Message Sticks: Magical river music

Keith Gallasch

In a simple concert format, Ruby Hunter, Archie Roach, Paul Grabowsky and the Australian Art Orchestra offer their audience an intensely rich musical experience drawing thematically on Hunter’s origins, the couple’s relationship and the culture of “river people.” With the sparest of accompaniment Roach and Hunter are engaging performer-songwriters, but here they are supported by and integrated into the satisfying totality of Grabowsky’s orchestrations. Country and western, folk, rock’n’roll, reggae and hip hop have all informed popular Indigenous music. Grabowsky, however takes his cue from the gospel, blues and ‘trad jazz’ of the American south and ragtime riffs without ever being literal about it. With gospel and blues he’s building on something already in the compositions of Hunter and Roach, but he takes it further, in the same way, of course, that gospel and blues evolved into jazz.

What could be a tricky balancing act between bracing simplicity and demanding complexity works well with Grabowsky keeping his rhythms carefully anchored and often aligning a singing voice with an instrument -whether trumpet, violin, trombone, saxophone or guitar – so that one seems to magically flow out of and back into the other. Hunter’s voice is intimate, deep, if delicate, with a well-spaced vibrato; Roach’s is characteristically craggy, tuneful, calling the listener to attend. The songs are about place, birth, identity, love and loss. Hunter’s premature birth is recalled-saved by the warm ashes from a campfire so that she “looked like a little rabbit cooked in the ground”—amidst a sparkling musical reverie. A Hunter song about children’s games is rich in ragtime playfulness and is visually and aurally heightened by a solo from percussionist Vanessa Tomlinson playing anything she can lay her hands on. The gospel-ish “They took the children away” from Roach in full voice, is a sad brass band march that turns triumphant as “the children come back”, featuring an inspired solo from saxophonist Sandy Evans. The couple’s first meeting at Adelaide’s People’s Palace, a Salvation Army hotel, is fondly and comically remembered, and sensually celebrated in a sublime guitar solo from Steve Magnusson.

The other instrumentalists (violin John Rodgers, reeds Paul Cutlan, trumpet Phillip Slater, drums Simon Baker, bass Philip Rex, and Grabowsky on piano) are excellent, whether alone or in ensemble in a concert which celebrates the greatness of this (ensemble version) of the Australian Art Orchestra as much as it does Archie Roach and especially Ruby Hunter. Roach sings more songs than Hunter as the concert goes on, though its clear that the songs are by, or for and about her. Even so we were left hungry for that most unusual and haunting of voices, but relished the sight of her idiosyncratic dancing to the singing of her partner, with a gentle swaying, arms and hands evoking traditional gesturing, along with a radiant smiling. An expanded version of the show with a larger Art Orchestra is programmed for this year’s Melbourne Festival.

The Australian Art Orchestra, Ruby’s Story, performance, music and lyrics Ruby Hunter and Archie Roach, musical direction, arrangements and additional music Paul Grabowsky, director Melinda Collie-Holmes, lighting Chris Day; Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, June 4-5

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2004