Category Archives: Events

carrefoc8

Midsummer Madness

It’s midsummer and my world is the right way up. Well, sort of.  When I lived in Australia, I could never get used to the seasons being out of place. Christmas on the beach, my September birthday in Spring and yes, June being the middle of winter. It just felt wrong. Now I’ve moved back to Europe the seasons are back in the right place, but in the aftermath of the recent UK referendum, the world seems to have gone stark raving mad. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s characters are victims of a mischievous energy that confuses lovers and makes an ass of an ordinary man.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology of the name Puck is related to Old Norse puki (devil) and Welsh pwca (imp), but also has links to ‘unsettled’, like puke. Upon leaving the ‘civilised’ city and entering nature’s wilderness, our characters become disoriented and things appear not to be as they ought to be. The feeling is a little similar in this post-Brexit world. Somehow, the world has been changed, but nobody is yet sure exactly how. We only know that there is mischief afoot.
My midsummer celebrations began in Wales, where the weather was as un-Welsh as it is possible to be. I spent long, warm, sunny days in the beach with my friends and woke every day to blue skies. Bizarre.  I was grateful for the opportunity to get out and walk in the cliffs, to swim in the chilly Bristol Channel and to partake of the odd barbecue, but it couldn’t last, of course, and by the time I was on my way north to visit an old school friend, it was cold and rainy. This did not dampen the spirits in Flash, where the residents of the highest town in England celebrated mid summer with a traditional blessing of the well.

Flash-well-dressing
Well-dressing at Flash, the highest town in England

A custom from medieval times which is said to be associated with the spread of the Black Death, it marks an acknowledgement of the importance of pure water and honours the local source. In Flash, the well was painstakingly decorated with flowers and following the small well-side ceremony, the village takes to the streets in the ‘teapot parade‘. Waving banners and marching alongside a giant papier-mâché teapot, the parade remembers the custom of helping those in need by sequestering funds in the household teapot. As I stood back to take a photograph of the whole scene, a woman spectator reminisced about watching this same spectacle as a child. Her family, she said, could be traced back 700 years in her father’s side and 300 years on her mother’s. Her strong Peak District accent dragged vowels long and clipped consonants short, making disappointed claims that the parade was not as it used to be, when it was an excuse to dress up and for women to get a new hat. I looked down at my jeans, still muddy from the morning’s yomp across muddy moors, and countered that it was great that they still kept the custom at all.

Flash-teapot-parade
Residents of Flash celebrate the annual well-dressing and ‘teapot’ parade

In the church, we sang hymns and listened as the vicar gave a reading. He chose the parable of the Good Samaritan where, if you have not heard it, a man who has been robbed and left for dead is ignored by first a priest and then a Levite. The third passer-by, a Samaritan, stops and helps the man, sequestering him at an inn at his personal expense. I had not heard the story read since my childhood, but I remembered being told that the Levite would have been a local person of the same Jewish faith, but that the word Samaritan meant that the person was an enemy, as the Jews and the Samaritans were not on good terms. In the light of the current refugee crisis and the recent violent death of Jo Cox, the tale gained a new poignant meaning, as parables are wont to do, having a timeless moral code embedded in their codex. Even the giant teapot seemed significant, being a symbol of friendliness and neighbourliness in this land where people love nothing better than a nice cup of tea and who rush to provide one at the slightest suggestion of distress. The vicar did not spell it out, but he did take the time to bless those who would be voting in the upcoming referendum.

Back in Spain, I joined in more mid-summer celebrations, but occasionally, the air fell sour with the shock and disbelief of Brits, Europeans, Australians and US citizens. In this atmosphere of multiculturalism and warm abrazos, no-one could understand why the UK wanted a divorce. In my local village of Sant Pere de Ribes, they gathered for the Ball de Diables, where children young and old dress up in devil costumes and hold aloft screaming fireworks in a crazy display of anarchic energy known as a correfoc. Their carnival re-animates the eternal dance between light and dark, between good and evil. Embedded in these ancient traditions is the knowledge that at certain times, we need to be mindful of the uncertainty of our world and of the possibility, always, that mischief will win us over if we only open the door for long enough to let it in.

