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the touch of nations (the companies we keep)

zsuzsanna soboslay at canberra’s multicultural festival

Zsuzsanna Soboslay Moore curated the exhibition and archival documentary film Bonegilla: The Migrant Experience on permanent display at the former Migrant Reception and Training Centre just outside Albury. The film is available on DVD from Albury Regional Museum.


It’s 34 years since Al Grassby, the ALP’s somewhat rococo ethnic pin-up, tabled “multiculturalism” as a platform to which Australia should aspire. This was an attempt to overturn the so-called Anglo-conformist practices which drove our post-World War II immigration drive. Bring ‘em in, spread ‘em about, make sure they speak our language and—although it was not policy—tell ‘em off publicly if they don’t.

Multiculturalism flowered into many a folk-dancing, retsina-swilling, rice paper rolling event (with bush tucker taking much longer to catch on). Sydney’s Carnivale was launched in 1979 with sometimes acrid arguments about who had the greater right to express their sorrows—immigrant or displaced indigene. Passionate, complex, irritating. You wondered where your feet were. As the teenage child of European immigrants, I felt the stirring of complex rhythms, antagonisms, empathies.

I have sad memories of other festivals: plastic chairs in the corridors of windy malls, gaudy spectacles, shuffled performances, screeching microphones. Nostalgic serenades for the ethnic hordes; for the passive audience, a starchy tourist smorgasbord.

But Canberra’s National Multicultural Festival sparked it up (and thought things out) with an opera, physical theatre, tango in the street all day and night, a dozen international acts at the Tradies’, a night of ecstatic dance. The zeugma of the Beatles linked with Georgian chant; butoh dancers lined up in Civic Square in a kind of antipodean wailing wall. And everywhere, everywhere, people speaking language.

Tents at the day-long Greek Glendi spun with the honey-oiled kiss of Aegean vowels. Chinese new year was welcomed in in Vietnamese. The Bangladeshi Ambassador, speaking longer in Bangla than English, honoured the martyrs who fought for the right to retain Bangla as a public language in 1952. Further, he insisted that “culture is the glue of life,” and that language, song, dance need their continuity in order to honour the spirit world from which they emerge.

So, what is crushed when language, song, dance is censured or lost? Surely, just these spirits, which (as for Indigenous Australians) helped to form material worlds. Culture is the landscape that precedes song. Our ghosts already dance in the silences that precede words.

It seems disingenuous, then, of Dhafer Youssef, a Tunisian-born oud player and singer, to say (when pressed regarding the Arabic origins of his playing by Andrew Ford on Radio National’s The Music Show) that “I play from the heart…From nothing…I do what I feel, and that’s it…Before I play I have no idea what I’m going to do.”

I look at his oud, its very shape embodying specific histories, and hence delivering a very specific spirit and sound. His voice too sounds undeniable landscapes. And yet he plays up the ‘wow” factor of having players from “everywhere” whilst mocking himself as a “silly Dafher.” Hm, cheap ethnic joke. Who’s fooling whom?

I look, too, at the Western string quartet and tabla with whom he plays. Each is a synecdoche of their disparate cultures, constrained and released by their shapes and tone. This is no easy meeting. Indeed, to my ear, the group’s first set was riddled with difficulties. The strings played in (comparatively) measured harmonics and timescale, sawing (both visibly and audibly) through their notes, whilst oud and tabla rolled and flowed, a melisma of river-motion. The performers’ feet really stayed in different lands.

Later sets, however, bravely walked over a new man’s land. A special achievement was the encore-which-nearly-didn’t-happen: Jatinda Thakur (tabla) urged Youssef to bring “the girls” back on stage and gave each the chance to truly emerge from their different terrains.

What occurred here, through improvisation, was enough to make you yelp and cry. From Melissa Coleman’s opening cello solo, which worked its way from the Sistine Chapel around the whole of Istanbul, to Joanna Lewis’ violin stretching from desert to marshland pulled through the scent of an English rose, to Youssef’s wailing muezzin call, this is where the team created a very complex co-existence—a landscape of deeply bedded textures that enriched, informed and re-formed the soils and landscape of a new terrain. Genuine coalition.

By contrast, Operalab’s A Thousand Doors, A Thousand Windows sent its audience adrift. Over its 50 minutes, we heard tonalities shift incomprehensibly from Greek monody to Arabic modes, its texts move from Greek to Finnish to Farsi (and possibly more), and watched a projected Muslim script (a sacred text?) morph in so alarming a fashion that I feared the artists must be bringing on themselves some kind of curse (and somewhere crushing the spirits of the song). Although soprano Xenia Hanusiak lacked dramatic and vocal nuance there were moments of striking tonalities that turned one inside out with a sense of displacement, longing and loss. However A Thousand Doors, A Thousand Windows (works by Australian composer Constantine Koukias and Hanusiak, and Finnish composer Kaija Saarhiaho) left the ‘other’ (new music, new citizen) so unframed as to create profound impediments to reception. It is hard enough to embark on an odyssey, let alone last the distance in the face of such patent disregard.

That said, multicultural listening is always a hard task. From where do we listen, here, or there? If “there”, what helps us transpose ourselves to that other landscape, the one from which we do not come?

Curiously, Youssef’s ensemble only seemed to find true clarity following a moment where he stopped the concert, pleading for the venue’s thrumming refrigeration to be turned off. “Please, just this once—this song needs to come from silence!” The management were unable to oblige. In the end, however, he more than survived his compromise. He must have listened deeper than the ‘white noise.’ It took more than refrigeration to silence the meeting ground to which the performers had come.

The first post-war naturalized Australian citizen (1949) was made to disavow allegiance to his old country before taking oath to serve the new. I bow my head for the silences any new citizen is asked to leave behind. I bow my head for anyone whose language is silenced by neglect, indifference, or white noise. This is our nation: how well do we listen, or care? How well do we embark on that hard task to help cultures meet? How far have we really come?

See also Keith Gallasch's review of A Thousand Doors, A Thousand Windows in Ten Days on the Island.

Canberra National Multicultural Festival, artistic director Dominic Mico, Feb 5-18

Zsuzsanna Soboslay Moore curated the exhibition and archival documentary film Bonegilla: The Migrant Experience on permanent display at the former Migrant Reception and Training Centre just outside Albury. The film is available on DVD from Albury Regional Museum.

RealTime issue #78 April-May 2007 pg. onl

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