Thursday, July 09, 2020

The Role of Culture

In another COVID foray into forgotten drawers and corners, in amongst another pile of papers, a letter written by someone called Joyce tumbled out - a letter written to my Dad. I vaguely remember Mum and Dad having a friend called Joyce but I never met her.

In this letter to Dad Joyce had written, "thank you so much for sharing your son's memoir with us. I would now very much like to meet this 'cultural chameleon' son of yours."

I was a little bamboozled by this.  I knew I had written a memoir for a university assignment some decades back, but I have no memory of giving it to my parents to read.

Anyway, I eventually found a copy of it on an old floppy disc. It’s kind of like the story of the first part of my life through the lens of culture. I've put it up on the web and amongst other things it offers a great explanation of why I like to travel so much.

I wrote it in 1991 so an upgrade is needed that includes the last three decades.

My professor at the time was one Jerzy Smolicz, a Polish- born sociologist and educationalist acknowledged widely as a major contributor to cultural understanding in Australia. He really liked this memoir and I’m proud of what he wrote:

Michael – I was pleased to read your long and illuminating essay – and I can see that you are only halfway there! Portugal still to describe; Ireland still to visit. I think that you have described very sensitively the array and variety of cultures that have influenced you – while you continue to maintain a strong Australian identity, but of the kind which permits you to adjust your personal cultural system through interaction. A very perceptive memoir.

The memoir is OVER HERE ;)

Saturday, July 04, 2020

COVID-19 Continues

I wrote below about my concern that the Black Lives Matter marches may precipitate another round of COVID-19 infections. I am really happy to say my fears were misplaced. There have been a couple of cases around the country where people have caught the virus after the marches. But they did not get or spread the virus at the marches. Photographs and aerial footage of the events show that most people were really disciplined in keeping the appropriate social distance and wearing masks. So kudos to all involved.
In most of the country the Corona virus has become a low level background irritation. In Victoria there has been a resurgence of the virus and many suburbs, and apartment towers, have been put under total lockdown – similar to the kinds of conditions people in places like Rome and Madrid had to endure.
This all seems to have come about for a number of reasons, but principally due to poor training of security staff supervising those in hotel quarantine, and poor messaging about the pandemic in languages other than English. And a few cases of unbelievably stupid and selfish behaviour by a few individuals who mixed in their communities when they knew they were COVID positive.
I think we should try the very simple and effective tack taken by the Vietnamese government:  lots of slogans and posters to the tune of
·         If you love your country you will stay home
·         If you care for your community you will stay home
Get the message through that this is not about you and your rights as an individual, but about the collective – something that Asian cultures would grasp more readily than more self-centred Western cultures.
So this menace is far from over. Acoustic Tull have at least started practising again. We have a gig on July 26th. After July 20th I would be allowed to travel interstate again (ie fly) but I’m unlikely to do that before September. So for a while yet it’s stay local, live for the minute, and don’t look too far ahead

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Bits of Life

I’ve always written. From the age of 7 I kept a daily diary. Admittedly my first entries at that age were fairly scant on detail. Whole days could be summed up thus: “Got up. Went to school. Played football when I got home. Went to bed.” Marvellous economy with words 😊
Fast forward 25 years to life on the inside - a Dutch winter on the third floor circa 1986. I was struggling with feeling captive – I had to live in a Dutch winter to realise how much of an outdoors person I was. In desperation I took to writing my life story to pass the time. And I think I did a reasonable job of writing about my life from birth till the time I left school.
Browsing through long forgotten corners as one does in this time of COVID I came across a copy of it. What struck me was how much detail it contained that I have completely forgotten. So here’s a tip – don’t leave writing about your life till too late. You DO forget things as time passes.

Two snippets:


We moved back to Adelaide and went to live in a house that none of us liked very much. It’s only real asset was its proximity to the school Shaun and I would go to, and Celine’s college. The house was a small insignificant affair where we were to live for just a few months. Leaving the country had been a hard decision for my parents to take, and was made even harder by Damien’s departure for life in a monastery at the ripe old of age of sixteen. He would be living in Sydney, some 900 miles away. Now Damien and I had had little to do with each other over the years, save for times when I hassled him enough for him to lose his temper with me. And yet the strangest thing happened on the day he left for his new life far away. He departed from Adelaide airport and I don’t remember saying goodbye to him. However I do remember very clearly this overwhelming feeling of sadness coming over me as I gazed out at the plane he was sitting in before it drew away from the terminal. I withdrew from the crowd of people who’d come to say goodbye, climbed up on a small wall and stood looking at the plane and cried silently and secretly to myself. Maybe I had just picked up the obviously heavy emotional vibes that were floating around (my mother was distraught), but it’s almost as if I knew that day that there was an exceptional bond between us that I’d only just discovered, and that I’d miss him very much. It was a turning point in my relationship with my big brother; from that day on I felt closer to him than any other member of our family.