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jocox

Brexit? No Thanks

For the past three weeks, I’ve been in the UK. It feels like longer than that, with long sunny days spent on the beach with friends, magnificent hikes along the cliff path near my home and cosy nights in my little wooden chalet. When Summer finally arrives here, there’s no better place in the world to be.
I arrived in Britain from Spain, passing through the passport control as a citizen of the European Union. I’ll travel back that way too, but for how much longer? Throughout these three weeks, whilst I’ve been swimming in the calm blue seas of Wales and listening to the chatter of morning birdsong, the rumble of something sinister has been a constant background noise. Whether it’s from newspapers, radio, or just listening to conversations, it’s been hard to avoid the mutterings of Brexit talk. Brexit. What a simplistic, inane word to describe such an important decision. It sounds like a new chocolate bar or a sugary breakfast cereal. The chatter is just as inane, as major political figures try to scaremonger the public into voting this way or that, based on arguments that are about as substantial as the candy floss in the beachfront kiosk. I’ve seen two other recent referendums in recent years – one to decide whether Britain should switch to proportional representation and one to vote whether Scotland should stay part of the UK. Both failed to budge a recalcitrant public out of their comfort zone. We humans, especially Brits, generally like things to stay the same. The trouble with Brexit is that the argument to leave the EU is like an offer to return to some hazy, nostalgic past that even its proponents can’t be sure ever existed.

When I was growing up, one of the popular slogans was “Nuclear Power? No Thanks”. It was such a polite way to decline a technology that threatened to hover its toxic future over our country for generations. So British! Today, as an activists blockade of a nuclear bomb factory turns into a new peace camp, we’re reminded that these threats don’t go away just because we ask them too. Those in charge will keep pushing for what they want and it’s our job, as busy, preoccupied, struggling-just-to-survive citizens, to try to keep one eye on what they’re doing so we can still try and head them off at the pass. Whilst the lies and deceit peddled from Westminster and via the national papers is not hard to see through, it takes some time to arrive at some clarity as to what the story really is. It’s a constant sleight of hand, where the left hand is dealing arms whilst the right hand is waving poppies, or beating a war drum, or pointing a finger at somebody else to distract us. “Look over here!” they scream, and we do, whilst deals are made to dismantle the National Health Service, privatise the woodlands, or sell all remaining national industry to China.

Which is why we need to treasure the few progressive voices in the political area. The ones that challenge the dominant messages defending hatred and war and speak instead of tolerance, compassion and a more egalitarian society. The ones that help us navigate our way through the minefield of shameless politicking and speak from the heart. I was living in Australia when I heard Mhairi Black’s maiden speech in July 2015. I was moved to tears to think that finally, finally, someone was speaking with a reasonable tone about things that mattered. As I hit ‘replay’ to listen again, it crossed my mind that her courage may not be allowed to stand. That her passion may yet be her downfall and that maybe, just maybe, some one would find a way to silence her.

How was I to know just how close that fleeting thought would fly to the truth? The murder of Jo Cox, just a week before the EU referendum, is almost certainly the outcome of her brave stance against racism, her support for Syrian refugees and her campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU. In basing their arguments on immigration and trade, the Brexit campaigners have missed a vital purpose of the EU. Following the horrors of World War Two, it was thought that bringing countries together as trading partners would foster trust and help prevent future wars. It turns out they were right. In 2012, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its role in promoting reconciliation, democracy and human rights. Since the EU was established, there have been no wars between European member nations. Yes, that’s right. No wars. Throughout a region that has historically been in almost constant conflict, there have been no inter-national wars. That’s seventy years of peace and counting and to me, that’s worth a lot of trade, whether in Euros, Pounds or Drachma. In those seventy years, a lot of tomatoes, cheese and wine has flowed between us, but only because we have been at peace.
In the wake of this tragedy, I would prefer the EU referendum to be postponed, but if it does go ahead, a vote to Remain will serve to honour the maintenance of peace in our region, the tradition of sincere, heartfelt politics and the memory of Jo Cox.

