REVIEW: CD launch, Crossing Roper Bar Volume 2 — The Ghost Dances, Young Wägilak Group & Australian Art Orchestra, Bennetts Lane Jazz Club, Tuesday 27 May, 2014
This was a CD launch and a live music performance. It was also a challenging and moving personal experience that has stayed with me over the months since it took place — in the brief lull between two significant jazz festivals in Melbourne.
I had heard about Crossing Roper’s Bar, a musical collaboration over nine years in which the song men of Ngukurr have worked closely with the Australian Art Orchestra to explore in a contemporary way the manikay (song cycles) of the Yolŋu people of South East Arnhem Land. I had never heard the music, but had long wanted to.
I had expectations only that what the initiator of the project, Paul Grabowsky, had said was based on “an equal exchange of knowledge through a dialogue centred on music” would be fascinating and could take me anywhere. Grabowsky has a habit of not disappointing. But, of course, there were many other musicians involved in this rare live performance — many known to me through jazz, but two indigenous musicians who were an unknown quantity.
Looking back on this performance, I regret that it was sandwiched between periods of intense jazz festival activity at Stonnington Jazz and the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. It deserved to have its own space in my head, time for reflection and for its depth to sink in. Yet, despite my need to move on in “festival review” mode, I find that this concert lingers. It will not go away.
An important element in that lasting impact came in the contributions of indigenous musicians of the Young Wägilak Group and traditional ceremony men from Ngukurr on the Roper River Daniel Wilfred (Wägilak Songman and dancer) and David Wilfred (Wägilak Songman and didgeridoo).
The AAO musicians were Paul Grabowsky (Musical Director and piano), Tony Hicks (saxophones), Stephen Magnusson (guitar), Niko Schauble (drums). and Philip Rex (double bass).
It was an impressive line-up from the AAO, but this outing was indeed “an equal exchange”. Soon after Grabowsky spoke briefly about this music taking us to another place, outside time and yet about time as well as identity and creation, I found myself focusing especially on the voice and words of Daniel Wilfred. It was mesmerising and powerful.
The orchestra members began with minimalist contributions, at times explosive chatter and seemingly disconnected, so that Daniel’s voice and clap stick interventions were a sharp shock. But as the music progressed his voice became a unifying force as well as a form of punctuation, halting proceedings before the next “movement”. At times I found it had the propulsion of swing.
Grabowsky and Magnusson played together, the guitar producing sounds that were visceral, animal and alive, sometimes gobbling. Hicks, who was exquisitely expressive on his wide range of instruments throughout, delivered a long, moving clarinet solo before a vocal and clap stick cut-off. Then Rex and Schauble delivered strong stuff that led to a fiery finish of another segment.
There were many extremes and variations as each of two sets progressed, ranging from frenzy to tiny chirrups to what sounded like storm clouds bristling with distant thunder. The music became eerie or piercing or an onslaught. It was harsh, then it softened. It was unsettling, then it was evocative of much time passing — possibly eons.
But throughout this diversity, the powerful binding force was Daniel’s voice and presence. His vocals seemed disembodied, floating free in space and not emerging just from the mic and speakers. David’s didgeridoo was welcome, but the most impact came in his brother’s voice. I could have just listened and let the sounds fill everything.
At the end of the second set, Daniel spoke briefly about the effect of this project and its affect on his life. I did not catch all that he said, but his pride and strength was evident.
As this is a review, albeit belated, it should have a verdict, I suppose — though no star rating will be offered. So, did it work to bring creative jazz musicians together with musicians from Arnhem Land? Can these cultures find common ground?
From this one experience, and from listening to the album many times, I find that question to be somehow irrelevant. It’s a fair question and someone raised it with me, but I did not find disparity in the music and I did not find myself thinking in terms of the indigenous and non-indigenous parts of the whole.
I’m not sure that I fully grasped where the music took us on the night, but the experience will stay with me. I would urge anyone to take the opportunity to hear this collaboration in whatever form it takes in future — whether live or recorded, but preferably live.
Note: The album Crossing Roper Bar Volume 2 – The Ghost Dances was recorded in 2012 and features the Young Wägilak Group from Arnhem Land led by Benjamin Wilfred and AAO musicians, Erkki Veltheim (violin), Paul Grabowsky (piano), Tony Hicks (saxophone/flute), Philip Rex (bass) and Niko Schäuble (drums).
From the AAO notes: “The Roper River is a magnificent waterway flowing from Mataranka, 100 kms south of Katherine, and out across the land of the Mangarayi and Yungman people. Before it reaches the Gulf of Carpentaria it passes the remote town of Ngukurr, which is isolated by the Wet for several months of each year (November to Easter) when the Roper engulfs all but the highest land. At other times, Roper Bar is the point where it’s possible to cross the river and go on to Ngukurr. The crossing over seems not only a poetic but also a fitting metaphor for our collaboration, Crossing Roper Bar.”