Raise your voices

16 May 2018

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Denmark will be awash with harmonies over the WA Day long weekend, when hundreds of people descend on the town for its annual Festival of Voice. Nina Levy caught up with the Festival’s artistic director, Vivienne Robertson, to find out more.

Vivienne Robertson
Vivienne Robertson

Nina Levy: Tell me about the history of the Denmark Festival of Voice (DFoV)…
Vivienne Robertson: This is the fifteenth year of the Festival – it started as a grassroots, small-scale festival about the joy of community singing, and for many years its focus stayed on choirs and community song. That’s still the heart of the festival – how magical it is when people come together to sing – but over the past few years DFoV has also morphed into an all-encompassing celebration of the power and beauty of the human voice. Song, story, spoken word… and this year, we introduce the beauty of visual voice with WA Deaf Arts.

NL: How did you come to the role of artistic director?
VR: This is my fourth year as artistic director of the Festival. I have been the artistic director of Denmark Arts (the organisation that presents DFoV) for seven years, and in that time, intimately involved with DFoV. Four years ago we didn’t have a Festival AD, so I stepped into taking that role as well. I love voice – Sufi chant is my personal thing – and I’ve steered the Festival into incorporating a strong focus on “voices from the edges” – First Nations, refugee, inclusion, experimental… as well as more focus on the varying ways of voice, including story-telling and spoken word.

Ensemble Aznash Laaman Photo: Hazel Blake
“The Festival is a mix of Denmark’s own amazing performers and presenters alongside national and international acts.” Ensemble Aznash Laaman Photo: Hazel Blake.

NL: So DFoV encompasses more than just singing… tell me more, tell me more!
VR: It’s about “voice”. As well as song, story and spoken word, that means exploring ideas about voice. It’s all in there – and, because it’s an intimate festival, you get a small amount of everything – the cream of “voice”, if you like!

In addition to performances, there are also 28 workshops – from Gregorian chant to beatbox, Indian vocal percussion to slam poetry, Auslan to the voice of mime… and we have a special one day workshop on the Monday on breath with shakuhachi master Dr Riley Lee.

So we’re big on participation – letting people experience the wonder of their own vocal adventure, finding new sounds in their mouth. The story-telling is in a beautiful hand-made yurt running a program of skilled tellers, mainly, this year, from Noongar and immigrant backgrounds. Denmark is an intensely musical town and the Festival is a mix of our own amazing performers and presenters alongside national and international acts.

NL: What are some of the highlights of this year’s festival program?
VR: We are featuring some fabulous acts: Perch Creek, the Yabu Band, Riley Lee, Ziggy Ramo, Carla Geneve, Men of the West, Elena B Williams…. but perhaps this year our spoken word program is a real highlight.

We’re honoured to be presenting Bilya Kep Waagnkiny from Northam, and three local elders as speakers/story-tellers in our “Voices of First Peoples” thread; we have a poetry slam run by TedX speaker and Australian Slam Champ Jesse Oliver; the Centre for Stories is attending with four guest story-tellers and we have a wonderful panel on “Voice and Identity” featuring Kim Scott, Pakistani poet Zainab Zahra Syed, Rae Gibson from WA Deaf Arts, Matthew and Daniel Bacon on gay/transgender issues and Yabu Band’s Noongar/Wongi lead Delson Stokes.

Also special are the “Thonglines” and “5 Days not 5 Years on Manus Island”  projects – film/exhibition/song/talks about and from asylum seekers, and our two guest migrant/refugee background story-tellers Hossein Bouazar and Esther Amito Onek.

Denmark Festival of Voice
“The story-telling is in a beautiful hand-made yurt running a program of skilled tellers, mainly, this year, from Noongar and immigrant backgrounds.” Photo: Hazel Blake.

NL: The festival looks HUGE… how do you fit so many acts into a small town like Denmark?
VR: What we love about the Festival is actually its intimacy. Performers hang out with audiences, we finish each night around the fire down at the Festival Club together, and most of the venues are cosy and magical! We have 18 venues – that includes coffee shops, studios, churches, wine bars, bookstores, the Artshouse, Blue Lounge…as well as our three main concert venues. And of course we’re on the streets – this year we launch the Denmark Town Crier competition in Fig Tree Square – doing town crying Denmark way…

NL: What are your tips for festival-attenders in terms of how to get the most out of the weekend?
VR: It’s always interesting at festivals – some people study the program, circle who they want to see, some people go with the flow, others fall in love with a particular venue… I think it can be powerful to embrace what you know you want to experience, as well as going to something you wouldn’t normally go to.

The Denmark Festival of the Voice takes place in Denmark, 1-4 June.

Pictured top: Apakatcha at the Denmark Festival of Voice in 2017. Photo: Hazel Blake.

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