As mentioned in my commentary on Vernon Ah Kee’s ‘Not an Animal or a Plant‘ exhibition, this year’s Sydney Festival is taking early advantage of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Referendum which officially acknowledged Ah Kee’s humanity “ and that of all Aboriginal Australians. While the visual artist’s work is primarily political, the concert ‘1967 : Music in the Key of Yes‘ sounded as though it was going to be one long celebration offered by the musical cream amongst the beneficiaries of the Referendum “ names like Dan Sultan, Leah Flanagan, Ursula Yovich and Yirrmal Marika “ all of whom even I have heard of!
But how to frame that celebration? Was there music that helped the cause in 1967; or did Aboriginal musicians have to feel the benefits of their Referendum win before they could make their own music? Would the current generation of singers be able to identify with iconic anthems like Black Boy, My Brown Skin Baby, Took The Children Away and From Little Things Big Things Grow? And how to remind their peers in the audience what the issues were before, during and after the Referendum?
I wish I could say it was obvious how these issues had been thought through. But the fact that the packed Concert Hall audience went wild at the end having remained merely polite through the 17-number show suggests to me that they came wanting to give cathartically but were denied by a muddled, un-MCed presentation that mostly mixed perfectly competent music performance with imagery from around 1967 that got stranger and less comprehensible as the night went on. Where did the Klu Klux Klan come in? Or all those white make-up ads and men shaving?
Even at the beginning, we’d seen town camp scenes that hinted at their squalor but then invariably undercut it with the happiness of the kids at play there. Similarly, I might have expected exploitation in the cattle industry to be shown. But those black stockmen looked pretty proud of their skills “ and brief shots of Gough Whitlam and Vincent Lingiari standing together, but not doing their famous ‘passing of Country’ act, didn’t really give us any idea of the Gurindji walk-off at Wave Hill or its causes. More effective were slow-motion shots of Aboriginal kids being dully marshalled into serried ranks to satisfy some petty-Hitler in a Native Settlement or Boys Home. No joy there. But a relevant accompaniment to Radical Son’s thoughtful performance of ‘Took the Children Away’.
There was even more interest in the video matter directly relevant to the Referendum. Speeches by Faith Bandler and Sir Doug Nicholls weren’t exactly rip-roaring, but boy were they careful about looking neat and speaking precisely! Then the after-the-vote interviews with some of the 90.77% who’d just resoundingly voted YES were even less rip-roaring as they reluctantly admitted it was time to Give the Blacks a go.
But all of this did distract me from the music “ except when the marvellous Ursula Yovich let rip on ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free’, freed from illustration. Nina Simone would have been proud of her. And Djakapurra Munyarryun would have been proud of young Yirrmal Marika “ who is developing the earth-shaking chant that the Yolngu master has brought to so many Bangarra performances, not to mention the Olympics Opening Ceremony. Indeed, Yirrmal emerged as the star of the evening “ singing in language, adding his yidaki to many songs that were tending to a poppy sameness and dancing with ceremonial authority “ even though some idiot shone desert roundels on the ground where this Man of Arnhem was performing.
Sadly, ‘My Island Home’ and even Yothu Yindi’s culminating ‘Treaty Yeah’ seemed to have been reduced to repeated choruses rather than selling their verses’ arguments convincingly. But I did have the pleasure of discovering Alice Skye “ whose self-accompanied ‘You Are the Mountains’ offered the sort of melodic thoughtfulness that should have contrasted brilliantly with a series of pumped up anthems that would have brought the audience to its feet. But when Yirrmal’s opening anthem, ‘Garruku‘ was met with absolute silence, I already felt the need for an MC to tell us what we were hearing, who was singing and then whipping us willingly up to respond.