Tag Archives: cmvic

Intercultural Collaboration: An Ocean of Possibilities

Dr Laura Brearley

Intercultural collaboration is a slippery and elusive art. I find it a spacious and revealing place to work. It sings to me and draws me in and on. I think it was a mixture of naivety and courage that led me to working in this field. I am a singer, song-writer and creative researcher with an Anglo-Celtic and Scandinavian heritage. What I have learned over the years is that an ocean of possibilities is available when we open our hearts and take the risk to make genuine contact.

Anything can emerge when trust is laced with risk. What we share and what makes us different has room to come alive. There are no formulas for success and this, I think, is a good thing. The riskiness of it keeps us awake and alert.

The capacity to listen and the qualities of trust, respect and openness are central to fruitful intercultural arts collaborations. This is never more so than when the intercultural collaborations are between First Nation community members and people from other cultural backgrounds. We work together against the backdrop of colonisation, the massacres and government policies of enforced dispossession and attempted cultural genocide. The impact of these policies continues today and are evident in disproportionate rates of incarceration and inequities in health, economic and educational opportunities. The list of inequities goes on and is still being experienced by First Nation peoples in Australia and across the world. 

There are many compelling reasons why trust takes a long time to build in intercultural collaborations. Collaborations across cultures can create a bridge for connection, but it can be a perilous crossing. The potential risks of neo-colonial appropriation and misunderstanding are ever-present. The space in-between is where reconciliation can occur.

I have come to see that trust is everything. It is slowly gained and easily lost. Trust is what keeps the conversation alive. There are so many reasons not to trust in this world but in my experience, a kind of magic emerges from the in-between spaces when music and art are involved and an interdisciplinary approach is taken. A spaciousness appears. The reasons not to trust will always be there, but creative engagement and active participation can enable people to see and be seen, to hear and be heard. This is what bridges are made of and this, I believe, is why the work is worth doing. 

There was an opportunity to have a direct experience of these in-between spaces at the Intercultural Arts Program of the Island Whale Festival, held on the 5th – 7th July in Cowes on Phillip Island. The Island Whale Festival, now in its third year, celebrates the arrival of humpback whales and southern right whales in the coastal waters off Phillip Island as they migrate north to the warmer waters off Queensland.

The Intercultural Arts Program of the Island Whale Festival was designed to bring people of all ages and cultural backgrounds together through music, art, science and a love of the natural world. Steve Parker named the Intercultural Arts Program of the 2019 Island Whale Festival, ‘Balert Yirramboi’, which translates as ‘Strong Future’, literally ‘Strong Tomorrow’. Steve is a Traditional Custodian, an artist and musician and one of the Directors of the Yowengarra Bun Wurrung Balug Clans Aboriginal Corporation. Steve has lived on Millowl (Phillip Island) all his life.

Activities of ‘Balert Yirramboi’ included Ceremonies, Drumming Circles, Music and Dance, Song Circles, Song Exchanges, Concerts, a Street Parade and a Collaborative Artspace weaving together music, art and science. Elders and Special Guest Artists lead the activities, all of which were designed to deepen intercultural understanding, strengthen community and raise environmental awareness.

The 2019 Intercultural Arts Program of the Island Whale Festival was auspiced by Community Music Victoria, an organisation dedicated to bringing people together and strengthening communities through the power of music.

Here’s a link to a short film ‘Singing with Whales’ from the Intercultural Arts Program at the 2018 Island Whale Festival. https://vimeo.com/288066243

We acknowledge the power and beauty of the Bunurong/Boon Wurrung Country on which this event takes place. We honour and thank all the Ancestors and Elders who have lived on this land and sung it into being the strong place that it is.

Dr Laura Brearley leads a song at the 2018 CMVic Music Camp

**The latter part of this article was updated by CMVic on August 1, to reflect the fact that the 2019 Whale Festival is now a past event.

