Friend: What show are you watching later?
Me: It’s an Australian Aboriginal music performance.
Friend: Oh. Tribal show is it?
Don’t laugh at my friend, OK. Noorlinah Mohamed’s told me thousands of Singaporean arts aficionados are making the same mistake: assuming that Dirtsong is just gonna be a painted-forehead, hand-clapping, didgeridoo-piping traditional arts show; the kind they present to tourists and visiting dignitaries to show that Australia welcomes them spiritually.
Black Arm Band does in fact have painted foreheads and didgeridoo solos. But the didgeridoo in question is electric. This is a contemporary Aboriginal Australian group, and it is not interested in re-enacting the Other for us.
The colour of its opening songs is thoroughly recognisable: it’s bluesy. Fat blackfella women in shimmering dresses mourning what’s happened to the land, the people. Saxophones and drums in the background. The screen shows black and white panoramic vistas of the continent that was once theirs: snatches of poetry in the sky.
Different sequences sung in different regional languages: Bundjalung, Yorta Yorta, Gundjeihmi, Badjtala, Gumbayngirr, Ngarrindjeri, Yolngu Matha, Gumatj, Alyawerre, Yalanji. Not only sadness but also joy: gangly men bantering as they set about creating a makeshift drum set from a trashed car, scenes from a rave, from a basketball game, from an initiation ritual, from the roads of the settlements where children wander amidst uniformed guards.
And the sadness returns, the longing, the callbacks to the elders and the ancient law, woven through with the affirmation that this land belongs to them, and will return when all is set right.
So yeah, it's bloody beautiful. But it's also all kinds of thought-provoking.
And one such thought is: why the hell are we hosting this show at Victoria Theatre for $40-%80 a pop, when it could be staged out in the open at Fort Canning Park or hell, even the heartlands? It's an oratorio of hope for the disenfranchised, and here it's playing to upper-middle-class Chinese people and white adults who're just gonna consume it as part of our cosmopolitan bougeois capitalist experience, yum yum.
(Kids I'm OK with. The fact that there were kids at this show was really heartening, cos you'll know they'll grow up with rather different and more positive stereotypes of Aboriginal Australians than what us adults did.)
But I chatted with the cast after the show (there was a cast party upstairs for them and the Versus people) and it turns out that more than 50% of their shows are done out in the open, usually for neglected indigenous communities. The producer showed me a video of how their rental truck had to cross 16 different croc-infested rivers to get to a location - and that's crossing not with bridges, but with actual driving right into the brook and trying to drive out onto the next bank.
And then when they're there, they do workshops with kids so they can get them up on stage, they bring generators because these communities often don't have running electricity (thanks, Tony Abbott), and they've got a giant inflatable screen they can project all the video on.
Oh, and right after this they're on the road to Taiwan, where they're gonna do a gig in Taipei and then go into the mountains to perform for the Aboriginal tribes of Taiwan. Because they're bad-ass like that.
Basically, here in Singapore, we're sponsoring them to do cool stuff elsewhere. And maybe I'm OK with that. I mean, it's not like our country has an oppressed indigenous population, nosiree, the only folks who fit that bill were the Orang Seletar and they all died out long ago. Eyeroll.
Catch this if you can!