Crossing Roper Bar

Brisbane Powerhouse Theatre (Australian Art Orchestra)


Musical directors: Benjamin Wilfred for the Wagilak songmen; Julien Wilson for the Australian Art Orchestra


With its emphasis on “Our State of Play,” the Brisbane Music Festival this year was aiming to highlight the diversity of Queensland music, and of the performances and collaborations which seriously set about breaking down barriers. Crossing Roper Bar was one such project, and as its title suggests, it refers both to a geographical crossing point where it is possible to ford the Roper River in south-east Arnhem Land during a few short months in the year when the Wet is over, and also to a crossing of cultures and particularly of musical styles. The remote town of Ngukurr, isolated completely during the Wet, is the cultural gathering point for different outlying tribal groups who come together under the name of Yugul Mangi, speaking Wagilak and, over millennia, developing song cycles for eternity called Manikay Songs.

On an interview on the Saturday morning Radio National Music Show, the musical director for the Australian Art Orchestra Julien Wilson spoke about how he found a way into the music of the Wagilak songmen. He was inspired firstly by the collaboration for “Ruby’s Song” between the AAO and Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter. From this the members of the orchestra moved into a period of intensive listening and learning how to move from the indigenous vocal to Western instrumental musical patterns, and how to assimilate the very structured demands of the dances and choruses. The AAO has in the past engaged in a number of different collaborations such as with Indian and Balinese groups, but this meeting of cultures demanded a different approach. All members of the orchestra were enormously enthusiastic about the project, and Julien Wilson was anxious to stress that this was not just a collaboration but more a willing connection to the more profound aspects of another culture, not just a pilfering of a didgeridoo or a pair of clap sticks, but a sharing of experience in which respect and understanding were the guiding forces. The Wagilak songmen were willing to adapt and transform their traditional ceremonial songs, which under normal circumstances would never be seen by a western audience because of the strict protocols attached to them, and in their turn the members of the AAO learned to experience with their eyes, ears, hearts and minds and bring all these sensations to their music.

The set was a large sand pit surrounded by an ochre-coloured patterned edging. At either side was a paperbark humpy in one of which sat the narrator who explained his country and the responsibility his people felt towards the land as their mother. He spoke of stories of travelling, of how the spirits go back to their own tribal land, and of the necessity to show respect for all peoples. The songmen and musicians sat outside the other humpy, and the dancers, two women in ordinary skirts and tee shirts, and four men in quite elaborate feathered costumes, danced in the sand pit. The orchestra, which comprised brass (sax and trumpet), electric guitars and percussion, were in the gloom of upstage, although Julien Wilson might casually move to the songmen’s humpy for a word or to the other side of the stage for a solo. The impression was one of improvisation, flexibility, intimate decisions about direction and emphasis. The most successful dances were those in which the most charismatic of the dancers mimicked a bird or an animal, prancing round the sand, shedding feathers, enjoying the comedy of his own performance. Some of the lighting was effective, the low light in moments of morning calm, the morning sounds of the orchestra before the dance and the song began as the sun came up.

There was an enormous amount of ambitious goodwill in both the conception and the performance of Crossing Roper Bar, so I am hard put to it to say why I was let down. Visually I think it was a disappointment, and I would like at some stage just to listen to a CD of the whole show because there were some magic sound moments, at times which resembled an exciting new style of jam session. The narrator’s speaking voice particularly had a musical richness to it that was striking. The visual performance though was disconcertingly dull. Perhaps these dances are just too private, or too much the product of moments in time when the performers are improvising with their friends. And the incongruities of mikes strapped to their backs (unnecessary, I’m sure, in such a confined space), plastic water bottles outside the humpies and a brief nod at a fire-pit added to the sense of unease. It’s silly to talk about authenticity, because a music performance such as this makes its own rules as it develops a new type of authentic creation, but in this new space the dances were almost an anachronism.

Playing Fri 20 July, Sat 21 July 2007

Duration : 1hr, no interval.

— Barbara Garlick
(Performance seen: Fri 20th July 2007)