Saturday, March 18, 2017

WOMADelaide 2017 - Day 4

There wasn’t much music programmed for the early part of Day 4 so it seemed like a good time to go to Speakers Corner and hear what people were saying about religion and the environment. The session was chaired by an unorthodox, unruly, and occasionally funny Fr Bob Maguire. On the panel was a scientist, a rabbi, and a Muslim academic. (Could be the first line of a joke …) It was perhaps a rare occasion when all religions represented agreed – there is a dire need for more to be done to awaken interest in their respective flocks about sustainability and the environment. Prof Mohamad Abdulla said it best – religious leaders simply need to take a more active role in engaging their congregations about the environment.
What followed made it a tough day for me musically! I have written elsewhere about how the music at Womad has changed over the years, and I realise that there is a generation change going on among Womad audiences, and I’m part of the generation slowly being transferred out! I found plenty of stimulating and enriching music on days 1-3, but it just happened that most of what I chose to see on the final day was part of a trend towards anonymous global funk, where everyone basically sounds the same.
Wikipedia defines funk “as a music genre that originated in the mid- 1960s when African American musicians created a rhythmic, danceable new form of music through a mixture of soul music, jazz, and rhythm and blues (R&B). Funk de-emphasizes melody and chord progressions …. and brings a strong rhythmic groove of a bass line played by an electric bassist and a drum part played by a drummer to the foreground.”
Note the part about de-emphasising melody. Global funk is my term for any world or ethnic music that has corrupted its origins with an excessive reliance on rhythm and percussion. And once that happens they really do all sound much the same. But I acknowledge too that time after time I walk away from acts featuring this type of music while hundreds of others are drawn to it like moths to a flame. Melody is irrelevant to them it seems and they dance with joy and abandon to this anonymous global funk. So it is I concede MY problem.
After an initial skim of the weekend program I decided that Lamine Sonko and the African Intelligence were probably going to be just another global funk band and decided to give them a miss. However the video on the Womad website featured Sonko playing some great acoustic guitar with just one other acoustic guitarist so I decided to give them a go. Sonko’s guitar, as played on the demo clip, got about 30 seconds airtime before the 11 piece band just crawled all over it and went funk. Very misleading video.
I thought I’d try the music of another recent immigrant to Australia, Natalie Rize, from Jamaica. Various flags were draped over the speaker boxes to nice effect, and for some unknown reason the bass player appeared in jet pilot overalls and bomber helmet. Natalie herself was full of energy. She’s a compelling and elegant performer but this is a form of reggae very different from the Bob Marley days. A VERY loud bass drove the show, and there was tons of percussion and for mine, everyone was just playing too much. Reggae works best when the arrangements are sparse and there’s a recognisable melody line. No such thing in this performance. Just a wall of sound where nothing had space.
Mercedes Peon is from Spain and has spent much of her life preserving and playing the indigenous music of Galicia. For a second time I found that a promotional video for an artist on the Womad website was totally misleading. Peon’s promotional video featured her as the lead singer in a big band with a female chorus. What we got at Womad was a one woman show using various forms of electronica, looping vocals and occasional bagpipes to launch an aural assault on the audience. Any semblance of the original Galician tunes was lost in the mix.
I wandered back to stage 2 and found The Piyut Ensemble from Israel, an all-male group of 8 singers, a string player, flautist, percussionist and 3 clappers singing pieces inspired by ‘African and Middle Eastern traditions of Jewish liturgical poetry, (and) synagogue melodies’.  It was affirming to know there were artistic types in Israel who do things other than wage war on their Palestinian neighbours. Their acapella like arrangements were pure in form and quite hypnotic in their insistence. Not particularly tuneful as some devotional music can be, but it was certainly high energy, authentic, and positive in intent.
Nhatty Man and Gara is another foreign artist who has relocated to Australia. Originally from Ethiopia, reggae is part of their sound but it’s much bigger and louder than that. ‘Ethio-jazz’ the program called it but for me it was just another incidence where all the players just get bogged down in yet another example of anonymous global funk. I did enjoy their brass section however.
I was becoming dispirited. Days 1-3 provided plenty of variety and purity of ethnic sounds. Day 4 seemed to be loaded up with bands that all sounded pretty much the same. The Specials were still to come – an old favourite from years back – but that was 2 hours away and I’d run out of steam. A four day festival feels too long. No one forces you to go all 4 days of course, but 3 days feels about right.
Interestingly, the undoubted highlight of the day was non-musical. Les Goulus are a crazy French troupe who are hilarious at pretending to be equestrian show jumpers in their giant horse puppets. A very funny interlude on the way between stages. 
I’m beginning to see why Peter Goers can say how he loves WOMADelaide but can’t stand the music!
Big ticks to Womad management for ensuring people could take in plastic bottles of water. And it was very noticeable that what had become a growing, annoying, and unnecessary police presence (with sniffer dogs!)  over the last couple of years was scaled back. Good move. Womad does not need heavy handed policing.