Advertisements

On the radio

by Kylie Whyte

I love the radio.  I love the way it makes me feel, like it’s just me and whoever is on the waves, having our own private moment.  ‘Course that’s probably because I mostly listen to the radio in my car, or through headphones while I’m walking. I laugh, I cry, I groan and shake my head in disbelief, and no one else knows why I’m doing that.  It’s a moment of private, concentrated listening. 

Radio National is my main source of news and commentary on the world, and I’m ok with that.  But community radio.. well that’s really special.  To me, community radio is inherently political, because it is people taking back control of what is transmitted over the waves. 

People meeting people, talking to people, organising for change, interpreting the world around them.  All within a fairly strict legislative framework mind you, but still…it’s people power, and I love it!

Since moving to Geelong I feel much more inclined to get involved in community events and activities.  It’s smaller and more like a country town than a big city, and I like that.  So last year I enrolled in an introduction to radio broadcasting course through 94.7 The Pulse FM.  For eight Monday nights I dragged myself along after work, battling exhaustion and hunger, and learnt about how to ‘do’ radio.  It was fun, but I wasn’t sure where to go from there.  One thing I did learn was how much work it takes to have your own show, and that dampened my enthusiasm a little at the time.

But life became a little freer for me, and I approached The Pulse earlier this year, asking if I could volunteer on a show.  And so I was led to Kickarts, Chris Bryan’s show about all things arty in Geelong and surrounds.  My intention from the start was to bring a focus on Community Arts, as Chris has more of a focus on the professional arts, and to look at making radio documentaries.  So for the first month or so I came onto the show every week and did the Arts News segment, as well as providing a couple of interviews for the show.  I loved getting to meet artists and gallery owners, as well as interviewing people involved in community arts.

Suddenly I found myself handed two shows to do on my own.  Exciting! Scary! I decided the first show would focus on singing, and interviewed Kym Dillon, a supremely talented musician who leads a few With One Voice choirs including With Once Voice Geelong, through Creativity Australia, and who has been involved with Community Music Victoria a great deal in the past.  We had a great chat, and I went to a rehearsal to record some vox pops with choir members. What a joyous atmosphere Kym creates as a singing leader!  I edited it all down and spent hours in the studio trying to put together the show.  After a few mishaps that saw me losing hours of work in a botched attempt to save my edits I decided I was going to have to wing it on the day.  And wing it I did, with two musicians coming in at short notice to do a live interview about their forthcoming concert on the music of Hildegard de Bingen.  Yes there was dead air…a  few short periods of it as I struggled to coordinate faders and buttons and the quirks of iTunes…but overall I was pretty proud that I had got through a show alive and not humiliated.

My second show was focused on the sea, with an interview with Lighthouse Arts Collective in Point Lonsdale and a phone interview with Bryce Ives, the director of a play reading happening at Queenscliff Literary Festival.  The first half of the show went well, and I silently congratulated myself on remembering all the transitions.  But after pride…..well, you know the rest.  While setting up the phone interview with Bryce I forgot to turn off the microphone, so everybody listening heard a very strange version of Ina Wroldsen’s song ‘Sea’, complete with me talking and laughing the whole way through. Mortified. But still, I mostly did a good job, and I’m inspired to keep working to improve my skills. 

My hope is that through radio I can promote the stories of people living and working and making music and other art in the community. 

I want to delve into what inspires people to create, and to support the voices of people who are not usually represented in the arts. 

Who knows..maybe there will be radio documentaries in my future…probably there will be the occasional dead air…but I hope I will never leave my microphone on at the wrong time again!

Kylie is an ESL teacher, community worker and musician, and was once involved on the Board of CMVic.  She is passionate about the power of music to connect, communicate and empower people, and hopes to start some singing groups in Geelong. 

Stand up for justice with ‘Every Dollar’, a fair trade song.

It takes just over four days for a CEO from the top five companies in the garment sector to earn what an ordinary Bangladeshi woman garment worker earns in her whole lifetime. Source: Oxfam International

When faced with a bargain, it’s tempting to overlook the uncomfortable question of who’s actually picking up the tab if we’re not paying a fair price for what goes into our bag.  Employees at garment factories work six days a week, often for less than USD$1 per hour. Workers are under pressure to meet daily targets and work long days with barely any breaks and their health and safety is not considered a priority by their employers.

In a bid to increase awareness of this exploitation and to address the inherent power we hold as consumers, community singing leaders and musicians, Jessie Vintila, and Emma Royle, wrote a song called ‘Every Dollar’.

The goal of the song is for singers and audience to actually change the way they are shopping, and to be inspired to notice their power and to use that power for good.

In the words of Jessie, “it’s about going ‘wow every time I spend a dollar, I’m communicating something, I’m either communicating, ‘yay’ I want that business to succeed, or I really don’t want that business to succeed… We go along being complicit and supportive of a whole lot of things that, if we stopped to think about, we’d find morally reprehensible.”

Jessie’s community choir, ‘Raise the Roof’ sang Every Dollar at Mullumbimby Music Festival in 2016. Throughout the course of rehearsing and performing the song, many of the singers told Jessie how their experience of learning and singing the words was actually changing the way they shopped and many were switching to fair trade options, where they could.

This is precisely the outcome Jessie and Emma had hoped would happen each time the song is taught, learned, sung and heard. While progress in the bigger picture can feel slow, Every Dollar is a reminder about taking small steps in the right direction and doing what we can as a community to support the liberty and rights of workers in the clothing industry and beyond, whenever we can. The recent announcement by Kmart, Cotton On and Target to ‘strengthen their commitment to a living wage for their clothes makers in response to the Oxfam initiative, ‘What she makes’ is testimony to the effectiveness of this approach. These outcomes are in direct response to action and pressure from shoppers who have had enough of the injustice.

Jessie applauds consumer activism of this nature: “What I love about consumer power is that you don’t have to be fighting; you don’t have to be campaigning, you don’t actually have to be doing anything other than making conscious choices when spending your money. And you know you’re doing something really powerful but it doesn’t give you the burn out feeling that other forms of activism can do over time. It’s completely sustainable at a personal level.”

Jessie and Emma were thorough in their research for the song and the verses about Ranya the seamstress and Abdul the cotton picker from India are both based on real stories and statistics.

Activism runs in Jessie’s blood. She grew up in an environment where accountability and sound ethics were highly valued. “I remember as a child, a friend of my parents’ being all excited about finding a woman down the road in a suburb of Perth who worked in a Vietnamese clothing place and could make t-shirts. At the time I didn’t get why she was so excited about what I thought were these really boring T-shirts!”

Jessie’s now adamant about sourcing fair trade clothing herself and has t shirts for her Raise the Roof choirs and her Sing the Camino* tours made by fair trade manufacturers. This anecdote about T-shirts is a lovely testimony to the outcome of conduct and influence. The repercussions of the choices we make and the effect of the songs we sing ripple out into the world in ways we can never know.  So, in the words penned by Jessie and Emma, lets ‘Stand up for justice, Turn every dollar to good’. (Full song below)

Every Dollar                      Lyrics: Emma Royle & Jessie Vintila
Music from Rarely Herd’s version of Mary Don’t You Weep (Spiritual)

Chorus

Every dollar sends a message
Every dollar plays a hand
For somebody somewhere
Think of the people and the land
Oh, well singin’, if I could
You know that I should, I surely should
Stand up for justice, stand up for justice
Turn every dollar to good

Well Ranya was a seamstress
In a Dhaka factory
Worked fifteen hours seven days of the week
Can’t feed her family

Well Abdul picked the cotton
In the fields of Gujarat
Eight years old, twelve hours a day
Forced out of school to work

Well Wendy clothes her family
From her favourite shops in town
Pays the money never stopping to think
How they keep their prices down

Every dollar sends a message
Every dollar plays a hand
For somebody somewhere
Think of the people and the land
Oh, well singin’, if I could
You know that I should, I surely should
Stand up for justice, stand up for justice
Turn every dollar to good

References:
https://whatshemakes.oxfam.org.au/
https://www.vox.com/2018/2/27/17016704/living-wage-clothing-factories
https://www.oxfam.org/en/even-it/one-pair-shoes-we-make-valued-more-our-whole-months-salary

By Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with Jessie Vintila. Thank you, Jessie! 

