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The Black Arm Band alternates uplifting songs of hope with plaintive cries of loss in Dirtsong.

An ocean of emotions

Aug 28, 2015 5:50 AM

IS it possible not to understand a word of a song and yet be moved to tears by it? In Dirtsong, the Black Arm Band perform songs in old Australian Aboriginal languages that are at risk of going extinct. Yet the soaring beauty of the music and the powerhouse vocals of its singers are enough to engulf any sensitive listener in an ocean of emotions.

The band was formed in 2006 in response to then-Prime Minister of Australia John Howard's dismissal of the "black armband view of history", which saw him essentially denying the cultural dispossession of the First Nations in Australia since the arrival of the Europeans. These views make light of the atrocities carried out against the Aboriginal and Torres Strait people for centuries.

Yet, instead of voicing their anger, these musicians have countered Mr Howard with music so authentic, celebratory, personal and moving, it becomes a rallying cry of community and togetherness rather than indignation at forces beyond their reach.

Made up of Australian musicians of white, Aboriginal and Torres Strait descent playing both modern and traditional instruments, the band alternates uplifting songs of hope with plaintive cries of loss.

Emma Donovan employs her deep vocals to stunning effect when she sings Yarian Mi Tji (What's My Name), a song that searches for answers to questions of identity and home. Mindy Kwanten bores deep into your soul with her rendition of Dirtsong, which posits that all living beings are connected to each other. Deline Briscoe gets under one's skin with Big Law, a spiritual song inspired by the famous Daintree rainforest.

Between these extremes, the band tries to widen the palette of moods, as when drummer Greg Sheehan provides comic relief by playing on a makeshift drum set made of vehicle parts and other bits and bobs, or when singers Fred Leone and Yirrmal Marika mimic animal behaviour as they dance to the upbeat numbers.

The entire performance is bookended by Leone and Marika digging their hands into a mound of dirt piled at the front of the stage, a ritual to pay respect to the land.