In case those familiar with the dynamic work of Ensemble Offspring might have expected ‘-barra‘ to be an exotically atonal musical work celebrating that great Australian fish, the barramundi, I can assure you that we were a long way from its tropical piscine world. And we were a fair distance too from EO’s exotic atonalism, in the hands of Yuwaalaraay composer, writer and singer, Nardi Simpson.
Writing for her -barra Voices choir, I identified Simpson’s style of music as more at home on the musical theatre stage than at Angel Place. But when she writes for the instrumental ensemble on its own, the spirit of EO just kept breaking through. Flute flutters, bass clarinet rumbles, marimba complexity. Simpson has been the EO’s First Nations Composer in Residence, so I guess that spirit has to rub off.
Simpson, of course, is also a Stiff Gin – with Kaleena Briggs, creating one of Australia‘s best known and most loved Indigenous music acts. I guess that 20 year flavour rubs off too. And many may find Simpson’s name more recently associated with the written word, winning the Black&Write Fellowship for her novel ‘Song of the Crocodile’, which was also shortlisted for both the 2021 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (Indigenous Writing) and the Indie Book Awards (Debut Fiction).
So, I have to say, pleasant though the music was during this 80 minute work, it was Simpson’s written texts which illuminated me much more satisfyingly. We were promised “a magical journey done to the rhythms of this Country”, and I now have a much better feel for the four regions/clans of the Yuwaalaraay lands, up there on the dusty Queensland border north-west of Brewarrina and Lightning Ridge. It’s very wet – surprisingly – if the imagery of collaborators Lucy Simpson and Brendan Odee Welsh is to be believed, with Narran Lakes as its ceremonial heartland. Language is still strong, as is a cultural history going back (and forward) into the everywhen or Dreamtime.
And with so much Yuwaalaraay language about, surtitles would have been a bonus. I can’t even tell you waht ther title means!
But the nexus of people, the earth’s creatures and plants and the wealth of all those lights in the night sky is such a huge leap away from our anthropocentric way of looking at (and abusing) the world, ‘-barra‘ was worth it for just that understanding. Simpson herself, for instance has the lignum or yellow hollywood tree as her totem – its wood providing material for shelter, for spears, for fire – and yet she shares that identity with the moon. And Earth’s planets are held in place by string from the kurrjong tree’s bark. Go figure?
Simpson seemed to be offering a fairly feminist reading of what she described as a largely matriarchal past; until the only male in the choir sung stories of The Creator, Baime and his mighty digging stick which brought into being that watery world for the Yuwaalaraay. It was absolutely refreshing to share that complex mythology in a NSW context rather than something from the remote north.
Did we move, as promised, to the “rhythms of the Country”? Nardi Simpson certainly did – dancing as she conducted and adding distinct touches of the Dark Emu to her movements as we entered Dhariwaa Country around Narran Lakes and flew over a huge, stone-outlined emu captured by Odee Welsh’s drone work. But earlier, as we learned of the descent of the Miimii grandmothers from the skies to earth, I have to say that despite Georgina Oakes’s best didgeri efforts on her bass clarinet, it was remarkably soft music for such a foundational moment.
But what was a fairly packed audience (few Omicron-absentees in Angel Place, it would seem) doing at such a potentially political event when boycotts were all about in the Sydney Festival? Well, the official line was: “Sydney new music Ensemble Offspring has declared its intention to go ahead with its performance of its -barra program on 16 January. In a post on social media, the group shared a statement from Yuwaalaraay writer, musician, composer and educator Nardi Simpson, saying in part, “-barra does not exist for or belong to any organisation, festival or institution. It is also not a performance. It is a cultural practice that comprises the maintenance of relationship, the reinforcing of connection and the singing of country….To have it understood merely as a festival event is to further colonise a work that seeks to directly challenge such forces”.
But……In the socialist newsletter Redflag, the following claims are made:
“While more than 100 artists and creatives have now withdrawn from the festival, Aboriginal artists and artists of colour have been at the forefront of the solidarity efforts with Palestine. In the past weeks, Indigenous rapper Barkaa and Darumbal journalist Amy McQuire have been joined by Wiradjuri visual artist Karla Dickens and the Marrugeku Indigenous Dance Troupe – both presented by Carriageworks.
Marrugeku has made the decision to officially withdraw Jurrungu Ngan-ga from the Sydney Festival program. As co-commissioners of Jurrungu Ngan-ga with Marrugeku, Carriageworks maintains its commitment to the company and this important work and will continue to present the long-awaited premiere season of Jurrungu Ngan-ga over the period 27-29 January.
Speaking on the Project about why Aboriginal artists had chosen to withdraw, McQuire explained that it was because of the “connections we see as fellow Indigenous populations living in a settler colonial society”.