William Barton is the flavour of the month in musical circles – perhaps even the flavour of the decade – and not just in Queensland. He’s in demand on the concert stage almost everywhere in Australia, and audiences have lauded him in countries as far apart as Turkey and Paris, where he has played at the 90th anniversary Anzac service in Gallipoli and with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, while later this year he will perform at the Venice Music Biennale. Not bad for a boy from Mt Isa who blows a great didge, and is still greeted there by his old mates as Willy.
William Barton was only a toddler in the bad old days of 1985, when the Performing Arts Complex was opened with a concert attended by the Duke and Duchess of Kent (known to the radicals as the Rent-a-Kents), which featured a didgeridoo performance as the opening number. Premier Bjelke-Petersen overrode the decision of the producer, who quite properly wanted an Aboriginal didge player, so the number was performed by a white fella with not an Aboriginal dancer or musician within coo-ee. Those were the days, my friend.
BR> Today, almost single-handedly, William Barton has raised the didgeridoo to the level of a serious concert instrument, and during his astonishing career he has developed the range of music available for it and commanded a new respect for Aboriginal music among serious music lovers. I’ve admired his work for years, and one of the great treats of my life was last year during the Australian Chamber Music Festival in Townsville, when I accompanied him and a youthful string quartet on an outback tour to Mt Isa and places north and west, all the way to the Gulf. They played in a huge front-loader at Mt Isa Mines, at a nursing home for old Aboriginal people in Normanton, and a concert on the lawns of the pub on the beach at Karumba, and as well as playing solo didge music in a way that sent shivers down your spine, he also played with the string quartet in adaptations of the music of the divine Johann Sebastian Bach as well as music so ultra-modern that I’d hardly heard of it, and pieces he had composed himself for string quartet and didge.
There are many things that strike me about William Barton’s music. First is its pure quality, which in its ethereal way combines two cultures, those of indigenous Australia with that of the settlers from Europe, and harmonises them into a style of music that on a very lofty level is another example of reconciliation. He doesn’t dumb-down the European classics into a more popular form, nor is there any attempt to fit Aboriginal concerns into the pop country-and-western tradition that we so often hear on indigenous radio. His is spare, perfectly controlled music, which on that tour spoke to everyone from underground miners to tribal Aboriginal elders to high-brow white Australians to drinkers at the pub in Karumba.
This year Barton was again a featured artist at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville, and his talents have expanded even further, as have his followers, so much so that the 2007 Outback Xstrata Tour which precedes the Festival was booked out, and again Barton was one of the stars.
Indeed, he seemed to be the star performer all through that first weekend. Everywhere you went, there he was, entertaining greedy guests at the Chefs in the North Dinner, along with Piers Lane, Cheryl Barker and Peter Coleman-Wright; playing a solo at the Opening Concert and improvising with Brett Dean at the Governor’s Concert; and giving a special performance of his own in the Cultural Centre at Townsville’s Reef HQ.
This was, for me at least, one of the highlights of the AFCM. The Cultural Centre, for those of you who haven’t been to Townsville for a while, is an indigenous space containing a small shop, some craft and activity rooms, and a big auditorium for performances, and here William Barton, with the help of the divine voice of his mother Delmae, and the talents of the Hamer Quartet, gave a concert to a rapt audience which was comprised of local families of all ages ranging from babies to elders, and concert-lovers from all over Australia.
It was the breadth of the material and Barton’s mastery of the concert that impressed me most. Leaving aside his maturing skills as a performer, and his exciting new forays into different styles of music, the sheer professionalism of his approach and his easy interaction with such a varied audience demonstrated that he has developed not just into a world-standard musician, but the complete professional performer. He spoke to all of us, black and white, with such ease and control that we knew we were in the hands of a master, and when he began to play the full range of music that he has been working with over the past couple of years, it was impossible not to be moved.
Some of us whitefellas appreciated the way in which he blends the ancient tones of the didge with the sounds of early European masters, everyone was blown away by his total command of the intricate rhythms of the instrument in its traditional setting, and even those members of the audience who were hearing European music that was foreign to their experience showed their delight at what was going open.
This was one of the most joyful concerts I’ve ever been to, a harmony of two cultures not just in music but in spirit, and once again, but more strongly than ever, William Barton has proved himself to be a consummate performer as well as one of the greatest ambassadors for his country and his people as one could hope to find.
When are they going to make him Australian of the Year?
Played 6 July 2007
Duration: one hour, no interval