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earth-stars

Earth Day

I’ve never thought too much about Earth Day. It seemed like one of those forced opportunities to do something we should perhaps be doing every day, like Valentines Day to show we love someone or Mother’s Day to appreciate our Mum. But then, over coffee the other day, I had a conversation about where the names of the days of the week come from. I was sure I had learned this as a child, and felt it ought not be surprising to hear that they are named for the planets*
I’m living in Spain at the moment, and a lot of my time is spent trying to get my tongue around a foreign language. It often brings up discussion about the meaning of words, so when i heard this, I sat down and went through the days of the week in all the languages I know, to see if the theory fitted. In Spanish, it’s easy to see that Lunes – Monday, is for the moon – la luna. Even in English, Monday – Moonday makes sense, and it follows too in French – Lundi; in Welsh – Dydd Llun; in German – Montag… You get the picture.
Martes in Spanish, for Mars; Miercoles for Mercury; Jueves for Jupiter ; Viernes for Venus; Sabado for Saturn and oh, Domingo? Well apparently Domingo was re-named for Our Lord’s Day – Dies Dominica in Latin.
Try this yourself with languages you know. The days of the week are often the first things we learn, so we don’t have to be fluent to know them. It’s interesting that most languages have followed in some way or another, often taking the local name for the god of that planet – Thor (the god of war and thunder) stands in for Jupiter, for instance, which gives us Thorsday in English but also Donnerstag in German, where donner means thunder.

There are a few anomolies. I like the prosaic Mittwoch (Wednesday) in German, meaning literally mid-week. And I love the Scandanavian Lordag (Saturday), which is from Old Norse laugardagr, meaning washing day.

After the fun and games of testing our language knowledge and our grasp of ancient mythology, one thing stood out. Not one country had chosen to name a day of the week after Earth. Somehow, we clever humans have once again neglected to honour the place that gives us life. This amazing, complete eco-system which is right beneath our feet. So suddenly, Earth Day makes sense. If only we could have one every week.

* I later learned this was the Classical line-up of the planets in Hellenic astrology, which was established around …..and includes the moon and the sun.

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deep-listening-dadirri-crowdfund

Live

Live. or Live. How do you say it? It depends. When your crowd fund goes “live”, how does it feel? I feel relieved. It’s been two and a half years of film-making. Five months of screening, feedback, re-edits and, quite frankily, stress. It’s time to let this baby go.

Will you help her stand alone?

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River-Group-web

Cultural Connections in the Northern Territory

A group of people – adults and children – gather around elder Miriam Ungunmerr-Baumann as she sits by the side of the mighty Daly River in the Northern Territory community of Nauiyu. She is explaining to them about the Aboriginal way of being she calls dadirri, which can be translated as a deep, respectful listening to self, other and to land. “The way that we talk about nature, the universe, it’s kind of poetic and creative way of describing something, because it sustains us as well. When you read a book, you don’t just read the words, you read the meaning of it. What the story’s about. And that gets you really worked up and excited about it. And that’s what the bush is like for us. We read it in detail.”

River-Group-web

The group has gathered as part of the first ever Cultural Connections Tour to the Nauiyu community, initiated by the Miriam-Rose Foundation, an organisation established to further the well-being of the community and especially their young people. Tour organisers Pip Gordon and Nicole Kinnaird were asked to invite people to come and get to know Aboriginal people, to sit with them and learn their ways. Twelve people responded and brought themselves and their families to take part in a week-long experience which included traditional welcome and cleansing ceremonies, dance performances, art-making and weaving. Participant Alyson Goff says has found it life-changing. “I decided to come on the Cultural Connection Tour mainly to immerse our family in the culture of the traditional owners because I think it’s important for every Australian – or anyone – to understand where they come from and to experience the world before us. What I actually ended up getting out of this was more than that. To me, what I take away is that it’s really about your ancestry. Where you come from forms the essence of who you are.”

Miriam-Agnes-web

“Knowing who you are” is one of the main themes of the week. As Miriam and the other elders initiate the group into some traditional Aboriginal culture, they emphasise how important it is that their young people grow up with a firm grasp of their place in the order of things. One of the highlights is a demonstration of traditional dancing. Children from the local school gather excitedly, dressed in red loincloths and with faces, body and legs smeared with white ochre. They perform dance they only recently learned, faces wide with grins and clearly enjoying themselves. A group of men, also painted, provide music and rhythm on clapsticks and didge and members of the community gather to watch, whooping and clapping their appreciation.

“There hadn’t been any dancing for the last 15 years and I’m starting to do this for the young ones”, says Miriam. The Tour group also takes part in a welcome ceremony, something the Aboriginal people have done for centuries to alert the ancestors to the presence of strangers. “We let them know we have visitors, “ explains Miriam, “And ask they might have safe passage through our country.” Despite the stories people love to tell about crocodiles who live in the river, two community members wade into the shallows and one by one, we line up to receive a sprinkle river water onto our heads. This, it is said, carries the scent of each person to mingle with the water, so that part of us is now immersed in the nature of the place.

