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Black Arm Band recreates Indigenous Australian magic in ‘Dirtsong’

Thursday 05th, January 2017 / 12:15
By Prachi Kamble

Photo: Ryhs Graham

VANCOUVER — Black Arm Band has been telling Indigenous Australian and Torres Strait Islander stories for over a decade now. Their motto is to celebrate the past while revolutionising the future, through music and art. The band’s guest artistic director, Fred Leone, an acclaimed Indigenous Australian opera singer and hip-hop MC, is bringing Dirtsong to Vancouver’s PuSh Festival. Drawing from a rich heritage that emanates from 40,000 years of a colossal ancestral past, Black Arm Band productions ask brave questions about Indigenous experiences the world over.

With Dirtsong, Black Arm Band strengthens the representation of Indigenous Australian communities in the mainstream eye. “There are 12 different Aboriginal languages in Dirtsong,” says Leone. “The music, the vocals, and the visuals are meant to transport audiences into the world of Indigenous Australia. You may not understand what is being said, but you will get the feeling of home and understand Aboriginal people’s connection to the land.”

Leone’s musical career started with singing at the Sydney Opera. He has also been a major influence in the Australian hip-hop scene, founding Impossible Odds Records, and winning numerous awards and nominations. For Leone, the work doesn’t end with the music. Social justice is the driving force behind his work and Black Arm Band’s legacy. The collective seamlessly combines traditional music with contemporary sensibilities, with a staunch intention.

“With Black Arm Band, I get to be in the groove and not only empower myself, but use a language that is almost extinct. Around 12 people would understand when I speak Butchulla!” exclaims Leone. He, himself, hails from the Butchulla country of Hervey Bay, Fraser Island region, and from the Garrawa people of the northern, Gulf of Carpentaria areas. Many of Leone’s family members have become linguists to preserve their heritage. His aunt has even written the first Butchulla dictionary. “I’m passionate about finding innovative ways of transferring knowledge from one generation to the next,” he explains. “When put into contemporary contexts, traditional artforms become easier for the youth to absorb.”

Along with Dirtsong, Leone will also be participating in a discussion titled Critical Ideas: Home, Memory, Land at PuSh. He will shed light on the relationship between man, land, and animals, in Indigenous traditions. “Australian aboriginal culture is history,” he says. “Our memories are embedded in the land. Stories and songs are roadmaps that you give the youth or the other 350 aboriginal countries in Australia. To travel to another country in the olden days, you would have to learn the song for every river, stream and mountain.” The stories still exist and live in the youth today but in the English language, “so with Black Arm Band we want to take these stories, reclaim them and put them back into our traditional languages.”

Dirtsong runs at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on February 4 as art of PuSh Festival 2017.

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