CIMF / Entrancing, indigenous music proves a big hit

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David Wilfred and Sunny Kim dancing the song. Photo: Peter Hislop

Canberra International Music Festival /  Concert 7, “Hand to Earth”. At the James O Fairfax Theatre, NGA, May 2. Reviewed by GRAHAM McDONALD

WHILE the focus of the Canberra International Music Festival is classical music, elements of jazz and traditional music permeate its program. 

This concert presented aspects of First Nations’ music in fascinating and contrasting ways. 

The first part was a short music theatre piece “At the Edge of the Cloak”, created by Nardi Simpson and a group of Yuwaalaraay women and girls. Simpson is a Yuwaalaraay woman and half of the Stiff Gins, who has been exploring aspects of indigenous music culture for 20 years in always interesting and diverse ways. Yuwaalaraay country is north-western NSW, from Walgett up to the Queensland border and west towards Brewarrina. 

The performance was simple, yet complex, with Simpson and seven women and girls sitting wrapped in possum skin cloaks, slapping the skins to set up a muffled beat. 

Through the speakers came a drone and a recording of bird calls in stereo, with a short reading from a book published in 1905 describing life in a traditional community a century ago. 

The reading was followed by a song from all eight with the melody doubled on alto flute. That pattern was repeated twice more, with other sections of the book, but perhaps the same song, or one slightly varied. At the end there was the sense that the audience had had the privilege of glimpsing something very old, but very new at the same time.

The women and girls in possum skins. Photo: Peter Hislop

The second part of the concert was quite different. Two Yongulu songmen from south-east Arnhem Land, brothers singer Daniel and yidaki player David Wilfred, have combined with three members of the Australian Art Orchestra to create music that respects the traditional songs, but adds some unexpected yet entrancing elements. Singer Sunny Kim, woodwind player Aviva Endean and electronic musician Peter Knight (armed mostly with a trumpet and looping pedal) created a swirling soundscape around the traditional Yongulu songs performed with clapsticks and yidaki (didgeridoo). 

Endean’s bass clarinet blended with the yidaki, Kim added a vocal line above Daniel Wilfred’s singing and Knight built sonic textures from short trumpet lines stored and looped. 

The highlight was a song about birds flying from a billabong where David Wilfred and Sunny Kim danced the song while Knight created a pulsing multi-layered drone and Endean added a high clarinet. Absolutely entrancing music and the audience was on its feet at the end.

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