Saturday 13 May 2023

MEERTA - RISE UP! THE BALLAD OF JAMES ARDEN: Music Review

WHAT: Meerta - Rise Up! The Ballad of James Arden
WHEN: 11-12 May 2023
WHERE: Arts Centre Melbourne (ANZ Pavillion)
DIRECTED BY: Dave Arden
MUSICAL DIRECTION BY: Dave Arden and Daniel Jauregui
PERFORMED BY: Jake Amy, Dave Arden, Brad Brown, Chris Cameron, Deniece Hudson, Daniel Jauregui, Ann Metry, Monica MacDonald, Wayne Morgan, Jordan Murray, and students from VCA&MCM
ART & VIDEO BY: Dixon Patten

Lead Guitarists: Daniel Juaregui and Dave Arden

Yirramboi is a Melbourne festival which celebrates Indigenous art and artists. The word itself means tomorrow and the idea behind the festival is to highlight First Nation voices of resilience and evolution. The website speaks of cracking open "the heart of Melbourne, revealing the hum of country beneath." Listening to Meerta - Rise Up! The Ballad of James Arden, the driving bass drum of Chris Cameron and the words and tunes of master guitarist/songwriter Dave Arden raise that hum to a gentle roar as Arden tells the story of his family and, by default, an important history of Australia.

The biography of Arden is a greatest hits list including Koori Youth Band, Bart Willoughby, Black Arm Band and the inestimable late Uncle Archie Roach. The music of Uncle Archie Roach does feature across the program, but most of this beautiful journey is original music penned by Arden himself, telling his family's stories. Having said that, there is one song on the play list - 'So Young' - written by Arden, which is apparently the only song featured on an Archie Roach album not written by the great man himself.

Meerta moves across the evening telling the story of his family, but is also told with family including his neices Monica MacDonald and Deniece Hudson. He begins by introducing himself with the song 'Kokatha Guditjmara Clan'. 

Like so many Indigenous people he was raised by relatives because of Stolen Generations and the cyclical trauma of "children having children" to use his words. After introducing himself, he then sings a song for the young mother he still mourns - 'I See, I Hear'. The song is accompanied by projections and photos which bring his mum into the room with us. I have to say, Dixon Patten's art totally blew me away and brought incredible depth and breadth the story Arden was bringing us!

Later Arden tells about the beautiful love story between his aunty/mum Ann and uncle/dad Syd. The orchestral sound provided by the strings and horns of the VCA&MCM students adds a lyricism and poignancy to the endearing soft rock ballad 'Annie Louisa'. At this point the students leave, but the trumpeter stayed to play 'The Last Post' before Arden sang about our First Nation soldiers who fought and died at Gallipoli. 

It is here in the program Arden tells us about his brother who has passed. They had their challenges but love is love and family is family, and Arden sings his love and pain through the song 'I Was Always There'. He rounds out this introductory act with a song about the racism and bullying he experienced at school. 'Call It Out' is about not keeping silent. It is about not holding somebody else's shame as your own.

A few more songs of great social and personal importance continued to fill the program. At this point you are probably wondering who James Arden is? Dave Arden keeps us in suspense until the end of the show when he reveals James as his great grandfather. He was a strong, proud Gunditjmara man who, in 1916, was an activist leading a stand against the missions his people had been forced to live on. 'Meerta', which means rise up, is the ballad of James Arden.

Meerta - Rise Up! is a wonderful journey into the story of a man, a family, a people, and a country. Spanning orchestral soft rock, blues, country and folk, the music moves between narrative and concept. It is always powerful and draws the listener in to hear every word. As the Yirramboi website asks... "Will you hear it?".

4 Stars

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