforgettable songs performed in 11 different Aboriginal languages from some of the most extraordinary performers in the land who are backed by an exciting ensemble of Melbourne’s finest jazz musicians.  Guest artist Paul Dempsey also brings us some English language protest songs as part of the concert.

Although Dirtsong is a concert, and is set against a backdrop of stunning moving imagery and text including ‘elders singing their country’, ‘spirit talking to you, it comes in dreams’, ‘sitting in the land, this land she’s alright’, and ‘we are made the same, you and I’.  The screen visuals dominate the background all in black and white and grey.  Just as the land dwarfs us humans, the images dwarf the band and set them in stark silhouette against images of country and people and communities.

The visuals do not work in isolation, however.  The songs and music, performed by an array of featured artists including Emma Donovan, Deline Briscoe, Ursula Yovich, Trevor Jamieson, Yirrmal, and Mark Atkins entwine with the images so that there is no real separation.  The early morning mist seems to seep out of the film and onto stage although there is no smoke machine as Donovan croons her gentle melody.

Most of the songs are in indigenous languages but music transcends language and we, the audience, are able to travel this journey with the musicians on stage without translation.  The songs sung in Dirtsong are songs of love, songs of sorrow and loss, songs of celebration, and – yes - a few songs of anger, rebellion and resolve (although not accusation).  I was able to recognise a melody which has been performed by Christine Anu in English – ‘My Island Home’.  In this performance, sung in its original language, this song is beyond powerful.  It reaches into the soul and sends shivers down the spine.

The Black Arm Band are a phenomenal group of musicians including some of the best in our country:  Andrea Keller, Nigel Maclean, Julien Wilson, Michael Meagher, Greg Sheehan, and Genevieve Lacey form an ensemble of incredible talent and finesse.  I have to mention that they are ably supported by live sound engineer John O’Donnell whom I consider to be one of the great masters in his craft.  O’Donnell is able to evoke every nuance and detail out of each instrument and voice and allow their personality and glory to be experienced - an achievement aspired to by many but realised by very, very few.

As I mentioned earlier, Dirtsong is not just a concert.  It is a journey and a performance.  There is a really fun moment in the show when a drum kit it constructed from back yard paraphernalia in front of an amazing graphic of an old wreck of a car.  These paint tins and hubcaps and buckets and miscellanea end up forming a complete instrument and there ensues a fantastic drum battle between the formal kit and this back yard kit.  I have to say, that the sound out of the back yard kit was pretty deadly!

It was fascinating to watch the incredible array of instrumentation.  It ranged across generations and continents.  Atkins was on the didgeridoo, playing with Maclean on electric violin and side by side with a grand piano and a recorder!  The true talent of The Black Arm Band is their ability to blend these seemingly diverse influences, along with the indigenous language and voice to create beauty and harmony – a wish for the future perhaps?

The show ends with a reconnection to the land.  A pile of red dirt has been sitting down stage centre for the whole show, and as the performance comes a full circle, Jamieson and Yirrmal sit with it and intertwine with it in honour and joy before the final songs are sung – ‘sitting in the land’, ‘land strong with law’.

Sadly, the Black Arm Band only had one performance at Darebin, but are off to Tasmania for two more shows this weekend.  I strongly recommend that you get on a ferry and head down there.  This show really is worth making the effort to see for so many reasons not the least of which is that it is magnificent.

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