The Black Arm Band’s ‘dirtsong’

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL: Indigenous musical supergroup The Black Arm Band enthralled audiences with their latest work.
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A creative collaboration between some of Australia’s leading Indigenous and non-Indigenous musicians, The Black Arm Band embodies the spirit of reconciliation in word, song and deed. Their third major work, dirtsong – a musical exploration of the Indigenous connection to the land – had its world premiere before a packed and eager audience on the last weekend of this year’s Melbourne International Arts Festival.

Special guests Jimmy Barnes and Paul Kelly joined the likes of Lou Bennett, Kutcha Edwards, Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter to perform a collection of songs spanning a wide range of genres, and inspired by the works of the Miles Franklin Award-winning writer Alexis Wright, a Waanji woman from the highlands of the southern Gulf of Carpentaria. Together with a series of images and short films (which were not always visible from some sections of the theatre due to sight line issues), the songs worked to evoke both geography and spirituality, a sense of place and a sense of purpose.

The majority of songs performed in dirtsong, including traditional, contemporary and newly commissioned pieces, were performed in Indigenous languages such as Alyawarre, Gumatj, Yorta Yorta and Mutti Mutti. Some such languages are no longer spoken, and required painstaking and sensitive reconstruction before they could be performed; others are still actively spoken, a testimony to cultural survival in the face of enormous odds.

“Language is belonging,” says Yorta Yorta woman Lou Bennett in the dirtsong program. “It is tasting – it is feeling. When I speak and sing my language I feel at home. I feel a sense of belonging, and pride in my language. I also feel a sense of connection to the land where that language comes from.”

In dirtsong, that sense of belonging and connection to the land was conveyed to the audience through music and song. Kutcha Edwards sang a moving lament about loss and longing to a tune arranged by Iain Grandage in ‘Madha yidi’: “Madha yidi yarngadin kukingialiai (I never talked to my beautiful grandmother) / Madha yidi wiugadhin waripa (I never sang or danced in a cooroboree)”. The contrasting attitudes of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians towards the land were highlighted by a duet between Paul Kelly and the talented young Tasmanian, Dewayne Everettsmith, in This Land is Mine, originally written by Kelly and Kev Carmody for the film One Night the Moon. “This land is mine,” sang Kelly. “This land is me,” Everttsmith retorts.

A very different take on whitefella perceptions of country were aired in ‘Waakoobawhan yannak’, an eel-hunting song written by Shane Howard and performed by him and Jimmy Barnes in a lively and refreshing rock duet.

While all the performances were strong, and strongly received, one of the real highlights in what tended at times towards a slightly middle of the road (musically speaking) evening was a dynamic yet delicate performance of the song Dron Wanga, sung in the Gumatj language from North East Arnhem Land by Djolpa McKenzie. Opening with Andrea Keller on piano, there was a tangible sense of connection between McKenzie and his audience, who hung on his every word during his solo.

The poignant ballad which followed, milaythina nika /Rwawa, performed by McKenzie and Everettsmith, on which their voices harmonised beautifully, was also outstanding.

“We got to make the stories. Sing the stories back. Bring the country back. Singing it up. Bringing it back. Bringing up feeling. Feeling it in the heart. Giving it back to the country.” – Alexis Wright

 The Black Arm Band’s dirtsong
Developed and Produced by Arts House
Conception and Direction by Stephen Richardson
The Melbourne International Arts Festival
October 9 – 24, 2009

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts