Category Archives: Music

manuchao

Manu Chao – An Invitation to Dance

I can’t remember when I first heard Manu Chao‘s music, but I do remember when I started to spontaneously understand his lyrics. A performer from France and Catalonia, he sings in many languages including French, Spanish, English, Portuguese and Arabic. I’ve been listening to his music for years, connecting best with the lyrics in languages I understood, which I expect is the same for all his fans. One day after six months of living in Spain, the words entered my consciousness in the way that words start to after a while in a country – bypassing the “what does that mean?” translation and going directly to comprehension. “I understand the Spanish!” I squeaked. “Dia Luna, Dia Pena“, his wistful song about sadness and the moon began to be sung each time we spotted the moon rising over the mountain, or reflecting light over the balmy Mediterranean Sea. “Arriva la luna, ohea!” It’s become a bit of an anthem for our life in Spain.

So when we noticed he was playing in Barcelona as part of the annual La Mercè  festival, we planned to go. We knew it would be busy. A free concert in his home country? It would be packed. Our home is about an hour from Barcelona so we left early, taking a bus into the city, enjoying a walk through the animated streets and taking in the fireworks in La Barceloneta. It was then that my anxiety started, as a mass of people queued to access the Metro that would carry them to the concert grounds. I hate crowds and am quite claustrophobic, but I breathed deeply and pushed on, hoping he would be worth the effort. A friend of mine had already backed out. “I’m a flower” she confessed. “I’m just no good with big crowds.” Crushed into the underground train, I felt like a flower, too. A wilting one. It’s not just the crowds, but the noise, the shouting, the drunken behaviour and not least, the mess. Big crowds remind me of the enormous amount of waste we humans produce. The Spanish are really good with recycling and disposing of public waste, but the bins were overflowing and it brings home how when we move about, we tend to create even more rubbish. At the concert venue, the stage was a speck in the distance, but huge screens showed images of the performers so we felt we could see perfectly. The atmosphere was buzzing. When Manu Chao sang his more famous anthems, the crowd joined in delightedly. They clearly has no trouble getting the lyrics!

During his quieter numbers, I had time to reflect on my inner sense of conflict. The gathering of thousands of people for a music gig is a huge environmental cost. Any personal savings to my carbon footprint – by restricting my electricity use and car use, not taking planes, or reducing consumption is dwarfed by the impact of this gig alone. Flying in the musicians and their equipment, marketing the event, powering the stage and screens, stocking the bars with plastic cups. An environmentalist could argue that gigs like this should be banned. But when Manu Chao hands over the mic to a human rights activist from Mexico, and a banner appears stating “43 Ayozinapa” to recall the 43 young men kidnapped by the police in 2014, I remember how he uses his music to inspire, inform and mobilise. Through his focus on human rights and justice, many people will come to know about issues ignored by mainstream media. I look around at the waving crowd and think how he often sings of what it’s like to be an outsider, an “ilegal”. It’s quite a bonus that he’s great fun to dance to!

The atmosphere of camaraderie he generates throughout his set spills out onto the pavement with us and not even the heavy shower of autumn rain can dampen our spirits. In the queue as we wait for the Metro, someone is trying to get his mate’s attention. “Lend me two euros!”  he begs, but his friend can’t hear him above the noise. “Here you go” offers a man next to him as he smilingly hands over the coins. The crowd close by appreciate the gesture and gives him a cheer and as we jostle down into the subway station, the mood buoyant in spite of the crush and the rain.

The next day, I’m reading how the camps in Calais are to be dismantled and the refugees dispersed. I think of Manu Chao and the lyrics to “Clandestino“. “Perdido en el corazón/ de la grande Babylon/ Me dicen el clandestino/ por no llevar papel.” (Lost in the heart/of great Babylon/ They call me a clandestine/ because I have no papers). I check in with his Facebook page and see the photos from his shows. In Croatia with a “Refugees Welcome” sign; in France protesting against nuclear power; in Switzerland supporting the campaign questioning Monsanto’s human rights abuses; in Brussels over the TTIP – the Transatlantic Treaty
These contradictions surrounding our decisions are something we have to battle with daily and sometimes, the right decision will be to stay at home and not waste any more resources than are necessary. And sometimes, as Manu Chao would say…”Pachamama… te invito a bailar..”(Mother Earth…I invite you to dance.)

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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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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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Kate Bush

I was twelve when Kate Bush released Wuthering Heights. Such a precious age for a girl child. On the brink of womanhood, I watched the young singer-songwriter on Top of the Pops and knew that women could do stuff. I was forty eight when, learning that Kate was to perform a series of concerts after a thirty five year absence from the stage, I sat at a computer in Melbourne, Australia and resolved to get a ticket. In the time in between these events, Kate has produced 10 albums, each of which I have hungrily devoured. The covers of these albums, first in vinyl and then, re-purchased as CDs, are as familiar to me as my own family.

It was an entirely engrossing experience to finally see her on stage in London. I went on my own, like so many others who had lucked their way to a ticket within the fifteen minutes that they sold out. But you know what? That was fine. For me, Kate was always a solitary activity. As a teenager, my Mum bought me a t-shirt which declared “I want to be alone!”. She was mocking my tendency to lock myself in my room and play records over and over. A lot of the time, I was playing Kate Bush LPs. Kate’s early work carried me through my teenage years but it is not these songs she plays in stage in 2014. I don’t mind at all. Outside the venue, TV camera crews ask fans which tracks they want to hear, but no-one cares. Really. Whatever she does is fine by us.

As is often the way among fans, Kate’s most famous hits are not my favourites. Babooshka and Running up that Hill are amazing, of course, but give me Army Dreamers or Breathing from her second album, Never For Ever, any day. These songs mark the beginning of my political thinking. Ask me about my opinions on war and you will hear these lyrics in the background. It’s a feminine, pragmatic approach. People die in wars. Every soldier is someone’s son. Oh yes, and we need to take care of our environment, or we’ll have no clean air to breathe.

Kate took control of her musical career early on and I have always admired that strong independence. It seemed that, more than any other female artist, she was in control of her own image, her own story. In a world where women are fiercely exploited, Kate engineered her own destiny. And that, to me, is a political statement too. Not only can women do stuff, but they can do it on their own terms.

As the press review that first concert as a “comeback”, I think, “But she never went away!”. The mystery and enigma of the artist that is Kate Bush is a result of the intrusive and sensationalist nature of our media. In order to keep her integrity, she needed to keep to herself. But she never stopped producing. Never stopped working. Never even took a parenting break. The release of her music has been consistent. Life has been her muse.

I like to think of Kate as a companion. Her music has accompanied me on my own rich journey and her consistency has been inspirational. The morals and values which she holds dear are integral to her art and she has never disappointed me. She has never sold out, never sold us short. This concert is simply the next step in her impeccable track record. And yes, it was worth the wait.

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