Participant Andrew Lindsay feels that the trip has begun to answer life-long questions about the country in which he has always lived. “Growing up in this country and identifying as an Australian. Knowing that we’ve only been here a couple of hundred years…and always wondering what was the Aboriginal relationship to the land. To be beginning a personal relationship with someone who embodies that is a really special thing.” This kind of tour is a way for communities like this to earn an income. Miriam feels it’s important to recognise that knowledge exchange is now a currency and that elders should be recompensed for their wisdom. “Our elders are like our consultants. They’re like our encyclopaedias and anything we want to know we ask them. But we’re in the era now of keeping things going, and to keep (our elders) interested in giving that information we have to pay them.”

nauiyu-community-painting

Art, too, is a commodity understood by the community. The Merrepen Arts Centre, established on the community over 25 years ago and now a thriving social enterprise, is known all over Australia for its quality art work. This career path is being opened to the young people and an art sale set up by the school, children exhibit paintings accompanied by a professional-looking certificate of authenticity with an artist bio for each of them. The paintings, of turtles, lizards, waterlilies and butterflies, reflect the local landscape and and are well worth the $10-20 dollar price tags. Between the art and the tours, Aboriginal communities like this are striving to overcome the difficulties associated not only with their remote location, but with poor health and high rates of suicide, particularly amongst the young.

Elder Agnes Page, a trained tour operator, has been working with Miriam to educate young people coming up from the South in the ways of traditional bush craft and medicine that has so often been lost in from tribes in Australia’s south. She tells me that for her, hosting these groups has been an effort to establish something for the next generation. “I want to do it for my children”, she says. “To leave them something they can continue.”

Kristy Pursch, a Tour participant and descendent of the Butchulla trible of Fraser Island, grew up estranged from her culture and although she now works on health projects in Aboriginal communities, saw the Cultural Connections Tour as a way to deepen her understanding of and connection to,  Aboriginal people. Kristy has heard the call of the elders for support for their young people and has arranged to take a young student from the community on a Homestay with her own family back in Coff’s Harbour. On her return from the trip, Kristy wrote down some of her impressions, which I quote here without editing. It seems to me to be a fitting tribute to the elders who so kindly welcomed the Cultural Connections Tour group into their lives.

“A quietness and completeness. Born of love and acceptance.  To sit in the inner stillness of my being. And trust all as it should be. My old ones guide and love me.  And will support me to mother my babies as they… Create their own identity.” Kristy Pursch. 2015.

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CERES-screening-web

The Impermanence of Film making

It’s Saturday morning and the rain is coming down through the gray of Melbourne’s wintery sky. I’m hazy, having been awake in the early hours, wired after our latest booked-out screening event for our new film Deep Listening: Dadirri. After the buzz of last night, I feel deflated, coming down from the energy solidly. I wonder how performers manage with the highs and lows of their workaday lives. Thankfully, screenings are only a small part of a film maker’s world.

I’ve spent two years making this film and for most of the production time, I’ve been alone. Whether researching the histories of Australia in the majestic domed room of the State Library; sending and responding to emails from contributors; copying files; editing trailers; uploading films or updating the website. Mostly, I’m alone. And then there’s editing the film itself. Days, nights, weeks and months in front of my faithful computer. Yep, most of the time, I’m alone.

Of course, when I’m filming I’m not alone. I’m travelling; wandering; meeting; mingling; interviewing. I’m visiting amazing places and even more amazing people. I’m staying up late and drinking wine and eating hearty communal meals. I’m sitting around fires with dark skies and brilliant stars. I’m partaking in community.

Which of these states do I prefer? I really can’t say. What I love is the melange of it. I like the fact that no two days are the same. Whilst I sometimes, on the dark days, long for a job where I get paid “just to hang my coat on the back of the chair”, I know that in fact, I would get bored quickly.

One of the audience last night asked the panel what was great about being in community. Amongst the usual answers of “it’s an amazing place to bring up children” and “I love the contact with nature/other people”, our guest Carl Freeman said that he loved the sense of freedom. Since moving to Commonground, he has only had to work three days a week and the rest of the time he gets to grow veggies and organise his own time. I had to agree. The ability to live in rhythm with myself, with nature, the seasons and vicissitudes of weather and energy, determines a lifestyle choice for me.

