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Reviews/Music/Perth Festival

Voices with power

11 February 2020

The singers are proud and polished – watching Spinifex Gum, Tiffany Ha wishes she’d been in a choir half as cool as Marliya.

Perth Festival and Marliya Choir, Spinifex Gum ·
Chevron Lighthouse, 8 February 2020 ·
Review by Tiffany Ha ·

Marliya Choir is an Australian youth chorus, that gives a voice to Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander teenagers.

In Spinifex Gum, they sing in English as well as the language of the Yindjibarndi people from Western Australia’s Pilbara, and in Kala Lagaw Ya, the language of the Western Torres Strait. Their songs are a melting pot of musical influences like pop, hip hop, EDM, reggae and contemporary choral.

The project is an ongoing collaboration between The Cat Empire’s Felix Riebl (composer and artistic director), Ollie McGill (beats, production) and Marliya Choir, which is based in Cairns. Riebl developed it while living in Yindjibarndi communities, and the songs he wrote for Marliya harness the power of teenage rebelliousness, earnestness and camaraderie to deliver messages of political protest and celebration.

Like many works informed by Aboriginal traditions, Spinifex Gum has a strong connection to land and place. Before the lights come up to reveal the singers in striking formation, we see video showing a bird’s eye view of an iron-ore train hurtling through the dusty, red Pilbara landscape. We hear an audio sample of the fast-approaching train, then a tense, rising synth, followed by a sparse, downtempo drum loop which feels heavy and anticipatory, like a heart beat (props to the sound and lighting folk at Chevron Lighthouse for creating such a deadly intro!). Video artist Dominic Allen captures a strong sense of place with his breathtaking footage of trains, mines and infrastructure contrasted against the vast natural landscape of the Pilbara.

The choir’s more light-hearted, celebratory songs (“Sisters”, “Ready or Not” and “Dream Baby Dream”) are accompanied by fun, whimsical videos by artist Matt Brown, featuring abstract retro animations and candid, social-media-worthy footage of the singers rehearsing, touring and mucking around.

Marliya is coached and conducted by Lyn Williams, OAM, (founder of Gondwana Choirs) and it shows: the young women perform like pros with unwavering commitment and commendable vocal technique throughout the show, which runs for just over an hour.

Fun on stage – Marliya singers in ‘Spinifex Gum’. Photo: Marnie Richardson

On stage, their presence is powerful, polished and unapologetic. Wearing black tracksuits with luminescent motifs reminiscent of traditional body-painting, with their hair in tight braids and stripes across their faces, these young women are fierce. They command attention, they take up space and stake their claim. And they look comfortable – like they are having fun – performing Deborah Brown’s tastefully modern, minimal choreography.

I confess to feeling pangs of envy and indignity from my past teenaged self: why couldn’t I have been in a girls’ choir this cool?

But as cool as Spinifex Gum is, there are moments of awkwardness. Some of the political songs (“Yurala” – the last known rainmaker in Yindjibarndi country who fought in vain to stop the construction of the Harding River Dam, and “Ms Dhu” – Julieka Dhu who died in police custody in South Hedland) are deeply moving and engaging, but others feel like history lessons in disguise, like edu-tainment. The repetitiveness of some of the songs, and their somewhat predictable arrangements leave me wanting. At times I feel I am watching a schools’ eisteddfod, or a finalist on Australia’s Got Talent.

It’s great to hear soloists Felix Riebl and Emma Donovan bust their chops on a few songs, but it also ruins the illusion somewhat, highlighting the fact that the younger singers are essentially doing what a bunch of adults have told them to, rather than creating work based on their own experience.

In any case, I am thrilled something like Spinifex Gum exists. It’s a brilliant concept and a wonderfully life-affirming musical offering with wide appeal. I’m not a parent, but I imagine it’s exactly the sort of thing you want your teenaged daughter listening to.

Marliya Choir perform in ‘Spinifex Gum’ at the Chevron Lighthouse. Photo: Marnie Richardson

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Author —
Tiffany Ha

Tiffany Ha is a pianist, composer, arranger, music educator and vocalist with a soft spot for anything a cappella. She has degrees in Music (Composition) and Arts (English) from UWA and works as a freelance musician. Her favourite playground equipment is anything that involves climbing and balance: monkey bars, rope towers, trees, human pyramids!

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