CC image: Lawrence Jones
We would as a matter of course heap shit upon our parents for being too strict, or not letting us do what we wanted when and where we wanted. These parent slagging sessions were important for gaining respect within the group - it showed that you were a rebel. Teachers too of course were prime targets for this kind of shit slinging. Things came to a head at school one day when this thin pale looking character wearing a darker suit than normal joined our class in the middle of a Science lesson. He turned out to be a recently arrived English immigrant who was as it happened a little more advanced than the rest of us along the road to rebellion. He was right into pop music, played guitar and wrote his own songs and poetry, and was willing to speak his mind in class. He made a great impression on all of us. His style of rebellion was bolder, more direct, and came with intelligence. It wasn't long before we all clamoured to be his friend and were proud to be seen to be his friend. The school’s response to this new figurehead was to try and isolate him from potential disciples. Any group that was hanging around him in the playground was split up by the teacher on yard duty. In fact the teachers seemed to have isolated a potential core of troublemakers that counted about 10 kids with the English lad, Michael D, at our head. We were not allowed to mingle in the school ground in groups of more than two or three and at least my parents were warned to discourage any close friendship with this new disturbing influence. It was silly really. We were already on our teenage rampage before he came along. All he did was give it focus.

Michael and I became close friends. Basically it was a friendship forged through hours of listening to and talking about pop music. We spent hours on  sunny afternoons in darkened rooms listening to Cream, The Animals, The Rolling Stones, Vanilla Fudge et al and extolling the virtues of these our new idols. I remember telling Michael one day on the bus to school that I had bought my first ever record: Love Is All Around by The Troggs. He was suitably impressed. He had seen The Troggs perform in England - or so he said. It was always a point of discussion just how true were the many wonderful stories he used to tell. 

Monday, June 15, 2020

Culture and Racism

My previous post generated some interesting discussion elsewhere about being disconnected from culture and racism. My response:

In an interview with Leonard Cohen not long before he died the interviewer was trying to get Cohen to state which side of the fence he was on in relation to a number of issues but Cohen would not be drawn. He said that he had learned for people to outline their points of view and present them as an alternative and better option wasn’t very helpful. Better he said to learn what we have in common and enquire of the other how they’re feeling about things!
When I was a teacher at Marymount an invited Aboriginal speaker looked out the window of the school hall and told the kids, “See that tree out there? That tree and me are the same thing. There is  no difference between that tree and me. I am that tree.”  We all thought he was quaintly mad of course. But I have heard similar sentiments from and about Aboriginal people many times since over the years and I have learnt to accept that I can and never will understand the deep spiritual connection Aboriginal people have with land. Their own patch of land. Remove an Aboriginal person from that land and you remove that person’s reason for existence.
But we as non-Aboriginal people just have to accept that we cannot and never will understand this. Our culture and world view is just too different.
When I studied Aboriginal culture as part of my Masters years ago Stephen Harris, an Australian researcher into Aboriginal culture, said that if  you searched the world for 2 groups of people who were the most different from each other you would choose white and black Australians. He thought it was a cruel irony that two peoples so different from each other ended up having to share the same piece of land!
As for racism, I’ve come to believe that my opinions about racism as a privileged white person are largely irrelevant. Only the opinions of people on the receiving end of racism count.