*You can ‘Sing the Camino’ with Jessie Vintila in Brunswick on Saturday, 23 March: 2-5pm! (Hosted by the Brunswick Rogues Choir). Info and bookings: https://www.singthecamino.com/singing-workshops.html

The story of ‘Lingmarra’ and the CMVic network

**This article and the following story contains references to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people who have died. It also contains words from the language of Australian Kriol. Permission has been sought and given for its use in this context.

Lingmarra, a beautiful song about coming together was brought to the CMVic network by  Barlang T. E. Lewis*, a Murrungun man, actor, singer and songwriter from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, who first learned it as a traditional song from the Dalabon Corroborree, Bongiliny Bongiliny.

Lingmarra is a song which enchants singers and listeners alike and one which Flip Case, a Melbourne based singing leader has taught to singing groups many times:

“It’s a song that feels ethereal and earthy at the same time, there’s something elemental about it, you feel transported by it and my choirs always respond to it really strongly.”

A couple of years ago, Flip was covering a session with Sue Johnson’s Prana Choir and decided to sing the song with them as she’d recently been teaching it to her own choir.

At the end of the session, a woman called Victoria approached Flip and explained how her partner had been involved in the arrangement of the song, working in collaboration with Barlang T. E. Lewis and another singer-songwriter, Melanie Shanahan.

Flip was immediately intrigued.

“I’d actually only really known the song through Melanie and I thought, wow, that’s an important thing to know about”.

It transpired that Victoria’s partner is Stephen Costello who was then Coordinator of the Community Music Forum and later the Executive Officer of Community Music Victoria. Flip set herself a mission: Work with Stephen to capture the story of how the song was arranged as a way to preserve the provenance of Lingmarra for all of the leaders singing and sharing it, in the CMVic network and beyond.

 “It’s important to have as much understanding as we can. We’re always talking about provenance and recognition of a song’s origins and whether we’re allowed to use songs for the general population and whether it’s appropriate to use it.”

As so often happens in life, for one reason and another, the two never quite got around to the task. Then, following the sad news of  Barlang T. E. Lewis’ passing last year, Flip decided it was time: “I thought, Stephen’s the last one to really tell the story of how that song came about”.

Below is a version of Lingmarra overlaid with lyrics by Barlang T. E. Lewis; upon listening to this version, the way he extends it becomes clear. (From this point on, the story becomes a personal recollection, and Barlang T. E. Lewis is referred to as ‘T’.)

Stephen explains, “T added to the traditional song in so many ways. The call to the young people Aair yawodi is his idea and this is Kriol. When the old people sing Lingmarra gumbah they are not sad. They are having fun. T added his story to the song, which is about his search for his brother, but also about travelling through his “church”, the country and communities of southern Arnhem land.”

The version of Lingmarra taught by Melanie and included in the CMVic Songbook, Sing itis the chorus of the song, “part traditional and part T”.

What follows then is an account by Stephen of his part in the arrangement of the song as it was sung by Barlang T E Lewis, written in response to Flip’s quest.

Lingmarra Story, as told by Stephen Costello

“Before Community Music Victoria was incorporated, there was a group called the Community Music Forum and we operated under the auspice of the Community Arts Network (Victoria). In 1990 I was the Coordinator of the ‘Forum and one of the first events we held was called “Everything you wanted to know about Aboriginal Music but were afraid to ask”. (Barlang) T. E. Lewis was our guest speaker. He was well known as an actor (The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith) and as a musician with Lewis and Young (didgeridoo and clarinet) and his own original band, ‘The Anthropologists’.

T was brilliant, honest, charming, compelling and generous with listening to our questions and responding with stories and facts. This was the beginning of our friendship and collaboration.