At a recent event as part of Transitions Film Festival, a film maker friend of mine, Heidi Douglas, came to show her latest film – Defendant 5 – at the Nova cinema in Carlton. I knew Heidi from Wales, where I used to co-host an activist film festival. called BeyondTV. You can still see clips from it online. Heidi had come all the way to Wales to show her brilliant film about the logging of Tasmanian forests. Now, she has travelled from Sydney. Gathered with other film makers and producers in the bar after her screening, Heidi confides that she never feels more at home then when she is with film makers. Not so for me. I feel most at home amongst the alternative life-stylers who populate my films. The folk living in intentional communities or ecovillages. The yogis, meditators and gardeners who practise ways to stay connected with themselves, with nature and with each other. Perhaps I’m not a proper film maker after all.

I’m in the midst of re-designing the Living in the Future website. Amongst the difficulties of selecting images and writing copy, what I find most challenging is to re-visit questions such as “What do you do? “Why do you do it?”. Often, I just have to confess that I don’t know, or that what I thought I knew yesterday no longer holds true. Art, like life, is an ever-changing dance between energies of people and place. Between this moment and what appears in the next. What propels me through the story of a film is what propels me through life and often, as in life, I don’t really know what or why until years later.

In an amusing article about his latest novel, The Last Pulse, Anson Cameron wrote recently that he hated it when people asked him what his book is about. They were asking him to condense what he had said in the “symphony” of his novel to a “fart-long synopsis”. It was impossible.

As I labour over the latest draft of the latest synopsis of the latest film, I turn his comments over in my mind. Maybe sometime in the future, I’ll have some idea what this film is about. Until then, like any performer, I’ll have to rely on the reviews.

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Dandelionweb

Let Go

Twice on the long weekend that is known both as Australia Day and Invasion Day, I was urged to “let go”. Once was on Saturday, at a yoga class with my friend Mary, and again on the holiday Monday, in meditation. The teachers could not have been aware how appropriate the lesson is for me, but then, they would not be surprised, either. It is often the way. The yoga teacher put her finger on a query that has been wandering through my head. “Why am I doing this?”

If we ask this, she said, we limit our ability to BE in the moment and thereby limit our ability to seize every opportunity, to be alive to every nuance, to fully be present in the unfolding of our lives. “Let go” she said. “And trust that what you are doing is for a purpose. In time, that purpose will be revealed.”

I walk out of the class smiling. I am in the midst of completing, and launching, a new film. Knee deep in publicity, press releases, flyers, posters and web banners, I am beginning a mission which seemingly has no end. In the first instance, I must sell 120 tickets to the premiere. I feel anxious. When I turn up to the meditation sit, I am carrying my shoulders hooked up to the sky and my stomach is a dense knot of how-will-I-get-through-this. Outwardly, I might look calm, but inwardly, my mind jumps around between designs for flyers, still editing the movie in my head and finding places where it just isn’t good enough. As I take my seat on the cushion, I am making mental lists about what I have to do tomorrow. I am so distracted, I can barely hear the teacher’s instructions.

Gradually, I find my breath and manage to hold my attention there for a short while. I feel my back soften. The teacher’s words float in above the melodic birdsong I have only just noticed. “We want to control everything, but life will have it’s own way and therein lies magic”.  I like magic. I like the feeling that something bigger than me is in charge. Last week, at the same meditation sit, I arrive early and start taking to a woman who is also there early. She Is saying she came straight from work and I ask her what she does. “I’m a film editor” she replies. “Oh! ” I say, surprised. “I’m a film maker too!. “What do you make films about?” She asks. “Communities and sustainability” I say. “Oh, that’s strange.” she says, “I grew up in a community”.

We are both very present now. What began as idle conversation has meaning and significance for us both and we lean in, feasting on the moment. “Bodhi Farm”. She says and I feel my giggle rising. “Then you must know Mitra” I say, astonishment growing by the moment. “She’s my sister!!” shouts Mirabai. Her hands in the air now, her eyes shining. We are both grinning. “Mitra is my next door neighbour!” I yell. “And your Dad’s in my film!”

I am remembering this chance encounter as Jess, the meditation teacher, urges us once again to loosen the grip, so that life might have its way with us. “Of course” she says, “We do need to orchestrate our lives. We need to make plans, organise events. Otherwise none of us would even be here. But we also need to make room for the small things. For the unexpected. And we need to let go of any expectations. It is those that will cause us disappointment.”