Monday, June 08, 2020

All Lives Matter

The Black Lives Matter movement has spread with a vengeance to Australia. Given the appalling record of treatment of Aboriginal people by policing authorities here over several decades this is hardly surprising. Australians were quick to show their solidarity with black Americans and capitalise on the worldwide outcry over the murder of George Floyd and large Black Lives Matter (BLM) rallies were organised for every Australian capital. Admirable and understandable, but the timing is tragically wrong. Still dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic the Prime Minister and chief medical officer urged people not to take part. Large public gatherings of this kind are notorious for allowing viruses to spread, but people turned out in their thousands.
 In another time with no pandemic hovering over us I’d have been there too. But this was a time when something bigger is at stake. It’s not about me. It’s not about people of colour. It’s about the entire community. History provides examples of how such large public gatherings enabled pandemic viruses to launch a second wave (Spanish Flu 1918).
To their credit BLM organisers urged everyone to wear masks and practice social distancing. In QLD police actually handed out masks to those who needed them. And from all reports crowds in all states did for the most part practice social distancing. But it’s the 10% who didn’t who are the problem. They may have infected those around them and tracing those they have been in contact with could be a nightmare – even with the COVID-19 Tracing App.
The night before the demonstrations arch government conservative Matthias Cormann went on TV to say that he thought BLM protesters were being selfish. Normally when this man speaks I cringe and revile at his manner and opinions. On this occasion I found myself quietly, embarrassingly, thinking, ‘I agree with him’. BLM protesters put the legitimate concerns of a section of the community above the needs of the whole community. In 10-14 days’ time we’ll find out if we are to be punished for that selfishness. It may be the virus is so scarce in Australia that these mass demonstrations won’t make any difference to the number of cases. If so, that would be miraculous.    
In the meantime BLM organisers and the AMA are asking all who took part to self-isolate for 14 days. I wonder how many will. Right now I’m angry about it. I feel the BLM marches have jeopardised the health of the entire community and acted to ensure that the economic recovery required for all those who’ve lost their jobs will be put back several weeks – if not months. And more people could die unnecessarily. But I really hope I’m wrong. Check back with me 2 weeks from now ……

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Living in the Time of COVID 19

COVID 19 they’re calling it – 19 for the year it first raised its ugly head. But this virus has all but destroyed 2020 – the first half of it at least. Or has it?

As the world practices self-isolation and social distancing there are stories of people in Wuhan, we’re it all began, saying that they enjoy being at home with friends and family and would prefer not to go back to the normal routine of work and busyness. They say the skies over China haven’t been this blue for years. An online colleague posted photographs of an unusually smog free Haifa - Israel's main port. A friend in Berlin is enjoying a comparatively pressure free life with no work commitments and is riding his bike through forests and doing yoga and feeling physically and spiritually more whole.
Me? I was watching something on the UK on television and was immediately conscious of the fact that I couldn't just go there if I wanted to. All my adult life I've had this strange definition of freedom. I think sometime in my early 20s I realised that all you needed was about $3000 in the bank and you could get to anywhere on the planet at a moment’s notice.  I have consequently always had that 3G in the bank! Now obviously I haven't spent my whole life travelling, but knowing that I could get to any point on the planet anytime was an integral aspect of how I felt about being alive. Now for the first time in my adult life that freedom has been taken away. As some wise person noted, many of us are for the first time feeling the kind of oppression that many endure every day of their life. Can’t leave town? Go interstate? First World problems. Situation normal for millions…..
I’ve decided to adopt the Alcoholics Anonymous mantra of ‘one day at a time’ for as long as this period of societal shutdown lasts. I do miss getting out of town, jumping on planes, seeing grandchildren and playing live music together, but there’s no point dwelling on what cannot be. It is indeed a time to reflect, write, clean the bookshelves, and live a slower life. Make it a daily quest to recognise something beautiful – easily done if you live near nature.  
On the macro level it's already a cliché that this pandemic will change the world forever, and it is highly likely that some things will change forever, and that will be fascinating to track as we re-emerge back into something like normal life. Will we shake hands less? Will less people fly? Will there be fewer airlines? Will the forced switch to online education realise some unexpected advantages that will be preserved in a post-Corona world? Will many more people work remotely? Will the standard work meeting go online forever? Will we as a species simply spend less time together socially out of fear of further infection?

Right now I feel fine. Like a good little frog adjusting to the gradual increase in temperature I have found a new daily routine that occasionally has me smiling as I realise that I’m quite enjoying myself. But I’m fortunate to live in a house with a garden; I have a car and can drive to any number of beautiful places and go for my 'government sanctioned daily walk'; for many years I have sought out interesting places for photo walks  where there are few people - social distancing in public has been part of my daily life for a long time. Walking on spacious beaches, expansive parks, riverside tracks and even empty industrial vistas are all within easy reach.
Myponga, Moonta, and Mumbai can all wait – they’ll all still be there when this is all over. I just hope I will be as well.  

