By Karla Casique
Even though the human existence is fleeting, the connection humanity has to the earth is immensely profound. I experienced that when Black Arm Band, an Australian performing arts company that reveres Aboriginal culture, unapologetically sang their survival with “dirtsong.”
The performance, which was supposed to take place in the MilkBoy Art House, took root elsewhere in the Dekelboum Concert Hall at The Clarice Performing Arts Center. It was not a coincidence that it happened before Jan. 26, which is Australia’s “Independence Day,” or as many call it, “Invasion Day” — a day of commemorating the beginning of the violence and cruelty done to Aboriginal peoples due to colonization.
Aboriginals in Australia were given citizenship in 1967. They have been protesting this day for 79 years.
The performance was all about language, both literal and metaphorical. Indigenous author Alexis Wright wrote the text that played along with the videos of Australian landscapes and the faces of Aboriginal people living in cities and in rural areas.
There are a total of 11 Aboriginal languages presented in their third show, “dirtsong”—each a protest of its very existence, since there were hundreds of indigenous languages exterminated after colonization.
The languages used by the musicians were calls to the heart. The movement of their bodies, the way their bare feet welcomed the stage, how they pounded their chests, how they responded to one another without a glance. Vocalist Shellie Morris held the lungs of the sky in her hands as she sang “Rainstorm,” a song in Gundjeihmi, which is spoken in Kakadu National Park, located in the Northern Territory of the country.
The singers, Deline Briscoe and Nicole Lampton along with Morris, have the most powerful voices I’ve ever heard. The women were the core, the constellations guiding the voyage. The past and the future was evident throughout — the screen behind the musicians showed the Australian landscape, indigenous youth dancing, smiling and staring at the camera.
During the middle of it, esteemed drummer Rory McDougall and distinguished Didjeridu player Tjupurru, played against each other, one seated on a modern drumset while the other assembled one made out of pieces from the junkyard. Singer and director Fred Leone, also joined in, encouraging both of them, also drumming at times. Vocalist Troy “Jungaji” Brady added another instrument into the unorthodox orchestra — the guitar. With the folk and roots flair, his approach was warm but striking.
It was structured like a play, the singers drifting on and off of the stage, leaving room for the next act. The journey revealed that no matter where you came from, art will forever live in the veins of those that welcome it. Solos were scattered throughout — tenor saxophone player Elijah Jamal Balbed, pianist Janelle Gill, violinist David Schulman, bassist Michael Meagher — bringing their own intimate voices into the mix.
Before their first time playing at The Clarice, The Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) organization held a didgeridoo workshop in partnership with House of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park. They also performed again that Friday for 300 students who are homeschooled or in public schools in Langley Park and College Park.
Being surrounded by such power and resilience was paralyzing in a positive way. Especially with what’s happening in Trump’s America — with executive orders stripping off the rights of millions and communities organizing to defend their livelihood — it was surreal to be in a space that was pulsing with beauty, one of the things that can change the world.
Featured Photo Credit: Shellie Morris, courtesy of Ryhs Graham.
Karla Casique is a junior journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.