Centred on a memorable performance from the 18 teenage singers of Cairns choir Marliya, Spinifex Gum is a uniquely moving collaborative project years in the making.
Cat Empire frontman Felix Riebl worked and lived with communities in the Pilbara to develop a suite of songs sung in English and Yindjibarndi, telling stories of contemporary Australia and informed by the culture and traditions of its First Nations.
Pointedly, Riebl takes a back seat to the voices of Marliya, an extraordinary group of young women who bop and shift as one choreographed mass to hip hop beats and wooshing synths.
Often choirs are treated as passive presences on a stage, microphones subtly placed at a distance to capture the serenity and ambience of their place in a room. Not here. Each member of Marliya grips their own microphone close, lending an immediacy and power to their vocals even as they deliver the kind of soaring harmony you might expect from a late 90s Qantas ad. But this isn’t a vision of Australia designed to sell airfares, but to hold up a mirror to the country in all its destruction, injustice, strength and beauty.
The words of Lang Hancock, a familiar but deserving antagonist in any discussion of the region, preface early highlight Yurala. The Yindjibarndi word for rainmaker, it tells the story of the Harding Dam in Western Australia, which flooded Yindjibarndi country and its sacred places despite the efforts of custodian and rainmaker Long Mack. Set to a minimalist dancehall beat with a sharp earworm of a chorus (“red dust from the iron ore train, will make a white cocky all stained and rusty”) the song makes a less well-known land rights battle immediate and affecting, celebrating the culture and tradition of the area as much as it laments its destruction.
The night’s most powerful moment arrives with Gawarliwarli (butterfly). Driven by a rhythm sample derived from Riebl’s field recordings of children running and playing in the Pilbara, it’s an upbeat singalong that gleefully captures the energy and potential of youth. Close up shots of each chorister goofing around loop onscreen in a buoyant, carefree moment that makes the segue to the next song all the more affecting.
Riebl appears onstage for his sole moment in the spotlight, the usually energetic Cat Empire frontman a gaunt and subdued figure as he delivers Ms Dhu. It’s a solemn, infuriating recap of the death in custody of Ms Dhu, who died aged 22 after spending days in a South Hedland cell complaining of intense pain. Jailed over something as trivial as unpaid fines, in Ms Dhu’s story the potential and life celebrated one song earlier was needlessly cut short, and the contrast is heartbreaking. The message is clear: despite being one of, shockingly, hundreds of deaths in custody, she was not a statistic.
Cameos from Emma Donovan, Peter Garrett and Briggs add bursts of power and depth of experience to the night, but they perform alongside Marliya rather than being backed by them.
Briggs’ delivery of Locked Up, a blistering takedown of youth imprisonment rates (“Treat ’em like that, you just make better criminals”) is an arresting moment. He follows it with Children Came Back, his reinterpretation of the Archie Roach classic and an optimistic ode to Aboriginal resilience and achievement. It’s a tough moment to watch given this very morning the merits of making it easier for Aboriginal children to be removed and adopted by non-Indigenous families were being debated by white media personalities on breakfast TV.
That’s the Australia we live in, and it needs sharp, life affirming protest songs like Spinifex Gum’s more than ever. The extended standing ovation for Marliya seems to agree.
Spinifex Gum performed at Her Majesty’s Theatre on Tuesday, March 13