KIMBERLEY ECHOES The story of West Australian dreaming

Kimberley Echoes brings together a unique ensemble of artists performing songs of outback Australia and newly commissioned Indigenous musical suites performed by leading Indigenous artists. Ahead of the Perth Concert Hall date this Thursday, September 28, MICHAEL HOLLICK spoke with artist Bart Willoughby and TURA’s Tos Mahoney about their tour thus far and what Perth audiences can expect.

How has the tour been so far?

Tos – It has been an incredible journey already. We started by the coast in Wyndham and since then we’ve been getting closer and closer to the desert and the inland (via Kununurra, Warmum, Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing). The people out here have been great and we have made amazing connections, some planned and some unplanned, both musically and culturally, and that has really inspired all of us as musicians. That’s what this tour is about, a real two way process; we’re taking something quite unique out to the communities and they in turn inspire us.

And I believe this is not just a tour but that you’re also engaging with the communities through workshops?

Tos – Yep, that’s right. The workshops have been wonderful and are a great way to engage with the people in the communities. Bart has been involved first hand, leading a percussion workshop for the communities’ younger kids

Bart – Yeah, I’ve been showing off a new instrument that I got. It is a drum set, Australian made and called a woodskin. Well, to be honest, it’s not really a drum set, it’s more of a box type thing, like a cajon, but it’s got two foot pedals and a snare which allows you to play percussion and drums at the same time.  So the workshops I do are about showing the kids this new box. And they love it. They love that you can take this compact kit and play it alongside the campfire, you know, start a fire within a fire if you get what I mean. And for me it’s great too as the kit is so compact, it’s a matchbox drumkit you can pack up in your pocket and go on to the next gig.

What should the Perth audience expect?

Bart – I’m playing new material as well as jamming with the other two (featured artists) Stephen (Pigram) and Mark (Atkins). The songs we’ve got are all beautifully arranged and have really blossomed since the beginning of the tour. We’ve all been jamming in the day and getting in the zone. I would say that we are ‘there’ now, which means that we’re at a higher level and that is something that we’ve just sort of stumbled onto. Like I don’t think you’re supposed to be at that sort of level with bluegrass instruments and I’m sure American bluegrass players do have this kind of thing worked out by now, but we’ve found this new level in our own unique, Australian way and it’s really something special.

Tos – And the concert won’t be just be the songs by the featured artists. You see, this concert has been an ongoing evolution and while we have been doing this tour (of the remote north) for fifteen years, the current iteration of the tour, (where we collaborate and develop works as we go along), is in its fourth year.  As a result, there are a number of works that have been developed over a period of time.

One such example is a collaboration by Erkki Veltheim, a chamber composer, with Stephen Pigram, on a suite of instrumental work. The result is a soundscape of the outback featuring Bart on didgeridoo and Stephen on chanting. It’s truly magical, particularly as it features some of the best performers from around Australia in their own right. Also, Stephen Magnusson has written a new piece specifically for this show and we will be presenting works that we have developed while on the current tour. These include collaborations between the featured artists with Naomi Pigram from Broome and with John Barnett from Bidyadanga. I’m also very excited about a new work that we have worked on with Gabriel Nodea, an elder from the Warmum community. The music we have developed syncs with his paintings that tell the story of his people’s land around Warmum.  

How do you fit all of this into the one concert?

Tos – Well yeah, it’s not easy [laughs]. Last year it was about two hours non-stop but no one complained. It is a lot but with this amazing line up you could probably do about 10 hours!

Is it challenging to bring the spirit of the outback to the Concert Hall?

Bart – Not really, the audience will be able to see just what we have seen on the tour through the way that we play. So it’s the heart that they will see. We bring our work through the heart and that is what we share with the audience. It’s going to be beautiful but then we all go our separate ways the next day.

Tos – Agreed. We have been so imbued with the tour for three weeks by the time we get to Perth that we are full of the spirit of the red dirt. And we have great footage of the tour that will be projected onto large screens for the audience so it is a really immersive experience for ourselves and the audience. It really is a unique experience and it’s not something that Perth audiences can check into on a regular basis so they really need to come and see it for themselves. The thing that I keep saying, and it’s no way pretentious or perfunctory, is that everywhere we go, it really is a privilege. Of course it’s a physical challenge but at the end of the day it really is a privilege and without being too new-agey, we really want to share that experience with people in Perth.

Bart – We would love to see everyone there, we’re telling the story of West Australian dreaming and I am honoured to be a part of that.