Music festival failed my Aboriginality, says Judith Crispin

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Warren Ngarrae Foster on didgeridoo. Photo: Warren Purnell

Reviewer JUDITH CRISPIN shares her cultural discomfort with some of the work presented at the Four Winds Festival. 

FOUR Winds Festival has done very good things for Bermagui. It has invested in young Aboriginal musicians and committed to diversity in a real and tangible way.

Concerts in the recent Easter festival were invariably prefaced with acknowledgement of the Yuin elders and their culture. But in bridging cultural divides, sometime the best intentions can go wrong and when that happens we have to talk about it. Only then can we find a new way forward.

There were a number of concerts during Four Winds Festival which made me uncomfortable about the way culture was presented. Concerts, for example, which did not really celebrate non-western music so much as draft non-western musicians into jazz ensembles. Or the many concerts of original compositions which draw very heavily on music from other cultures.But this is not what needs to be spoken of today.

Warren Ngarrae Foster, L, in the Sound Shell. Photo: David Rogers

On Saturday, a major concert was presented in the Sound Shell at the Four Winds property at Barragga Bay. It featured a 1999 work by Australian composer Ross Edwards, ‘Tyalgum Mantras’ for didgeridoo and a variable large ensemble. Warren Ngarrae Foster, a very fine Yuin didgeridoo player, performed the work with an ensemble of world class musicians.

A lot has changed in the last 20 years and maybe Edwards would write a different piece now, given the chance. Or maybe there was a context that didn’t come across clearly at this event. Perspective is a very personal thing, but as a woman who identifies as Aboriginal, let me tell you how I personally experienced this event from the audience.

I saw an Aboriginal man, a didgeridoo player, sitting centre stage in a loincloth and ochre. Surrounding him on three sides, western musicians in formal attire. In front of the stage, an audience of 700 people. He plays the music of his people, a haunting and ancient music emulating calls of wild animals and birds. Gradually, one by one, the western musicians begin to play. Their sound builds and builds, drowning out the didgeridoo and eventually overpowering it completely. The Aboriginal man continues to play but he is inaudible, his voice has been erased by the sound of a large western ensemble.

Gulaga dancers. Photo: Warren Purnell

I found this concert deeply, deeply distressing– a clear analogy of the erasure of Aboriginal culture presented to an applauding audience.

Perhaps the composer intended the work as a criticism of cultural genocide– but if that is the case it was not made clear. When the work was over I glanced down at my review notes, and I had only written ‘Bennelong, Bennelong’.

It is not enough to wheel out a didgeridoo player, dancers in ochre, or to arrange a Welcome to Country – a two-minute address given by elders at events they have no input into.

One of the international performers, mentioned to me that he had felt sad watching the Aboriginal musicians and dancers at the festival, “but I guess that culture is all gone now,” he said.

Yuin culture is strong and proud. They have language, dances, story and Country.

I hope that Four Winds Festival finds a way to genuinely involve community in the planning of their next program, to establish a relationship of equality. Colonialism is a legacy we all have to carry and it is very difficult to see past to centuries of enculturation. But perhaps Four Winds could begin by offering Yuin performers a stage next year that is not dominated by western culture.


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