The next morning,  when I wake, my hands are folded gently over my heart, in a gesture which happens only when I have slept really soundly and peacefully. I lie comfortably in the cool morning, cosy in my nest and remember a dream I had. It had been snowing, and in the streets, ice and snow had made the pavements slippery. Instead of taking my usual tentative steps, I was hurling myself forward, sliding joyfully along, giving myself up to the ride.

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Shearwater_festival_2014

Shearwater Festival

As we make our way across the empty beach, the sun is giving last light to the bubbling clouds. We climb, a group of twenty or so excited nature-lovers, onto the cliff top. Around us, a babbling is beginning in the grasslands. The birds are coming in to nest.
“Sit down”, says Graeme Burgen, the ranger. He is a tall man. Somewhat imposing in the half-light, he towers above us. “You’ll see why in a minute.”
And we crouch on the sandy path as the shearwater birds flap and flutter and dive overhead, shooting in from their long day at sea to their cosy burrows. The whole show lasts about fifteen minutes. Showering the darkening sky with their busy wings.

The Shearwater Festival is bringing attention to these fascinating seabirds. Now in its third year, it garners the community on tiny Philip Island, near Melbourne, to a show of love and care towards their returning travellers. In winter, the shearwater leave their Island nests and fly North to Alaska, where they find the food they need to survive another year. Now, in mid-November, almost to a predictable day, the shearwater return.

For the Aboriginal locals, this was a feeding season for them, too. Aunty Doris Paton tells me that her people would camp here for months, feasting on “mutton birds”, as they are known and then, like the birds, moving to another landscape when the season demanded it.
Scratching our heads with wonder, we watch as Graeme shows us the flight path of the birds. He tracks them using modern computer technology and we see the cycles of a single male bird. Arriving back on Australian shores in November, the bird finds a mate and they lay a single egg. The parents then take it in turns to fly South, to Antarctica, to fill their bird bellies with protein-rich krill. After she has laid, the male takes first turn in the nest, allowing Mum to re-fuel after her delivery. Then they swap, each spending days in the krill fields, putting on weight and bringing home food for their chick.
When March comes around, the parents take a last visit to Antarctica, before embarking on a 12,000km trip north. We can see their route. Up to Japan, then all the way to the Bering Strait, where they make their second home.

The Shearwater Festival is organised by the Deep Listening Project. Championing a way of being which is rich in Aboriginal tradition, Deep Listening is the underlying concept of the art, song, dance and music in which we are all invited to participate.
Known in some Aboriginal languages as “Dadirri”, this way of knowing relies on listening not only with our ears, but with our eyes; with our hearts; and most importantly, with respect. Aunty Doris tells me that in contrast to our Western needs to “fill the gaps”, Aboriginal people are content to sit in silence. “In our way… we’re very comfortable with silence”, she says. “We can sit, and listen, and not talk”.

One of the highlights for me, alongside music from Kutcha Edwards; Yirrmal and the Yolngu Boys and Archie Roach, we have music from the Deep Listening Band. Ron Murray, a Wamba Wamba man, plays didge with the band. He tells me how he uses Deep Listening to “tune in” to his fellow musicians Michael Jordan and Steve Sedergreen. Each performance is improvised, each different, as the piano and the drums dance around the resonances of the didge, around the stories told by Ron. “It’s meditative”, he says.

Back up on the cliff, it’s 5am in the morning and the shearwater birds line up on the path, using it like a runway to get up speed for a take-off. Their bodies, so graceful in the air, so efficient in the water, waddle awkwardly like slender ducks, until their narrow wings catch the breeze and lift them up to the pre-dawn sky. The bobbling from the surrounding tussocks is frenzied now. The “whoop, whoop, whoop” of their wings as they approach airborne brings to mind the first aeroplanes. Surely we must have watched these birds for inspiration?

As the morning breaks overhead, the last shearwaters lift into the pale blue sky, leaving only a few nesting females behind. The landscape quietens, a swamp wallaby raises his gentle face in the distance and the small group of awestruck humans head off for a hearty breakfast.

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Commonground_festival

A Change is Gonna Come

“I’ve never been to a festival like this before”, says Sarah-Jane, her blue eyes twinkling. “Where you start from an assumption that everyone is your friend”.
And it’s true. What is extraordinary about the Commonground Festival in Seymour, near Melbourne, is not the beautiful red gum landscape; not the soul-scoring music; not the delicious home-grown, home-cooked food; not the inevitable problems with blocked toilets… All these are already festival favourites. What is extraordinary here is the intense feeling of connection; the strong sense of purpose; the deep, meaningful conversation; the sparkly, convivial atmosphere. It’s like a huge family party, without the starched formalities which often accompany such events.

