Conceived by Aaron Choulai for Queensland Music Festival
The 2007 Queensland Music Festival has been celebrating “Our State of Play” over the two weeks of the second half of July, and highlighting the diversity and the important links between not only metropolitan and country areas, but also the links with our close neighbours, in this case with Papua New Guinea.
Aaron Choulai, who was the 2006 young jazz pianist of the year, conceived of this production as bringing together two very important communities in his life: “The first is VADA, a collective I have been involved with, and have written for since high school . . .The other is the choir from Tatana, my village near Port Moresby.” Choulai grew up as a mixed-race child in Papua, “living between the village and the city, speaking English, Tok Pisin and Motu, being part of tradition and culture on a day-to-day basis.” As a high school student at the Victoria College of the Arts in Melbourne, he developed close collaborative connections and friendships with a group of musicians who have been playing with him professionally since then. When he began to develop the project which would combine the choral tradition of Peroveta Anedia or Prophet Songs with modern jazz, he and other members of VADA travelled to Papua and auditioned young people for the choir and worked on the exciting collaboration which became We don’t dance for no reason.
As the choir in costume walked on silently and the musicians took their places behind their instruments—piano, brass, percussion and double bass—slides were shown on a large screen of aspects of Motu culture and the genesis of Peroveta Anedia which arrived some generations ago with the Polynesian United Church missionaries. There were shots of life in the village, showing ancient net-fishing techniques, but with rusting hulks of military ships looming behind in the harbour. There were explanations of village government and land ownership with the skyscrapers of Port Moresby on the distant horizon, contrasting eloquently with the stilt houses of the village perched over the water.
The slides were never distracting, however, and often counterpointed, say, a scratchy elegiac percussion solo which sounded like rain or the ending of a culture, or a haunting brass piece. As the slides continued, there were shots of AIDS signs, and Dame Carol Kidu, the Community and Development Minister and now the only female member of the PNG parliament, told us that 300 of the 2500 villagers were victims of the disease. One of Choulai’s own mesmerising piano solos played under pictures of sea and sun, children mugging for the camera, the village pigs, a school with no lights or windows. All the time an increasingly urban existence and the consequent unemployment were co-existing with the watery world of a village on stilts.
It was not too hard to grasp the ambiguity of the project title, We don’t dance for no reason, as the singers of the Tatana Village Choir moved rhythmically and continuously as they sang their prophet songs. Singing became dancing in the historical development of this form of worship as their early pastors took over as heads of the community in the absence of any government control; a form of celebration using both body and voice. The most restrained song was an unexpected version of “When I survey the wondrous cross,” startling both in its simplicity and its familiarity.
Throughout the performance the singers and the musicians moved about the stage, making contact with each other. Choulai particularly at times seemed to wander, almost trance-like, as if he too were captivated by the glory of the singing. I loved this show. It was thoughtful, the music was exciting and wide-ranging, and the singing was a delight. I hope it has a longer life than its short run at the Festival.
Directed by Aaron Choulai
Playing Wed 18 July, Thurs 19 July 2007, 7.30pm.
Duration : 1hr 15mins, no interval.