CIMF / Group gives a special glimpse of Tiwi traditions

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The Tiwi Strong Women. Photo: Peter Hislop

Canberra International Music Festival / Concert 16, “Eyes and Ears”, Tiwi Strong Women. At the National Film and Sound Archive, May 7. Reviewed by CLINTON WHITE

IT was quite special to be given a glimpse of the traditions and culture of Tiwi Islanders, especially when coupled with film footage dating back as far as 1912.

Tiwi Strong Women is a small group who have been singing and dancing together since they were girls. Theirs is a goal of preserving language, as well as music and arts traditions, which they now are passing on to their own grandchildren.

And theirs was a delightfully laid-back performance, given in the theatrette, with explanations of the songs and dances and their people of times now well past, against a backdrop of historic film footage from 1912 to 1959. Even during some of the screenings they would, on stage, mimic the dances on screen.

One of their number, now in her 80s, is in footage from 1938, when she was four or five. She did not recognise herself because she had never seen an image of herself at that age, but others did.

Perhaps a little nervous at the start, Tiwi Strong Women quickly settled into their program, ably anchored by Genevieve Campbell, from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. An especially endearing feature, not so much of the performance per se, but of their on-stage management, was their talking in language, sometimes seemingly all at once, but with agreed outcomes leading to quite charming songs or dances.

The privilege of seeing this group so freely sharing their culture was something to value.

Before moving into the theatrette there was a courtyard performance by tabla player, Bobby Singh, and percussionist, Alon Ilsar. Both had appeared in the Ahimsa performance the previous evening.

Ilsar was first, playing an extended solo on air sticks. These quite extraordinary electronic devices can make all kinds of amazing sounds – tuned or otherwise – controlled both electronically and by the player’s arm and body movements. Notes bent this way and that, pitch swept in and out and sound effects came aplenty in this most thoughtful, tasteful and captivating performance.

Then it was Singh’s turn, again playing an extended solo on tabla. They may resemble the bongos, but that is where the similarity ends. These exotic instruments can create many sounds and tones depending on how and where they are struck. Before playing his truly virtuosic solo, Singh gave an interesting explanation of how the tabla work and how they reflect traditional languages, using his very nimble voice to create the connection.

Partridge String Quartet. Photo: Peter Hislop

After the Tiwi Strong Women, it was into the Arc Cinema, for an historic screening of an interview with artist Albert Tucker followed by a performance of Brian Howard’s single-movement fourth string quartet, “Armoured Faun”, by the Partridge String Quartet, with the composer present.

Howard’s composition was inspired by Tucker’s rather confronting painting of the same name, an on-screen image of which watched over the performance.

The Partridge String Quartet gave a brilliant performance, especially considering the challenge to give some modicum of cohesion to a composition that can only be described as little more than a grab-bag of random scratchings, pluckings and scrapings that sounded like a 331/3rpm LP record played backwards at 45rpm. The players gave the piece much more than it deserved. Even the “Armoured Faun” looked thoroughly perplexed.

The audience’s applause was enthusiastic for the players and little more than polite for the composer.

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