The festival is opened by indigenous elder Uncle Larry Walsh, who welcomes us to country in the lyrical language of the Taungurung people. “Wominjeka. Pallian beek.” He explains that the words are a welcome from his tribe, which stretches from East to West across this part of the Kulin nation. In my volunteer role documenting the weekend, I film him, my camera on a borrowed tripod, since I managed, somehow, to leave my tripod on the tram on the way here.

Uncle Larry, his grey hair flowing free like the  many rivers in his part of the world, congratulates Commonground on their thirtieth birthday. Thirty years since a small group of radical, like-minded health professionals pooled their resources to buy this block of land. Thirty years since they camped out, small children and all, and began to cook up a dream. They wanted to both create an intentional community and to support social change makers in their work for a more just and sustainable world. They hand built a rambling rabbit-warren of a building to house not only themselves, but groups who wanted a space to come together in. Fashioned from mud brick and recycled materials, it sits comfortably in the hillside overlooking hills and bushland. A tour takes us around the property, taking in the abundant veggie gardens, the apple orchard and the quirky octagonal structure which was their first attempt at construction.

It’s ironic that this Festival takes place the same weekend as our appointed world leaders take the stage for the G20 summit in Brisbane. Despite Tony Abbott’s encouragement for them all to be in first name terms, there are few genuine friendships there. How different might the world look if power was in the hands of those who really cared? If all our governments were working for a more just and sustainable world? Instead, Abbott is calling for focus to be kept on economic growth – a concept which has long since proved itself to be out of step with the needs of both people and planet.

Uncle Larry shares the stage with Kate Lewer, one of that small group of founders. Kate glows as he reminisces with her about the collaborations between Commonground and the Aboriginal community to decide how they could best work together to manage the land. It’s clear that he holds a fondness for these people and he stays around all night and all the next day – enjoying a yarn around the smoky fire as the music from the bands sings out across the tall gums. Whilst it’s true that this is a mostly white-face festival, there’s a general feeling that we are all on the same page when it comes to how to get along. And if we want some help with that, the workshops run by Commonground’s sister organisation, the Groupwork Institute on “Emotional Resilience” and “Working Collaboratively”, give us ideas and skills to take away.

Part of my job here is to talk to a few of the musicians about the role they feel music has in social change. I take them up onto the stony hill overlooking the festival site and frame them with the stage in the background. Mandy Connell is a singer-songwriter from Melbourne. She sits on a log and plays me a plaintive folk song which questions the suspension of human rights for the Northern Territory Intervention and asks who might be next under “Abbott’s Inquisition.” Her voice is clear and strong and those nearby lean in to listen. “Last time I read about the NT Intervention, I figured when they finished, they’d be comin’ for the nation…”

Robbie Bundle is an indigenous musician from West Footscray. He strums a song called “My Sacred Place” and it’s clear that for him, land rights and sense of belonging is one of the important social issues that music can help to articulate. “Take me back to my sacred place, take me home…”

Lying in my tent and listening to the rain on Sunday morning, I switch on my phone and pick up some news about how the G20 is going. Tony Abbott has embarrassed himself once more by boasting about his regressive policies on carbon emissions, on asylum seekers and on health care. Vladimir Putin, although not shirt fronted, leaves the gathering early. Here at Commonground, though, we are reluctant to leave. We want to live always in this warm bubble of possibility. Weekends like this show us a way to be which is inclusive, considerate and conscious.

As if to prove the theory, when I call Yarra trams to see if my tripod has been handed in, the man in the phone is delighted to tell me that they have it there waiting for me. Perhaps the bubble of possibility is, after all, for more than just a weekend.

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David Bridie & Frank Yamma

Sometimes, knowledge of an artist or musician sidles slowly into your peripheral vision. A friend mentions him or her; a gig or an exhibition shows up; you buy a CD, take it home. It grows on you. And sometimes, the artist arrives with a bang. You see or hear something and you are instantly intrigued. Beguiled, even. It was this way with David Bridie and Frank Yamma, two Australian musicians who have worked together on a series of projects. The one which caught my eye first was the film Satellite Boy.