Saturday, March 14, 2020


 Company Archibald Caramantran 

Day 3

I began my Womad day 3 later in the day with a reprise of Spanish medieval music from the masterful Artefactum. Such a pleasure to hear once more, and observe them having fun with each other as they attempted to translate their jokes into English. As a fellow reviewer from another publication said, “they just make medieval music so accessible.”
The Kids Zone was at its busiest this afternoon with an incredible array of activities – face painting, dancing, dress-up parades, craft activities, building huts – the place was packed with active children and content looking parents.
I was tempted to stop by a larger stage when I heard the female mariachi tones of Flor de Toloache from Mexico resonating from  Stage 2 but headed for a smaller stage to hear Tami Neilson from NZ. This may have been a rare programming logistics error. She was way too popular for the small Moreton Bay stage – it was the biggest crowd I’d ever seen there. She was just a speck in the distance but she sounded wonderful. She has a loud and soulful voice that belted out a mix of soul and country with ease. Commercial, but really catchy, slick and solid. As Simon Hackett, one of Womad’s founders said in a recent interview, “One of the joys of this event is … walking up to a random stage and being blown away by some artist you’ve never heard of.”
I was curious to see if the Woshop still just sold CDs of performing artists. It’s getting harder and harder to play CDs as CD players disappear from computers and car stereo systems. The vast majority of the music available was only in CD format. Just one artist had a digital version available. It kind of hurts to say this it but it’s time for Womad artists to sell their music in digital format.

KermesK a L’est

Day 4

Pakistan’s Ustad Saami called his 2019 album, God is Not a Terrorist. He is clearly on a mission to promote the music of his region as an instrument of piece. His performance with his 4 sons consisted of one 75 minute meditative piece. Based on the twin drones of harmonium and tanpura, it built ever so slowly to a fully vocalised musical conversation between him and his sons and we the audience. I’m sure many were expecting it to eventually reach the frenetic heights of another Pakistani singer, the legendary Nusrat Ali Fateh Khan but this music is much less theatrical. Though, like other forms of Pakistani devotional music (Qawwali, Sufi) much is expressed using the hands as they dance and weave with the vocals to convey extra meaning. This piece was dedicated to the lapsing of summer into autumn and with plenty of grey cloud in the sky it felt appropriate.
As daylight faded down by stage 3, a group of mad Belgians took the stage. Looking like punks and ratbags, KermesK a L’est filed on stage through a back curtain and launched into a strange and infectious brand of brass based Balkan music. With no one band member having a fixed on stage position they wandered around constantly – even their two drummers were forever on parade around the stage.  A great sound and a totally original presentation. The giant puppets from Company Archibald Caramantran enjoyed it too and enthralled the crowd with their giant dance steps.
France seems particularly blessed with a range of these bizarre and lovable festival acts. For several years now Womad has featured a quirky French act as part of the roaming program, and they add as much value to the whole spectacle as the music.
I spent 10 minutes or so in the Taste the World tent enjoying the laughs associated with cooking in public from Gelareh Pour and friends, before spending my last musical moments listening to some dreamy slow dance tunes from local act Oisima. They followed me as I slipped away through the Frome gate back into the real world.
It was a great decision to just focus on the small stages this year. It took the pressure off feeling like you had to see everything. I think there has been a welcome change in the program direction. Maybe it was because I only attended the small stage events but without counting up and comparing with recent years there did seem to be fewer big bands based around big percussion and the ubiquitous and overused concept of ‘fusion’. A majority of the acts were quieter and stayed closer to their ethnic roots, and in the process Womad reclaimed something of its original identity and purpose.


Artefactum (Spain)

Day 1

Womadelaide’s small stages have always hosted the more niche like acts. They’re more intimate, quieter, and tend to feature more ethnically pure music of the kind that was much more prevalent in Womad's early days.
So I spent my first evening going from Ghana (Moreton Bay stage) to Reunion (stage 7) to Rumania (Frome Park Pavilion), and finally to medieval Spain (back at the Moreton Bay stage).
King Ayisoba and his band hail from Ghana. The band is a 6 piece and 5 of them play percussion – draw your own conclusions! The only non-percussive instrument, which King himself plays is the kologo, has just 2 strings and is played mostly as a percussive instrument as well so the primary effect is rhythmic.
King has a growling and gruff vocal style that at times feels quite intimidating but the rhythms are strong and the crowd is up dancing and there is mercifully no electronica interfering with the traditional rhythms.
Down the other end of the park on stage 7 Destyn Maloya from Reunion was offering a more varied repertoire of melody and rhythm.  Reunion is not far from Madagascar and Womadelaide has previously hosted the beautiful polyphonic melodies of Justin Vali, and some of their material had that similar feel. But like so many African groups their happy place is rhythm based and Destyn Maloya soon had the malleable crowd jumping like rabbits and joining in a Conga line.
Nearby in one of Womadelaide’s newer venues an Australian based group who play Romanian music and who curiously call themselves SuperRats gathered around their featured instrument, the cimbalom. The cimbalom is large dulcimer with 145 strings and sounds like a cross between a piano and a xylophone. Apparently the pronunciation of the words Super Rats sounds like ‘the irritated ones’ in the Romanian language. This music is relatively low brow in its original context – played in bars and cafes where people drink and do shady deals - but in the context of a Womadelaide performance there is nothing shady about this music. The pieces are tight, rhythmically complex and driven by a dominant double bass. Accordion and fiddle are great accompaniment for the cimbalom in these entertaining traditional dance tunes.
So then back in time to the Middle Ages. Artefactum (pictured above) play Spanish music from the 12th -14th centuries and it is exquisite. Led by the drone like sounds of one of the strangest instruments ever made, the hurdy-gurdy, this music is full of delicate melodies and intricate vocal harmonies. Music from Medieval times has such a beautiful melodious quality. It’s almost as if music was breaking free from the confines of a restricted past and celebrating a wondrous joy,

