Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

28/02/2016 - 28/02/2016

New Zealand Festival of the Arts 2016

Production Details

There’s music that breaks down barriers, and then there’s music that obliterates them. Inspired by the words of author Alexis Wright, Australia’s Black Arm Band perform songs from 11 different Aboriginal languages in this soulful show, which will bring to you the heart and humanity of the country and its most celebrated musicians, including Archie Roach and special guest artist Paul Kelly.

Rich with complex harmonies and powerful melody, it will “send a shudder down your spine and bring a tear to your eyes” (The Age). Meanwhile, the cinematic screen behind the musicians opens a window on to the landscapes the music comes from, taking you on an immersive journey across a country you’ll never see quite the same way again.

Archie Roach
Paul Kelly
Mark Atkins
Deline Briscoe
Emma Donovan
Horomona Horo
Fred Leone
Yirrmal Marika
Ursula Yovich

Michael Fowler Centre
Sunday 28 Feb
1hr 20mins (no interval)
Buy tickets

Discover more:
Paul Kelly interview in the Sunday Star-Times and
Archie Roach interview on RNZ National’s Nine to Noon with Lynn Freeman

Theatre , Musical ,

1 hr 20 mins - no interval

Profoundly beautiful and something I didn’t know I needed

Review by Maraea Rakuraku 29th Feb 2016

Te ihi, Te wehi, te wana 
Tena tatou katoa

I have a very Wellington experience as I walk towards and once I am in the Michael Fowler Centre. I bump into people I have not seen in ages from various stages of my life. It is so true, Wellington really is a village. There’s no escaping it and Dirt Song absolutely brings that to play in proving the world, theirs and ours, is a village.

A karanga by Tania Heke, which is then supported by its equivalent from Haniko Te Kurapa for the manuhiri tuarangi (Dirt Song whānau) as they move across the stage, sets the scene. The purpose being to acknowledge the meeting of our respective Indigenous lands and peoples. At that moment there is no response from Dirt Song because what follows is their response. By the end of the set, they are us.

A blackout follows and then we see one of the Dirt Song performers, kneeling at the front of the stage spotlighted and what he does next, draws a gasp from the audience. Magic! As one of the kids behind me whispered. We’re in for something special and Black Arm Band’s Dirt Song does not disappoint.

This is just one of the moments when I realise just how ignorant I am of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tikanga. In a way, Dirt Song is a schooling. My schooling. And I am thankful for it.

To open the show, popular and honoured singer Archie Roach (made a Member of the Order of Australia last year) brings his rich-toned vocals to ‘Far Away Home/ Gungalaira’, from the Rolf de Heer film The Tracker, and is heard in respectful silence.  

Three women – Emma Donovan, Deline Briscoe and Ursulae Yovich – follow, filling the theatre with their voices and it’s this that allows us to settle in. There is a gentleness and then soaring power in the unfolding set. That’s musically. It’s also present in the dance and the video playing on the giant screen behind. There is such texture here in this storytelling. It washes over you, then it crashes and soars.

By the end I don’t feel strung out like an emotionally wrung facecloth; I feel so deeply thankful that I attended this performance. It feels like a gifting. One particular song is so, so moving I feel tears springing at the back of my eyes which I then close and surrender too. Allowing it to heal – and healing is inevitably its purpose.

Although English is sung it is not the dominant language, so I have to rely on my other senses to get me through to an understanding. It works. And by the response of the audience it does for them too.

At one stage I turn to my companion and ask, are they doing their pepeha as the wāhine whisper, one by one, into the microphone. This then builds into a crescendo of melded voices. It is incredibly powerful and by the response of the audience, they’re feeling that too.

Prompting a huge smile is the entry of two indigenous men – Fred Leone (Artistic Director of Black Arm Band) and Yirrmal Marika – carrying a rubbish tin of materials used to then construct a drum kit. The way this is done is so simple and humorous, as a duel of good natured competitiveness erupts. I’m hooked. I want to see those two young men again and marry them off to my nieces.

The charisma they bring to the stage has the potential to upstage seasoned greats (and I absolutely mean that) Archie Roach and Paul Kelly. Two sons of the same country whose conscious musicality addresses the truth of their colonial histories: Fred Leone with ‘Burad’, sung in Bajtala; Yirrmal Marika with the traditional ‘Brolga (Manikay)’ song and his own composition ‘Deep Blue Sea’, both sung in Yolngu Matha. They bring such a confident, almost effortless, grace and mana to the stage and it is such a privilege to witness.  

And then a table clad in a tino rangatiratanga flag is brought on, followed by a tall figure wearing a parakiekie. Having seen Horomona Hona when he was first starting out and selling sausages at The Bunnings in Rotorua to fund an overseas trip, it is such a pleasure to see how all that hard work and grunt has paid off and how he has matured as a performer. He brings a gravitas to the stage that, typically of his humility, is both a reflection of him and his artistry but in allegiance with those he performs alongside. That can be difficult when you are becoming a master at what you do. But what is evident with Dirt Song is that very single performer standing on that stage is a masters and/or master becoming.

The predominantly sepia-toned video playing throughout Dirt Song gives insight into the whenua and the tangata of Australia. I particularly love the images featuring the many faces of Indigenous Aborginal and Torres Strait islanders, just going about their lives being themselves. It’s such an effective way of presenting an indigenous perspective without the usual patronising or judgment. It gives such a sense of collaboration.

Every now and then words (Alexis Wright) written across the screen accompany the video. For me some of this is hit and miss but again, there is something in it that has me remembering some of the simplest of phrasing. And has me thinking, simple at times is best. And powerful.

So in conclusion, Dirtsong is profoundly beautiful. There is an ease in the performances which is evident in the chemistry between them all, and a deep love and respect between the artists which can’t help but spill out to the audience. While personally I would have liked to hear more from Archie Roach and I could watch those two overflowing-with- swag Indigenous young fellas all night,

Black Arm Band’s Dirt Song is definitely something I didn’t know I needed and I thank every single one of those performers for that. I would urge all to experience it for yourself except it’s only on once during this NZ Arts Festival season [and it’s not part of the Auckland Arts Festival].  


Hariata Hema March 2nd, 2016

Kia ora, Maraea.  I really appreciate this review which articulates my experience of the show so very well.  A couple of days after seeing it, I am still watching Black Arm Band clips on YouTube, thankful for having felt the magic. (And reliving it).  I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to see such talent in our own neighbourhood.  Nga mihi.  Hariata

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