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Black Arm Band: dirtsong


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Alexis Wright’s words waft in and out of our consciousness, the Black Arm Band’s musicality caresses and Daybreak Film’s screen visuals mesmerise – on the final evening of the Adelaide Festival, dirtsong is truly an ultimate event.

This is a performance that carries you emotionally; a media and music partnership making country good, singing it up. And how they sing!

For me, Lou Bennett, Mindy Kwanten, Deline Briscoe and Emma Donovan are the heart and soul of dirtsong. Their vocals resonate in the body and the soul; it is as if they are one.

Trevor Jamieson is energised, cheeky and confident; his use of wrecking yard materials is interesting, but this pales in comparison to his connections with the land through his actions and his voice. Paul Dempsey (Something For Kate) has a symbolic call and response in “This Land is Mine”, though his understated assimilation as an honorary band member belies the status of “special guest”.

As for Archie Roach, his humble approach could not compete with the rapturous acknowledgement of any contribution, and he is certainly worthy of such recognition.

Against a backdrop of landscape, people, people and landscape, filmmakers Natasha Gadd and Rhys Graham use a narrow depth of field to focus our attention. There is no obvious narrative thread to their images with overlain text, but strong themes are presented: I am country, listen to me. Motifs are recognisable, with subtle power; this is not a frontal assault, but more a cerebral canter.

The projections work in concert with the vocals, which are sometimes a cappella and sometimes accompanied by instruments; movement and flight juxtaposed by human lack of flight.

To aid in clarity, black and white is the preferred approach. This adds starkness; silhouettes are striking and the instrumentalists share the stage.

Greg Sheehan (percussion) is a real character, with his mixing bowl machinations adding a new dimension. Genevieve Lacey (recorder) enchants and intrigues us (is that some warped Moog synthesizer? There is a whole new spirituality when you hear it). And then there is Tjupurru, in his Black Arm Band debut, with his slide didgeridoo droning, wailing, popping and rattling; “Coming Up Close Now” is exciting.

Rich, melodious and undeniably intoxicating, the Aboriginal languages shared in song are beautiful, all 13 of them. Director Steven Richardson duly notes our history of language annihilation and has nurtured musical “conversations” to remind us of the wonders of diversity. Through it all, the singular message is one indicative of the Adelaide Festival’s founding principles: respect for and celebration of culture.

World-class performance; world-class festival.

Black Arm Band’s performance of dirtsong at the Festival Theatre was part of the Adelaide Festival, which is now finished.

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Click here for InDaily’s stories and reviews from the 2014 Adelaide Festival, including WOMADelaide and Adelaide Writers’ Week.


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