A perfect end to the day. It seems there may have been a drift away from the ubiquitous ‘global funk’ that has tended to dominate the Womadelaide program in the last few years, but it’s early days….

Iberi (Georgia)

Day 2

Day 2 dawned sunny and gentle. The Planet Talks venue has gratefully moved into a larger location – a tent called the Frome Park pavilion. The first session for the day focused on the Wreck of Tech and was insightful and depressing. All 3 speakers, Julia Powles, Peter Lewis, and Robert Elliott Smith, have written books or papers questioning the role and authority of the tech giants in our daily lives, and there was fairly solid agreement that they have not made our lives better. They reflected on the fact that rather than bring us together the new technologies have collapsed any notion of collective or commons where we might come together to solve problems. Google and Facebook’s business models serving personal echo chambers have actually driven us apart. I left the session close to tears.
L Subramaniam gets the tag ‘the Paganini of Indian classical music'. After some short information about the structure of the music they were about to play Subramaniam and his group, together with the help of some very audible bats (it was good to see they survived the summer heat) launched into what he called a ‘short’ raga – a beautiful slow building piece of musical meditation that was 30 minutes long!
Gelareh Pour is an Iranian now living in Australia. Her high-pitched dreamy vocals (it was hard not to think of Kate Bush) floated towards you as you approached the Zoo stage. Accompanied by traditional instruments (Iranian versions of fiddle and lute, plus more conventional drums and electric guitar) her songs had a plaintively beautiful tone and slowly pulsating beats that were quite alluring.
One of Luisa Sobral’s songs won Eurovision in 2017. In my view that does not nothing for your musical credibility but this Portuguese singer-composer is something special.  Her singing is classy and smooth as silk, and her original songs are full of passion and sophisticated melodies. Unlike many Womad performers from lands where English is not the first language, she chatted away confidently about her life and how she was not going to let the Corona virus stop her from achieving her lifelong goal of coming to Australia. The arrangements of her material matched the quality of her songwriting. She was accompanied on guitar by her ‘Portuguese musician’, and a trio of fine local musicians on cello, woodwind and brass. Just gorgeous music and as great original music so often is – very hard to categorise.
Iberi (see above) are from Georgia in the former Soviet Union, and appeared in monk-like costumes with daggers. Their music now apparently drifts around in space on board Voyager 2 as an example of the beauty of the human voice.  Their material is mostly acapella, and sounds quite monastic. Intricate harmonies and a stylised vocal style from old Georgian folk tunes may make this music an acquired taste for some. I was reminded of the deep resonant tones of the Sardinian Tenors many Womads back.
Every Womad festival has a Celtic group to lead the fiddle and pipe charge and this year the responsibility falls to Rura from Scotland. Their frantic and frenetic start drew the flock like Celtic lemmings to front of stage but I stuck to my guns and went to the next offering on the smaller stages – Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita down on stage 7.
It was only a matter of time before a kora (or chora) player hooked up with a traditional harpist, and it has happened in this wonderful partnership between Senegal and Wales. Kora music has  enchanted Womad audiences from the very early days and that has not changed. Seckou Keita is a griot, someone who has inherited his musical tradition through his family, and he plays with flare and joy. It’s a little harder to be physically engaged when you’re stuck behind a harp but Catrin Finch does a lot of smiling at Seckou’s antics and the wonderful sounds these 2 multiple stringed instruments make together. It’s a perfect harmonic blend with some entertaining rhythmic interplay between the two musical cultures they represent.  Again the bats, just waking up now after a day hanging around upside down, joined in and it seemed entirely appropriate.
Such is Womadelaide 😊                                     

The Role of Culture

In another COVID foray into forgotten drawers and corners, in amongst another pile of papers, a letter written by someone called Joyce ...