Satellite Boy is a charming, yet haunting parable about a young Aboriginal growing up in remote Western Australia. The film paints a bleak picture of his life and community, scrabbling in the red dirt for a living, for a hope and a dream.  The Satellite Boy himself has a special relationship with his grandfather, who tries, but does not quite take the place of his absent mother. The story takes us deep into dreamtime, where the boy learns to understand, appreciate and to practice the ways of Country.

David Bridie created the score and performed the soundtrack with several other artists, including Frank Yamma. It moves between nursery jingle and folk lore to emotional yearning and spiritual calling. All together, it’s a dark and light package of Australian-ness. Straight from the kangaroo’s tail.

I watched the film in Melbourne, all the way down South, but with its own form of native resonances. I was new to Australia, eager to learn about its First Peoples and finding it difficult to access authentic expressions of Aboriginal culture. I probably just didn’t know where to look, which is why it was so nice to find this in my local cinema. An accessible format and an accessible tale, but still rich with the colour and sound of Australia. The movie has been followed recently with a beautiful story also starring veteran indigenous actor David Gulpilil. Charlie’s Country follows the fortunes of an aging blackfella who is still struggling to find his place in a world which romanticises ‘the old ways’ of his ancestors, but in which the ‘new ways’ of the whitefellas are equally alien to him. Both these projects are a collaboration between Aboriginal and white artists and to me, are all the more compelling for it, as it seems to shine a message of hope that co-habitation and mutual understanding are possible in this vast, magical land.

The soundtrack to Satellite Boy was a favourite in our house after that visit to the cinema, and we started to explore other music by the artists involved. We also stumbled across The Circuit, a TV series directed by the the same woman who wrote and directed Satellite Boy – Catriona Mackenzie. This series is set in the same part of Australia, Broome and The Kimberley and benefits from a great soundtrack of Aboriginal anthems. We took the soundtracks with us on our own adventures to that region and they seemed to help us connect with the red highways, the flat grassy plains and the strange boab trees.

After months of listening to the soundtracks, we were pleased to see that David Bridie and Frank Yamma were playing a set of gigs in Melbourne area. The first two, Husband had to attend alone, as I was out of town. I had to endure his excited texts and experience the gigs vicariously, but for the third gig, we went together to see them – all the way down to the ocean at Torquay. It was a lovely warm spring afternoon and the colourful market on the sea front made us both feel very welcome. The sea was doing a deep blue blush and it felt like people were out to relax and enjoy a great Sunday on the coast. The mood at the Bowls Club was buoyant and David, Frank and guitarist Phil Wales received a warm seaside welcome. They joked that the Bowls Club followed gigs at Trades Hall and a Working Men’s club in Elsternwick, but their wry self-depreciation only made us appreciate our luck. What a treat, to be with such distinguished musicians in an intimate venue on a fine Sunday afternoon!

David is a tall, fine boned man who looks a little uncomfortable as he folds himself behind his keyboard. I’ve recently been reading a book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts, by Susan Cain. The book analyses the modern Western trend for extroverts and asks why we no longer value the introverted natures which often produce artists, musicians and poets? David, both poet and musician, appears altogether the introvert, singing plaintive, thoughtful lyrics to swooping melodies. He is clearly thinks about things deeply. Frank, too, looks like he’d rather be anywhere but on stage. He mumbles a few lines to the crowd, who lap up every word, revelling in the sound of his crystallised honey, care worn voice. When he opens his mouth to sing the weight of his race tumbles forth. He sings in tongue, in Pitjantjatjara. It’s one of around 60 Aboriginal languages still in use today and we can’t understand, but in a sense, we don’t need to. The way he sings tells us all we need to know.
These three, David, Frank and Phil, are old buddies. For one track, Phil brings out a squarish mandolin-type instrument and plucks its three strings meaningfully. “Old, ancient instruments for old, ancient musicians”, he jests.
And in some ways, it’s true, these guys are not the young crowd. And yet their music speaks of life and experience and there’s no way the young folk can argue with that.

At the end of the gig, when the Quiet book says that introvert performers would rather be hiding in the toilets, David is kind enough to give us a few minute of his time. He tells me he went to Wales years ago. He wrote a song about Aberystwyth, which turns out to be a homesick lament with a political twist. What strikes him about my home are the big winds, pale blue skies, and the English holiday homes being burned by Welsh nationalists. Land and Freedom. Maybe you can’t separate them.

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