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Authentic Marloo sings the blues

Marlene Cummins aka “Marloo” singing the blues. Photo: Peter Hislop.

Music / CIMF, Concert 5: “Marloo’s Blues”. At Fairfax Theatre, National Gallery of Australia, April 30. Reviewed by ROB KENNEDY.

MARLENE Cummins aka “Marloo” is a musician activist and proud Guguyelandji, and Woppaburra woman, and she is one of Australia’s most authentic blues singers.

In the tradition of legendary blues women like Big Mama Thornton and Bessie Smith, Marloo’s story is one of vulnerability, strength and, ultimately, survival. 

The performers were Marlene Cummins, saxophone and vocals; Lauren White, bass; Noel Elmowy, keyboard; Calvin Welch, drums; Rex Goh, guitar and musical director; Carmel Mesiti, backing vocals and William Barton, didgeridoo.

Not a showy performer, Marloo uses her voice and instrument to do the glitz. ​She tells the story of her people and her life through her music. She began with just solo voice in language as a welcome. Then into the blues. In a tight yet jumping song, Marloo’s sax solo was short and strong. It was the first blues song she ever wrote.

Then, “When Will We Be Paid”, was a more soulful, slowdown song and filled with a gorgeous rock organ sound.

Marlene Cummins performs in “Marloo’s Blues”. Photo: Peter Hislop

Written by Murray Cook, who was a past keyboardist for Marloo, “The Blues it Knows Your Name”, slowed down even more and it got deeper with White now on acoustic bass. Welch is an animated drummer, but with him now on brushes, it smoothed the song even more. Lead guitar and organ interspersed throughout, and that deep crying sax; this song had it all.

The song “Boomerang Alley”, is about the place Marloo grew up in. A funky shuffle song where she just had to dance; it upped the mood.

This music, as Marloo said, is storytelling blues, where she acknowledges her family and friends in song.

In “Yarra River Blues”, written by Georgia Lee, an Australian jazz and blues singer, she paid tribute to the singer who had inspired her in this smooth song. 

After a couple of slow songs recognising other Aboriginal blues singers, we heard a tongue-in-cheek comical song about Marloo’s ATM card called “Insufficient Funds”.

Then things picked up with “Wang Dang Doodle”, which was performed in “The Blues Brothers” movie. The band cut loose and got the audience clapping along. It had one full-on grungy guitar solo. 

With an acknowledgement to the mighty warrior, Pemulwuy, for just Marloo and acoustic guitar, this song of the same name had a laid-back jive. Partly sung under the breath, it created an almost ceremonial atmosphere.

Then Marloo introduced, as she called him, “Willy” Barton. We know him as William Barton, composer, singer and Australia’s leading didgeridoo player. This song about Aboriginal women had an atmospheric soundscape before it bursts into a classic blues riff. It got funky and loud.

They finished the gig with a rocking song called, “Some Kind of Wonderful”. It even went on after Marloo had left the stage. It closed the concert down on a high note.


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