WOMADelaide is still a wonderful event. It’s still an enchanting world of fantasy for all ages, and still has a magic about it.

WOMADelaide 2017 - Day 3

I felt like a fair weather friend as I arrived in the late afternoon after the rain had stopped. I tried not to look anyone who had weathered the days’ rain in the face as I took my place on the soggy ground out front of the Zoo stage for Indian classical music singer, Sudha Rajunathan. She introduced her music as “a treasure of South India” and said she expected an audience who can appreciate the finer points of Indian classical tradition. Just in case we didn’t she shared earnest information about each piece her trio played. She’s an extraordinary singer. Nothing seemed beyond her as she pitched high and low and quivered and slid between notes of the various ragas they played for us. Very pure, unadulterated ethnic music that for some would be an acquired taste. As is often the case with Indian classical music there was a lot of mimicking the vocal sounds by accompanying instruments - violin and tabla. It was a real treat.
I had heard Aziz Brahim talk about the plight of her Saharawi people on day 1 and was looking forward to hearing how she translates her ideas into song and I wasn’t disappointed. She has a musical connection with the Tuareg people of North Africa, and much of the music reminded me of the desert rock sounds of TInariwen from several Womads back. The sound is cool and cruisy and Aziza’s vocals float delightfully across the top of her 5 piece band. There’s a lot of space in the rhythms and at times the lead guitar parts sounded very much like white blues guitarists of the 70’s. Think Al Kooper for those who might remember.
Bebel Gilberto from Brazil was the next main attraction on the Foundation stage. She looked bewitching and her band – including 2 classical guitarists – sounded smooth and classy. It felt a bit like nightclub music. It was quite jazz oriented and featured some superb percussion from the drummer, but there was something strange about a singer intent on providing endless opportunities for photographs of her sexy poses and flaunted sexuality. She is Brazilian after all, but it didn’t feel quite right at Womad.

I had intended to catch some other music before the live performance of Koyaanisqatsi by the legendary Philip Glass Ensemble but I noticed the space in front of Stage 2 was filling up fast so I found a spot where I had a good view of the screen and killed half an hour there watching the crowd gather. That was a good decision. Koyaanisqatsi packs just as much punch as it first did on release in 1982 – perhaps even more so. Stunning images of life on planet earth were projected behind the Ensemble as they faultlessly delivered the dramatic soundtrack for the next 90 minutes. I seem to remember talk of Koyaanisqatsi being something that was great to watch while under the influence of whatever drug you might choose, but these days it felt more like a serious reminder to us all that we humans live on a beautiful planet that we need to take better care of. But down the back there was the unmistakable odour of marijuana so I guess for some it’s still a case of the best way to experience Koyaanisqatsi is to be stoned! I’m sure they loved it. 35 years on it is still a remarkable sound and vision experience – stoned or otherwise.

WOMADelaide 2017 - Day 2

For the last couple of last years, for some ridiculous security reason, people entering Womad have not been able to take in bottles of water. Empty bottles though were acceptable so there were scenes of people pouring out their water at the entrance. Thankfully sanity has prevailed and this year bottles of water are allowed!
Womad is not just about music. In the last few years it has broadened its scope to include talks and things like cooking demonstrations from visiting artists – Taste the World. I began day 2 with a visit to the Speakers Corner tent to listen to Aziza Brahim talk about the plight of the Saharawi people of the Western Sahara. She, typical of many of her generation, had spent her entire life in a refugee camp before moving to Barcelona as an adult. She now uses her music to advertise and lobby for the plight of her people who are still stateless and marooned in refugee camps in Morocco.
But back to the music. The Ainu, an indigenous people from the island of Hokkaido in Japan, have long been treated as second class citizens. The Oki Dub Ainu Band exist to play their brand of Japanese music, and highlight the condition of the Ainu people. They performed in traditional costume, and featured traditional stringed and mouth instruments. The mouth instruments resembled the sound of the Jews harp. They settled into a pleasing pattern of grooves that was nicely rhythmic and managed to retain an indigenous essence. It was quite hypnotic but it still sounded Japanese and the traditional flavour of their music did not get lost in the mix.
9 Bach, a folk group from Wales drew a large crowd. Lovely female harmonies were on show - backed by a sold driving beat. Plucked dulcimer added intrigue to the sound and though Welsh they may be the vocals had that inimitable stamp of much traditional folk music from the UK.
I had been wondering for years, given our historical connection with Vietnam, when Vietnamese music would turn up at Womad and it finally happened this year. Hanoi Masters consists of two older men who have obviously been playing traditional Vietnamese music for decades, and a younger woman who now lives in America. The super traditional music of the old masters is an acquired taste – quiet and mournful – and felt like a throwback to the early days of Womad when traditional sounds were presented unadorned. But it felt like the Hanoi Masters were really just an excuse for the female member of the troupe to demonstrate her prowess on a range of traditional instruments, and she was wonderful. She shared useful information about the instruments she was playing and the role of Vietnamese music in dealing with the horrors of war. This explained the plaintive and mournful air of the pieces they played.
Brushy One String hails from Jamaica, and yes, he plays a guitar with just one string. Brushy had a Jamaican flag hanging off his guitar neck and is an engaging character. Quite chatty and full of personality. The one string essentially acts as a bass part to his vocals. It was all quite listenable, and he eventually, as all good Jamaicans do, got to reggae. But I found myself wondering if he was just an eccentric white guy living here in Adelaide whether he’d get a gig at Womad. I doubt he would.
Most people will remember Toni Childs as the singer of Stop Your Fussing – a mega hit from the 80’s. It’s amazing what just one hit can do for your popularity. She drew a huge crowd to the Novatech stage and she didn’t disappoint. She began by saying she wanted to cleanse our musical palates from everything else we had heard in the preceding day and a half, and she did this with an atmospheric piece featuring bagpipes and drums. What followed was a solid set of pop songs of quality and substance, and that unmistakable and tuneful vocal style – lovely to listen to.
Aurelio is from Honduras, and was introduced as a musician who straddles influences from the Latin world, Africa, and the Caribbean. And it was a fair description. Though 4 of the 6 musicians on stage were either percussion or bass, they didn’t lose a sense of melody as they played a set of songs that contained a lot of variety – reflective of the multiple influences that inform their music. Strangely one song sounded uncannily like the music from Pail Simon’s Graceland album. There was some lovely interplay between Aurelio and his electric guitarist, and they left enough space in their music for some beautiful lead guitar solo work that didn’t rely on overspeed and volume. Really quite tasteful.
Baba Zula were a weird mob. Billed as the torchbearers of Turkish psychedelic rock and roll, their two frontmen appeared in kind of traditional dress but it was more about not taking things too seriously I suspect. They rocked the Zoo stage for an hour with good solid rhythms that kept a connection with their Turkish roots. Traditional strings (oud, saz) were electrified. In fact, there was a lot of electronic gadgetry onstage but they still managed to keep things from spiralling out to anonymous global funk land. Quite impressive actually – and a good model for other world music bands to follow I’d suggest.
And then of course there were The Waifs. A huge crowd packed the area in front of the Foundation stage and they played their polished brand of folk rock to an adoring crowd. If you are way down the back of the main stage this year you can watch the concert on a big screen that has been erected about two thirds down the way toward the back. A separate crowd gathered there for the not quite live version of the show!
Two days down and this 25th anniversary Womadelaide already feels like a huge success. Womad management however may be a little concerned about crowd numbers. Great for those in attendance – it’s much more comfortable when it’s less crowded – but it does feel like numbers are down on last year. And rain is predicted for day 3. 

WOMADelaide 2017 - Day 1

As someone wrote on Facebook, it was a perfect evening to celebrate Womadelaide’s 25th anniversary. Botanic Park was bathed in a soft, golden light. Stage 1 has another new name – it’s now the Foundation Stage. Seems like the contempt expressed by punters last year about naming stages with commercial brands has been heeded.

Proceedings began, as they always do, with a welcome to country from a local Kaurna dance group. Our indigenous hosts informed us that Aboriginal people are also celebrating a milestone this year – it is 50 years since they were recognised as human beings! (In the 1967 referendum Australians agreed that Aboriginal people should be recognised by the constitution as citizens of their own land.)

The Warsaw Village People kick started the music with a rousing set that included duelling violins, two percussionists and some tight but at times abrasive harmony vocals. It didn’t take them long to stray into the ubiquitous global funk. My favourite was a polka tune.

Gawurra was up next. The program notes added just a little pressure on the guy by comparing him to Gurrumul. They are both from Arnhem Land and sing in language. And they do have a lot in common. But I think it’s fair to say that Gawurra’s music is a little more accessible than Gurrumul’s. Very pleasant soft rock tunes flowed easily. Mention of the influence of Jesus on his music was where he and I parted company. But still a lively and enjoyable set.

Womad always features a group playing Celtic music and this year it is a Canadian group called The East Pointers. Or more specifically, they’re from Prince Edward Island. They were great. They dished up an energetic set of jigs and reels featuring music from Ireland, Scotland and local (to them) Canadian composers. It is unusual for Celtic music to feature banjo but it was the tenor banjo playing that was the highlight of this set for me. Unbelievably fast and melodic playing. And the crowd were up and dancing.

There’s been quite a bit of African acapella music around Adelaide of late. African Entsha and the Soweto Gospel Choir have both been on the bill at the Fringe. Womad’s contribution is The Soil from South Africa. Two men and a woman make up The Soil. The moon was rising over the zoo stage as they began and rather than relying on volume or quantity of sound their acapella format is more dependent on tight harmony arrangements and infectious rhythm. And again the people danced. It must be very satisfying for an acapella group, using no instruments, to get people up and dancing.

I wandered down to stage 3 and found the highlight of the night. Orquesta Tipica Fernandez Fierro are an Argentinian tango ensemble. Three violinists, a piano player, cello, and four demonic accordion players rocked and swayed to a wicked and dramatic set of emotion filled tango. Deep and sexy female vocals added superb tension, and every scene was awash in smoke and stunning lighting effects. It was as powerful visually as it was to listen to. Just fantastic. I haven’t seen physical musicianship like this since the days of Split Enz. Every move by every player was choreographed to superb effect. There’s clearly a connection between this music and Portuguese Fado, and both musical traditions reveal that there is more to the Latin spirit than enjoyment and laid back manyana like attitudes.
For sheer joy I’m really glad I took the time to check out The Manganiyar Classroom. Hailing from India, this group of young boys aged 8-16 take to the daunting task of singing songs from the musical traditions of Rajasthan. Just across the border is Pakistan and it is quite obvious that this style of music from Rajasthan has connections with the Sufi music of the legendary Pakistani Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It has many of the same vocal inflections, and the spirited physical expression of the music with outstretched arms and much interplay between the lead singer (their teacher) and the chorus (the children). It was very impressive to see these children sing out with gusto, and they also simply sounded wonderful.
My musical soul felt totally nourished at this point and I headed towards the exit, only to be sidetracked by an enchanting park of fire lights by Cie Carabossa (France). Hundreds of small clay pots each with their own fire arranged in a variety of shapes across several hundred metres of the park. Just the ideal dose of fantasy to send you home happy. There is a serious side though – the exhibition is called Exodus of Forgotten Peoples and is there to remind us all that peoples have the right to freedom of moveent in and out of their country

Whatever one thinks of the changes to Womadelaide over the years, some things don’t change. For 25 years it has created an environment of creativity and other-worldly fantasy. Womad 2017 is off to a brilliant start. 

Friday, March 17, 2017


Studio in Bakehouse Theatre, Tue 14 Mar

Matrophobia is the fear of becoming like your mother, and The Daughters Collective do a superb job of conveying the web of intricate reactions this conjures up. They achieve that Holy Grail of comedy with a show that is really funny and scarily serious in equal measure.
Three women each take turns in describing their mothers’ lives and how they feel about them. With dance and music and crisp, articulate dialogue they switch between being themselves and being their mothers, and on occasion it is difficult to tell which is which – such is the interwoven connection between them.
Another effective switching technique has the cast swapping between scenes that are rehearsed and choreographed, to scenes where they are being themselves in conversation with the audience and each other. It adds a degree of authenticity and sincerity that gives the overall performance greater credibility. It’s a tricky task, and works beautifully.
A scene that has them thrust into the future where, despite all their fears and misgivings they each have twins is hilarious. They engage in a manic episode of mutual adoration of each other’s babies, and then try and reclaim some semblance of fitness and sexiness in a gym like dance routine.
As a male it felt a bit like watching an initiation into secret women’s business at times, but it also gave me a greater appreciation of the complexity of women’s lives. I am normally loathe to concede that a woman’s life is more complicated than a man’s but after watching Matrophobia I’m not so sure. The biological imperative to have children and nurture and all the messy physiology that goes with it was forcefully and funnily presented here.
There is a bitter sweet balance of love and hate about their mothers that is honest, brutal and loving, and that is a tough mix to get right in a one hour piece of theatre. It’s refreshingly realistic, and all portrayed with great poise and depth of perception.
Younger women are going to find Matrohobia eerily predictive, but it’s a show that everyone can enjoy and learn from because, of course, we all have, or have had, mothers.

A fantastic piece of serious comedy that does not miss a beat. Smart, entertaining theatre.

(This review also published on The Clothesline.)

A Boy Named Cash

A Boy Named Cash
Henrietta’s at The Henry Austin, Mon 20 Feb

Johnny Cash is another music legend whose legacy is being kept alive by a generation who weren’t born when his songs were played on the radio. In A Boy Named Cash Monty Cotton does a fantastic job of bringing Cash’s music to a modern audience. He has the deep resonant vocal tone that was Cash’s trademark, and I suspect he may be a far more accomplished musician than Johnny Cash was.
This show is slick and pacey. Cotton rips through all the expected hits with a virtuosic ease. From Folsom Prison Blues to Ring of Fire and everything in between he plays everything Cash fans from the past might want to hear. And truth is he plays them all better than Johnny Cash ever did. With a deft touch on guitar and an array of loops and pedals he turns every song into a showcase of his exceptional ability and in the process elevates every song to a new high.
I doubt that Johnny Cash was funny on stage, but Cotton sure is. Goading the audience to participate at frequent intervals he gets everyone singing along and laughing at themselves in good natured fashion. Not only is this show great to listen to but, and perhaps in contrast to the serious persona Cash cultivated, there are plenty of laughs. A segment where he asks the audience to nominate songs for ‘a Cash conversion’ is very clever and really funny.
Cotton has taken the legend and the music and made it his own. His singing is great but if it lacks anything it’s that gravel edge that characterised Cash’s vocals – probably a consequence of hard living and a lot of drugs and alcohol – and Cotton might be better off without it!

A Boy Named Cash is almost the complete package. The hour flew by in the hands of a very talented musician/performer, and should guarantee that Cash’s music will last a good while longer yet.

(This review also published on The Clothesline.)

A Blot on Our Cultural Landscape

Bucks (or A Bag of D*cks)
Mainstage in Bakehouse Theatre, Mon 27 Feb

The scariest thing about Bucks (or A Bag of D*cks) is it’s very close to the truth. Anyone who has spent time in male dominated sporting environments for example, may well recognise many of the behaviours in this menacing show. The uncontrolled substance abuse, the bullying, the fake bravado, the repressed gay character, and the reluctance to genuinely confront issues with honest conversation is a sad reflection on Australian male culture that one hopes is becoming less prevalent.
The bucks party though is still alive and well, and in this instance involves subjecting the buck to a range of demeaning behaviours in some weird twis­­ted idea of being a good mate, being a good sport, being willing to have a laugh where in fact it is a degrading exercise in ritual bullying.
The 5 male cast members run amok in Bucks, and create a sense of mayhem and chaos with high energy drug fuelled dysfunction. Old scars resurface from unresolved differences and disagreements are met with denial or attacks on the accuser with little regard to the truth of a matter. It’s all about being tough, and it’s a toughness born of fear – fear of being vulnerable, or looking weak or sensitive. A fear of honestly confronting reality and dealing with opposing views in a rational way.
Bucks (or A Bag of D*icks) is a great combined performance as they generate a sense of palpable fear. There is a sense of relief as things come to a close even though everything is still unresolved. You can imagine the characters meeting again months later and having a laugh about ‘that crazy bucks party’ while still not confronting the issues of fear, repressed sexuality, and the bullying it revealed.
This show should be shown in schools across the nation for boys to examine and question what is going on and why, and for girls to get a glimpse of just how ugly and threatening the macho world of the Australian male can be.

Not all Australian men are like this of course, but these types do exist. Hiding behind notions of mateship and with misguided ideas of what it means to be a man, they’re a blot on our cultural landscape.

(This review also published on The Clothesline.)

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A History Of Early Blues - Live at the Wheatsheaf

Friday, February 24th, 2017

Australian blues legend Chris Finnen was to be part of this show, and it was really disappointing to learn that due to sickness he would not be part of the line-up for A History of the Early Blues. Chris Finnen is a remarkable blues player and a great story teller. Harmonica player Bill the Tree (yes that is his name) was recruited to take Chris’ place, and he joined Cal Williams Jr (guitar) and Kory Horwood on double bass for an exceptional evening of blues and early American music.

The band took over the mantle of storytellers about the songs they played and the origin of the blues, and warmed further to the task as the show progressed. In the end they did it so well that Chris Finnen was hardly missed. The show featured songs by folks like Leadbelly, Sun House, Furry Lewis, and blues classics like Got My Mojo Working.
But the focus of the show was actually quite a bit broader than just early blues. A number of songs were from the realms of folk or Gospel. Some were reminiscent of the music featured on the Coen Brothers movie, O Brother Where art Thou. This broader focus added tonal variety and an appreciation of how all these forms of early American music are connected.
A fascinating part of proceedings was the way the group would announce a song and then spend a few minutes warming up – improvising their way to the point where they were all ready to do the song. It was as if the songs began twice.
The musicianship on display in this show was stunning. Cal Williams Jr, playing a metal guitar made from bits of a tin shed, was a revelation. Showcasing multiple techniques - strumming, picking, sliding – he showed us there are many ways to play the blues. Billy the Tree on harmonica told us how blues contributed to the spread of the harmonica and provided a sweet bluesy backdrop throughout the show, and Kory Horwood’s double bass added depth and resonance.
The audience were invited to join in on occasion. We had a go at field hollering music – mimicking the way the blues was born in the fields, and the show ended with everyone joining in the refrain of an old Gospel tune as the band played and sang their way through the audience on their way out. It was a lovely touch.

An illuminating and instructive evening listening to great musicians playing the music they obviously love.

(This article also published on The Clothesline.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Living in a Trumped World

I’ve been meaning to write about this since the day Trump got elected and Leonard Cohen died. Seemed fitting somehow that Leonard would not want to live in a Trumped world. He no longer belonged. His vision and compassion was no longer wanted. I was filled with a deep sadness on both counts, and part of me wanted to go wherever Leonard went. Follow class and dignity to wherever it resides.
Like many have shared I felt something died the day Trump was elected. It was as if I awoke from a dream that was revealed to be a sham. I had been living believing that slowly we were progressing as a species. Sounds stupid and na├»ve to write it, but that’s honestly how I felt. I felt we were evolving, and Cohen was the embodiment of that. I felt we were making progress in being more compassionate and understanding with each other. It was not OK to bully people; being gay was OK – nearly; the position of women had attained something approaching parity; cultural differences and the value of diversity were being slowly recognised as an asset to a country, to a company, to the planet; most nations had agreed on some kind of action – however small – to negate climate change; the world was moving towards clean energy.
And then someone who believes in none of these things was voted in as the president of one of the world’s most powerful nations. 28% of Americans voted for a lying, ignorant narcissist, and thumbed their noses at women’s rights, blacks, gays, climate change, etc in the process. They simply wanted to return America to a time of near full employment (cars, manufacturing) and where men could abuse any woman they wanted with impunity.
Clearly a quarter of America’s population felt left out of the political process as they saw their lives slip into underemployment and poverty. Mexicans and Muslims, and anybody else who looked different to them, were taking their jobs and they’re angry. They have every right to be. I realise now that it’s one of the many failures of democracy and its elected representatives to adequately explain what is going on – what globalisation and automation are doing to the job market; why jobs are disappearing. No support offered in terms of meaningful retraining, and certainly no longer term vision of where retrenched manufacturing workers might fit in a new economy once traditional sources of employment dried up. People outside of politics who weren’t concerned with presenting false promises that everything would be OK had been saying for years that traditional manufacturing industry in the West was collapsing, and that alternatives needed to be explored. But nothing was done, government subsidies propped up dying industries and then the GFC blew it all apart. No conversations with affected workers took place about what the future might look like and what their options were. They were left high and dry by the political classes to fend for themselves and fed up with the whole goddamn business they voted for Trump. No matter that he had 5 kids from 3 wives; no matter that he’s filthy rich and a compulsive liar.  It really didn’t matter who Trump was, what he said, or what he believed, as long as promised to stick it up Washington and bring back the good old days.
It’s hard to see how Trump is going to keep this miserable 28% happy. Infrastructure projects might do it for a while. But the bigger picture for me is where to from here for the planet; where to from here for do-gooder lefty leaning liberals in Western countries like Australia. For people like me. How do we reclaim the agenda? How do we get things like the rights of minorities back in focus? How do we bring back compassion as part of a nation’s psyche? Somehow we need to talk with these people who are angry; we need to acknowledge their anger; and we need to present them with viable alternatives so they don’t feel like all those ‘others’ are wrecking their life, and taking away what they see as rightfully theirs.
Maybe they’re kind of right. Maybe as a species we simply don’t act to save ourselves until we reach crisis point. That’s what we’ve always done.  Maybe we need a war. Maybe we need to see and feel the results of massive dislocation of the economy due to climate change. Maybe when Tuvalu and Kiribati disappear the rest of the world might take notice. Maybe most of us are simply unable to think about others and the future for more than few well meaning minutes. And not until shits hits fan will we act. We can only focus on ourselves and the present.  Perhaps the ability to foresee the consequences of our collective actions merely screens the inward looking shallow nature of our true selves?
Maybe we can entertain notions like equality and gender equity when most of us have adequate employment and a living standard that is pretty comfortable. But when things slip back towards the poverty line we revert to self-preservation mode and inherently blame ‘the other’ for our woes.
I have never felt this way before. I’ve generally been optimistic about what the future holds. But I don’t like the circling China is about in the Pacific. I don’t like Trump’s disregard for old alliances and his reckless willingness to discuss using the US’s nuclear capability. I don’t like the hopelessness of the UN as a body without any clout. (Israel routinely ignores it and does what it likes and always gets away with it.) There is no global political leadership. As eloquent and articulate and loving as Obama obviously was, he too was unwilling or unable to effect widespread meaningful change. (Except inside America’s border with Obama care. And what of a people who seem angry that someone dared to help those who need a hand paying their medical bills??? What is with these people???)
It seems quite feasible to me now that a large war is not too far away. It’s not Trump’s fault. Our ineptitude has bred his success. He’s just another card in a collapsing pack that adds to the instability – he doesn’t have the intelligence to be part of any solution.

I was in Vanuatu working with vocational educators when Trump was elected and Cohen died and I was desperate to talk to someone about it. I broached the topics with the people I was with. Their response? Is there an election happening? Who is Donald Trump? What’s wrong with him? And they’d never heard of Leonard Cohen. So there’s another kind of naivete that exists in many parts of the developing world. Their world is far from perfect but they are not tormented by the horrendous and sad stories that our 24/7 media world feeds the globally connected citizen. Trump and Cohen are irrelevant to them. They go about peaceful lives doing what they can to make a living and feed their families and don’t seem any less happy for it. They certainly don’t have the material means to travel but their disconnected cocoon of a tropical paradise seems to deliver a kind of peace and resignation that is far from the angst that my newly discovered naivete wreaks upon my being. Perhaps I’d have been better off being born in Vanuatu.

Thursday, December 29, 2016


Back in 2008 Clay Shirky flagged the en masse arrival of the digital photographer in Here Comes Everybody. I’ve been thinking again recently about my daily obsession with walking the streets and taking photographs. I take photographs and I’m therefore a photographer, but I’ve never been comfortable with that tag. To me photographers are people who have fancy equipment, have studied or mastered the art of composition, know how to compensate for poor light, when to focus close-in or retreat to the panoramic level and so on. I can do some of these things – as far as a top of the range digital camera will allow – but the fact is I’m not really interested in mastering the technical side of photography. I take photographs sure, but I take them mostly for other reasons, and technical excellence is low on my list of priorities.
I have been looking for a word that better describes what I do. It could be something as simple as a visual diarist. It feels like what I do is a cross between photography and anthropology so perhaps I’m an anthropographer? And guess what? The word exists. Anthropography is “The branch of anthropology that deals with the actual distribution of the human race in its different divisions, as distinguished by physical character, language, institutions, and customs.” While that is close, that is just part of what I do. Then there is the similar related field of anthrotography:
"Specialising in the science researching the origins, history, and development of biological characteristics, social customs, belief systems, and indigenous linguistic variations of humankind. The anthrotographer takes photographs for the purpose of sharing knowledge and spreading joy."( It seems to be a less accepted term than anthropographer and may have been invented by someone trying to do what I am exploring – exactly what it is I do with photographs.
Let’s look at the elements of each of these disciplines and see how well they describe what I think I do – or not.
  • the actual distribution of the human race in its different divisions, as distinguished by physical character, language, institutions, and customs
I do take photographs of people of different cultures, and try and emphasise different physical characteristics. For example:

I also try and try catch glimpses of different cultural practices: 

Drinking Kava
I try and capture examples of different linguistic traditions: 

Bislama Language of Vanuatu
  • The anthrotographer takes photographs for the purpose of sharing knowledge

This has been a significant drawcard for me. Based on the assumption that your photos are shared with others – an essential element of the whole process – I was intrigued early on just how much random information I picked up from others’ photos, and what others could teach me about my own. It is common practice to ask the online community for assistance if for example, you don’t know the name of a bird or flower that you have photographed. Inevitably in time someone will provide the answer.
  • The anthrotographer takes photographs for the purpose of … spreading joy.
This can be the joy of learning; the joy of sharing photos of a shared experience, or joy in and of itself:
The anthro prefix in these fields of endeavour denotes the study of humanity. But what then with photos of landscape or nature? 

There’s no evidence of people present – deliberately so – so the anthro tag does not apply to all I do. So something that denotes observation of earth or nature needs to be part of the description. ‘Geo’ seems an obvious candidate but geographer is already taken, and I don’t want the anthro aspect completely sidelined. So what about anthrogeography? It does exist according to Google, but it seems to have been superseded by anthropogeography - a branch of anthropology dealing with the geographical distribution of humankind and the relationship between human beings and their environment. The relationship between human beings and their environment. This is getting closer. But I want a term that encompasses observation of humans and the environment or natural world not only in isolation, where they exist independent of each other, but also how they interact with the other.
While trying to decide what it is I do I realise that it’s about
  1. people
  2. places
  3. the mutual impact people and places have on the other

And a final aspect that others have been quick to point out about my photographs – what happens when people leave the scene: the process of neglect, incremental change, and slow decay. It is a significant theme in my work but I think it can be included under the third point above.
Anthropogeographer sounds clumsy to me, and if anthrogeographer has been superseded I could reclaim it and redefine it. Or I could start brand new with geoanthrographer, but it’s difficult to pronounce.

“So you’re a photographer Michael?”
“No. I’m an Anthrogeographer.”
“What’s that?
“Someone who photographs people and places and how they interact.”
“Ah…interesting…’ J

I don’t expect to start a new movement. I could perhaps be accused of being a wanker. But I really do want a term that makes it clear that what I do is not based on an interest in photography as a technical discipline. I am much more interested in where photographs can take you; how one might use them to create a dialogue between us about the nature of existence. So for now, I’m a anthrogeographer! (This may change ;)

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Thoughts After My Second Visit to a Tiny Island Nation

Tuvalu is a magical place. It’s like I’m smitten. But it’s an ambivalent relationship. Love the place but can’t wait to leave. Happily cruising back to Suva on a Pacific Thursday afternoon and feeling content to be going home to Elizabeth and safety. The remote location and the isolation that comes with it is hard adjust to. But I’m filled with visions of classic tropical enchantment. It reminded me of Kuta, Bali in 1973. Narrow roads through vegetation hiding houses and families and yards. The laughter and noise of family life wafts through to the road and leaves you with a half sketched out idea of what life might be like back in there.
But what you can see is an eclectic mix. And not everyone is going to come to the same conclusion. I see beauty, intrigue, relics, mysterious pathways that the children disappear into. You can see wrecks of cars and boats, piles of leftover building materials, empty squashed plastic bottles, rickety wooden platforms, assorted litter and a general inattention to tidiness. Basically it’s beauty or mess – both are there in abundance and it’s your call. You see what you’re looking for.
There’s barely a house on Funafuti that wouldn’t be classified as a slum or ruin in suburban Australia. Banged together collections of wood, plastic, corrugated iron, and always with a 4 poster covered wooden platform in the yard for families to hang out on in fresh air, in the shade, or out of the rain. Life is essentially held outdoors. There are some proper houses – wooden boards, louvres, a tin roof perhaps – but they too have the family platform, the litter, and the rambling dirt tracks winding back from the main drags. And everything ends at the sea.
On average, Funafuti (Tuvalu’s main island) is about 100 metres wide so you can always hear the sea. The coast too is either a sad affair littered with ex-engines, left behind thongs or items of clothing on a charming foreshore that leads to a calm lagoon that is often glass like smooth. At dusk some make it a ritual to bathe, or in the case of young boys, jump around like monkeys off the sandbag groyne that’s there to help reclaim land. Pure unadulterated children in paradise stuff. A joy to behold. And they happily share it with you the stranger – showing off their best moves and flashing full faced smiles.

About 100 metres away, just short of the other – ocean – coast, the 15-40 year olds gather on the town’s runway for the daily sport carnival of rugby, volleyball and soccer. Barefoot they bound around the warm tarmac throwing themselves at various balls. All again with copious dollops of laughter – a signature of Tuvalu. A true tropical paradise.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Fawlty Towers Live - Her Majesty’s Theatre, Thu Oct 28

Many of us have seen episodes of Fawlty Towers multiple times. We know and love the characters. We know the lines. We know the madcap plot twists. Hence the excited sense of anticipation about how it might translate to the live stage. John Cleese has taken 3 of his favourite episodes and cleverly reworked them into a two act stage play.

And it works. Wonderful comedic writing, zany story lines, quirky characters, and liberal dashes of good old-fashioned slapstick guarantee that much. And a well-seasoned cast deliver mostly storng performances in a fun evening of timeless frivolity.

It was impossible not to compare with the original – Aimee Horne as Polly was perfect, as was Paul Bertram as the eccentric and forgetful Major. They could have walked on to the original set of Fawlty Towers without anyone noticing. Deborah Kennedy was superb as the deaf and potty Mrs Richards, Blazey Best did a great job of reminding us just how much of a tasteless tart Sybil is, and Syd Brisbane channelled Manuel beautifully.  

Then of course there was Stephen Hall’s daunting task of taking on the role of Basil Fawlty. He deserves spades of accolades for simply daring to take on what would have to be one of the more impossible acts to follow in the history of show business, and he largely succeeded, especially in the secoind act where he seemed more comfortable in the skin of the more manic Basil. One could quibble about aspects of his performance but his ability to realise a believable character is central to the whole show working and he definitely achieves that. If we had never seen John Cleese in this role it would be hailed unreservedly as a great performance. He is not John Cleese. And Cleese’s Basil Fawlty has already gone down in history as one of the great comic characters of the 20th century.

Those who were expecting something more original than a carbon copy of the original characters, plots and dialogue may be disappointed. And sticking so close to the orginal begs for comparisons to be made. As one astute observer commented, it was like going to see a cover band play all of your favourite songs. You know they’re good – not as good as the original versions - but you go along anyway to remind yourself how much you love and enjoy all those songs. And so it was with this production of Fawlty Towers.

The fantastic set was very true to the original with an added vertical dimension with both floors of the hotel visible simultaneously. The famous lines were all there (“Would you like me to move the hotel a little to the left dear?” “Don’t mind him he’s from Barcelona.”) and it flew by in a flash. Lots of chuckling, permanent nostalgic grins, but not much uproarious laughter. More like a comfortable night out with an old friend that you love dearly.

(also published on The Clothesline)