Performance review: MEERTA – Rise Up! The Ballad of James Arden, Arts Centre Melbourne

The story of Gunditjmara man James Arden as told by his great grandson, Kokatha/Gunditjmara songman David Arden.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers should be warned that this review contains the names of people who have died.

In MEERTA – Rise up! The Ballad of James Arden, we learn of Gunditjmara man James Arden through the words and songs of his great grandson, Kokatha/Gunditjmara songman and storyteller, David Arden. It is an intimate, warm and gracious journey that not only traces the familial, spiritual and political threads connecting the two, among other kin, but also celebrates the irrepressible spirit of the Gunditjmara people.

Commissioned by the Yirramboi Festival, the world premiere of MEERTA brought together an exceptional ensemble of musical talent led by singer-songwriter, guitarist, director and co-musical director, David Arden.

Arden has played with some of Australia’s most celebrated First Nation artists, including Kutcha Edwards, Bart Willoughby and the late great Uncle Archie Roach and Aunty Ruby Hunter, as well as artists such as Paul Kelly and Shane Howard, of Goanna fame.

As Co-Musical Director for MEERTA, Arden was joined by Venezuelan-born, Latin Grammy Award-winning musician, producer and composer, Daniel Jauregui. On stage, as guitarist, Jauregui complemented Arden’s charismatic presence, clearly finding joy in their collaboration. Other ensemble artists included Gunditjmara/Yorta Yorta vocalist Deniece Hudson, Brad Brown (Gunai/Kurnai, Gunditjmara, Bidwell) on bass guitar, Ann Metry on bass guitar, Chris Cameron on drums, Jordan Murray on trumpet and Jake Amy on keyboard. The latter performed a beautiful piano accompaniment to Arden’s sweet love ballad, ‘Annie Louisa’.

The ensemble was joined by string and horn students from the Victorian College of the Arts, who performed with great finesse after just three days of rehearsal. It’s rare to see so many musicians on stage, outside of an orchestra, and it was a treat to take it all in, even if the big sound occasionally threatened to overwhelm Aden’s vocals.

Traversing the musical spectrum, from rhythm and blues, country, jazz, pop-folk and funk to reggae and calypso-inspired sounds, the MEERTA soundtrack was a sonic smorgasbord – heartfelt (‘I Was Always’) and sentimental (‘Feeling Lost’) one minute, rousing and anthemic (‘Freedom Called’, ‘One Step Forward’, ‘Call it Out’) the next. The program finished with the catchy title song, ‘MEERTA’, which had the audience rising to its feet.

Above the stage, projected onto a large screen, colourful and striking artworks by Gunnai/Yorta Yorta/Gunditjmara/Dhudhuroa artist Dixon Patten were interspersed with a selection of Arden’s family photos. It was very moving to see the black and white image of Arden’s beautiful and very young birth mother, in a classic studio pose of the 1960s, cradling baby David in her arms. Or the ‘70s colour image of Arden and his younger brother living large – close, connected, yet growing into their different lives. The generosity Arden showed in sharing these photos is acknowledged.

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The Arts Centre’s Pavilion isn’t the easiest performance space; its awkward pillars and wide, shallow configuration can compromise sound and sightlines. But the artists held the audience and, even as it is recognised that MEERTA will dramaturgically settle and mature over time, as a first performance of a new work it was confident and polished.

James Arden may be the man in the work’s title, but MEERTA is also ‘The Ballad of David Arden’, and the spirit of this Gunditjmara family is alive and well.

MEERTA – Rise Up! The Ballad of James Arden
Commissioned by YIRRAMBOI and presented by Arts Centre Melbourne
Director, Co-Musical Director, Singer, Songwriter, Guitar: David Arden
Co-Musical Director, Guitar: Daniel Jauregui
Bass Guitarist: Brad Brown
Bass Guitarist: Ann Metry
Drums: Chris Cameron
Keyboard: Jake Amy
Singer: Deniece Hudson
Horns and Strings: Jordan Murray and VCA music students
Musical Notation: Jordan Murray
Visual Design: Dixon Patten
Co-Producers: Violet Arden and Jill Morgan AM

The Pavilion, Arts Centre Melbourne
11-12 May 2023

Jennifer Barry is a Melbourne-based theatre producer and arts manager with over 30 years’ experience in the Australian and US arts industries. She has a BA in Communications (Theatre/Media), a Masters in Theatre Studies, and a Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne.