River is an uplifting gift offering healing and hope

“All these rivers we must cross. Together we will get to the other side. . . . We’ll be forced to grow.” This is the theme of River, a haunting new video by the Sydney World Music Chamber Orchestra. It is an inspiring sound and visual experience of the Australia we are becoming, all woven together by the movement and grace of Gambirra Illume, Yolngu performer and cultural educator from Australia’s north east Arnhem Land. River is a song of sadness and despair uplifted by the hope and optimism that emerges from sharing the journey towards resolution. Look at the warmth and laughter of the participants as they near the end of their street performance.  Watch the video River. It is now available from all digital retailers.

In January this year, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that at least half of Australia’s special intake of 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees would be settled in Fairfield in western Sydney, within 12 months. In the previous year, Fairfield City Council had already welcomed 3000 humanitarian arrivals from the two war-torn countries. It was the continuation of a pattern of accepting migrants and refugees displaced by war and economic upheaval, which had grown since World War I. This concentration of cultural diversity gave Fairfield a special relevance as the setting for River, Sydney World Music Chamber Orchestra‘s first single released last month. The photo below records the warmth and excitement that surrounded the orchestra following their inaugural concert at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, in November 2014, when they performed the remarkable three stages of love and death. The words and music of River are developed from an extract of this work. Please take the time to click on all the links and listen to the music recorded.

It would be true to say that years of preparation have gone into the launch of River. Some of the first threads were drawn together long before Richard Petkovic created the Cultural Arts Collective in 2007 with Maria Mitar. Even so, they say it took three years of working with fellow musicians to create, record and release River. Through Cultural Arts Collective they showcase the future of Australian music by combining Australia’s many cultures into music that “touches the spirit”. It is a generous vision that has driven Richard for a very long time – unearthing the musical talents and mastery that have remained unrecognised outside the bounds of individual cultural communities and gathering them into making music that draws on tradition to create inspirational contemporary work – anything from driving rock rhythms to hypnotic spiritual chants.

Through Cultural Arts Collective, Richard launched the first Sydney Sacred Music Festival in 2011 after working with migrant and refugee communities in western Sydney for more than 10 years. After operating on a shoestring, it is now an established non-profit organisation, with a measure of government and private financial support. The program extends right across metropolitan Sydney, linking together a whole range of music organisations.

Death and personal loss were the immediate inspiration behind the creation of River. It offers a message of hope for those struggling with grief and profound loss. Eleven musicians performed in the streets of Fairfield, where they were filmed with the willing support of locals. They were world renowned Uyghur bard Shohrat Tursun – vocals, dutar (two string lute), Yaw Derkyi – African percussion and vocals, Richard Petkovic – guitar and vocals, Maria Mitar and Gambirra Illume – vocals, Nicholas Ng – urhu (Chinese two stringed fiddle),  Bukhu Ganburged – Mongolian horse fiddle, Salar Hs – violin, Rudi Upright Valdez – double bass, Victor Valdes – Mexican harp, and Ngoc-Tuan Hoang – guitar.

Many of these artists have been playing together for several years now and it shows in their ease of improvisation and collaboration and their quiet mutual respect. Cultural Arts Collective produces and composes music, and creates ensembles to support artists previously hidden from the mainstream. Already firmly established is the Shohrat Tursun Trio, comprising Shohrat himself, in right of photo, Yaw Derkyi, centre, and Richard Petkovic. CAC manages artists, produces festivals and events and distributes new music.

Richard’s perseverance in changing the focus of Australian music making and performance has led to contracts with Musica Viva to re-imagine their regional touring program and Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority to work with several community festivals to improve their artistic direction. They are great steps forward on a deeply enriching path.


Arts centres, book and blog expand post siege discussion on social harmony

Sydney World Music Chamber Orchestra - rehearsalAt a time of heightened anxieties and security alerts following this week’s siege in Sydney’s CBD, it’s worth considering the role sustained by arts centres across western Sydney managed by local governments. They make an enormous contribution to the social harmony of local communities. They stimulate conversation and exposure to other ideas, experiences and cultures and their absorption into the minutiae of everyday interactions.

It’s a process that has been growing since the 1970s. “When Professor Andrew Jakubowicz addressed Creative Cultures’ Parramatta forum in 1994, he said art forms are now recognised as being produced in a cultural context that may endow them with different meanings. ‘The process of taking control is, I think, fundamental to the process of community cultural development.'” This is quoted on page 159 of my book Passion Purpose Meaning – Arts Activism in Western Sydney, published last year, which tells the story of this growth. Click on the About and Book pages of my blog, which continues the story. Western Sydney is indeed a Blog - PPM book coverfrontier society and passionate individuals are working creatively and generously through the experience on a daily basis.

One of the most outstanding examples of this process was the emergence this year of the Sydney World Music Chamber Orchestra, top, under the leadership of western Sydney musician Richard Petkovic. After more than a decade of development, which saw him launch the now annual Sydney Sacred Music Festival in 2011, the orchestra’s first performance delivered three sides of love and death. The work explored the universal themes of unconditional love and rites of passage through the stories and sacred music practices of culturally and linguistically diverse artists who make up the orchestra. The work was created through a collaborative process that transcended culture and faith. Arts centres across the region, from Campbelltown to the Blue Mountains, Hawkesbury to Olympic Park hosted festival events, along with many others across Sydney and suburbs.

1-UTP - JOANNE Saad - family portraitsUrban Theatre Projects, which works from Bankstown Arts Centre, has been working for 18 months on Bankstown Live, an event for the 2015 Sydney Festival next month. Nine new works have been created by a team of professional artists developed in conversation with local people. Among them is Filipino artist Alwin Reamillo’s Bankstown Bayanihan Hopping Spirit House, the Bankstown Dancing Project (click for the Sydney Morning Herald report) and the world premiere of The Tribe, drawn from Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s book of the same name. Through the eyes of a young child, book and play reveal the life of a small Muslim sect which fled to Australia just before the civil war in Lebanon. Joanne Saad has worked with four Bankstown families to create a photographic project Family Portraits, see above, where audiences are invited to sit alongside the family on the couch, get to know each other and make a new family portrait.

Most arts centres are in areas of rapid population growth and increasing cultural diversity. Change can be disorienting and discomforting for established communities and newcomers. It’s not unusual that newcomers have fled from conflict in their native lands and may arrive traumatised and confused. Like the other centres, Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre (CPAC), managed by Liverpool Council, conducts a program very responsive to its local community. Performances and exhibitions offer insights into other cultures, their ways of thinking, seeing and believing. They offer topics to explore that generate discussion and information exchanges and can have a transformative effect on the attitudes of those participating.

CPAC_Cosmic CambodiaIn launching their 2015 performance program, CPAC director Kiersten Fishburn highlighted the collaborative project Origin-Transit-Destination to be presented in March. Described as a “journey to remember in the company of extraordinary asylum-seekers from the war zones of the Middle East”, it will begin in Auburn and culminate at Casula. Kiersten describes it as a remarkable production that offers a vivid experience of what it’s like to be an asylum seeker, who eventually finds safe haven in Australia. Still with a post-conflict theme, but with an exuberant atmosphere is one of Kiersten’s favourites for the year. Cosmic Cambodia, above, is at the forefront of cultural revival in Cambodia. The Cambodian Space Project sound mashes tradition with rock’n’roll, rare groove, soul, and trippy visual spectacle with reimagined Khmer classics and will be at CPAC in May.

Click here for the full 2015 performance program, which includes some highly entertaining children’s shows and some special tribute productions for Liverpool’s commemoration of the Gallipoli landing of World War 1.

Arts funding from state and federal governments contributes to many of these programs, but local government carries the lion’s share of financial responsibility. As we have all witnessed this week, social harmony is a precious commodity and western Sydney has been making a major contribution.

SBS Radio offers insight into Sydney World Music Chamber Orchestra

Sydney World Music Chamber Orchestra - 6 of 14 membersIn an interview with SBS Radio before the launch of the Sydney World Music Chamber Orchestra, each of the accredited musicians offered profound insight into their participation. They play without sheet music or script. Someone begins to play and the others improvise. Founder and music director Richard Petkovic says

“What I’m trying to do is create a music and a show that can change the chemistry of the people listening. So not their passive listening, but I want them to be engaged in a different way so, when they leave the show, they can feel that something inside of them has changed, has transformed, and so they’ve received something from the show that’s universal.”

When the musicians first met, they say, everybody talked about their refugee experiences, their music and what things were most sacred to them. A bond developed, and a chamber orchestra was born. Click on the link for the full transcript of the interviews Music of the World in a Corner of Sydney.

The orchestral concert was the opening event of the fourth Sydney Sacred Music Festival, which continues to September 21.


Sydney World Music Chamber Orchestra creates uplifting festival launch

Sydney World Music Chamber Orchestra - rehearsalElemental forces of human experience swelled and dispersed throughout Three Sides of Love and Death created by the recently formed Sydney World Music Chamber Orchestra. Unearthly and yet deeply grounded in ancient traditions and sacred practices, the music of the 11 piece orchestra under the direction of Richard Petkovic, transcended cultural boundaries to create a new and inclusive sacred symphony. The concert was the opening event of the fourth Sydney Sacred Music Festival, Riverside Theatres, Friday, September 5. It was a totally uplifting experience for orchestra and audience alike.

A small grant from the Australia Council for the first time had allowed the greater development of musical arrangements and time to rehearse. The result was a wonderfully balanced performance in which each individual made a unique instrumental or vocal  contribution to a deeply sympathetic background of harmonious support from the rest of the orchestra. The care and respect of each musician for the other was almost tangible, discreetly guided by Richard.

Following a Welcome to Country by Darug elder Uncle Greg Simms, Yolngu vocalist from Arnhem Land and exponent of ceremony, Gambirra Illume used powerful exhalations and movements to invoke life forces and words of love from her own language. The steady pulsing of rhythms from behind her amplified the effect. The consciousness of breath found many expressions, often emphasised by the regular movement of the harmonium played by Richard Petkovic.

Sydney World Music Chamber Orchestra - Stage - John Hibberd SnrWorld whistling champion Asim Gorashi, originally from South Sudan, whistled, played first violin and oud and performed Sufi rituals. Seyed Salar Hosseini from Iran, only recently released from two years in Australian detention camps for seeking asylum, played second violin. A unique experience of breathing was heard in the ancient Mongolian art of throat singing by Bukhu Ganburged, who accompanied himself on the horse fiddle. Maria Mitar sang of love and loss, forgiveness and understanding. Chinese Australian Mark Szeto reflected on departures in playing his double bass and Ghanian percussionist Yaw Derkyl performed a A Call of Sorrow in a tribal language.

Players responded to each other across the semicircle of their stage positions. Shohrat Tursun delivered a traditional Uyghur Sufi song from the East Turkistani song cycles followed by Mexican baroque harpist, Victor Valdes, in Latin American celebration of higher powers. Through traditional chant and music, Vietnamese classical guitarist, Ngoc-Tuan Hoang memorialised lost ancient cultures of the world. Above is John Hibberd Snr’s photo of the stage in the moment of anticipation before the concert begins.

“Wonderful”, “awesome”,” inspirational” were just a few of the words heard in response to the premier performance of Three Sides of Love and Death. After more than a decade of development, this was the clearest exposition yet of Richard’s vision to demonstrate the wealth of international musical talent residing in western Sydney and how societies are profoundly enriched by the cross-cultural explorations of traditions and spiritual practices. It turns on its head the demonisation of those seeking asylum in Australia and transcends the fear of difference.

Sydney Sacred Music Festival continues in many venues until September 21. Three Sides of Love and Death can be heard again as part of Parramasala, Prince Alfred Park, Parramatta, Sunday, October19, at 8pm.