As I shook T’s hand in appreciation after the ‘Forum, he said “Stephen. Let’s do something really big together.”

I joined The Anthropologists as a guitarist. I travelled to Canberra with T for a Music Council of Australia Conference. In the car T sang the Country as we drove along. In the hotel room we co-wrote This is My Country. A few years later, Community Music Victoria was formed, and then Melanie Shanahan came to town. CMVic backed Melanie to stage The Choral Sea in the Great Hall of National Gallery of Victoria. T and I taught This is My Country to Melanie and Melanie taught and conducted the massed community choirs. This was in the late 1990s.  (It was a bit before the Great Southern Sounds Festival and the Millennium Chorus.)

Community Music Victoria won a grant from the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council to support T to record his music. T and I played with The Anthropologists and we started to work with classical guitar and didgeridoo. T had bought a new F# didgeridoo (called Bambu or Yidaki in Yolngu country) and we started to harmonise with this.  I asked Melanie Shanahan to work with T on some of his songs in the development and pre-recording stage.

The three of us worked out simple harmonies for three songs. Lingmarra, with the F# Yidaki was one of these. At this stage it was just a chorus with guitar and Yidaki in between. Then T had to go home to southern Arnhem Land to help out during some major flooding around Beswick (Wugularr) and the Roper River. He came back to Melbourne inspired and knowing that he was needed in his community at Beswick (Wugularr). But first we had to get into the studio to record.

I put down the guitar part for Lingmarra, and then T, Mel and I sang the choruses. T said “I can sing over that”. Melanie and I and the sound engineer were treated to an improvised one-take recording where T sang his heart out. The playful calling together, Lingmarra, lingmarra gumbah became instead a deeply heartfelt searching for T’s lost brother. T re-voiced his time travelling around Arnhem Land searching for his left-handed brother (ballajugor). He calls for all the young people (yawadi) to help him, to walk and sing with him calling the spirit (warral) to come and be with him.

This is mostly in the Kriol spoken in this part of the Northern Territory. Thanks to Gloria Lane from Beswick (Wugularr) for her partial translation of the song. Kriol is a new language developed by multilingual Aboriginal people. It uses many English sounds, because English is the language of the colonialists, the pastoralists and the missionaries, but also words and ideas from the old languages of the people drawn to Beswick (Wugularr). These languages are Dalabon, Rembarrnga, Mialli, Ritharngu/Wagaluk, Jingili, Gorindji, Ngalakan, Marra, and Nungulbuyu. Kriol is the meeting place language between all of these and English.

I will keep working with Gloria to get a fuller translation and a deeper understanding. Why is T calling only the young people to help in this search? Is it to show respect to the old people, who we have no right to ask to help? I think so. Does T call his brother “the left-handed one” and not use his name because he suspects he has died and therefore he can’t use his name? Or is it just the game people play in Arnhem Land of not using names because they are more interested in relationships and kinship and skin names? It will be fun to find out.

What we do know is that Melanie taught the chorus of the song in schools and to community choirs all over Australia, and it has become part of our folk tradition with the continued support of Community Music Victoria. That’s the part of the Lingmarra story that I know about.”

-Stephen Costello 

Deep gratitude to both Stephen Costello and Flip Case for bringing this beautiful story into the light and sharing it with the CMVic network.

Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria. 

*In recognition of his extraordinary life, the family of  Barlang T. E. Lewis has given permission for the use of his image and voice by the media.

Further links to Lingmarra

Auslan signing for the song “Lingmarra” as part of the VoiceMob project, produced by Yarra Ranges Council.


Further reading:

The Conversation: ‘Explainer: the largest language spoken exclusively in Australia – Kriol’ 
https://theconversation.com/explainer-the-largest-language-spoken-exclusively-in-australia-kriol-56286

How playing an instrument benefits your brain – TED Ed

This TED Ed video is as engaging and share-worthy today as it was when it was very first published.  It’s a great incentive for anyone wondering whether to dust off an old instrument or pick up a new one for the first time. It’s also the perfect incentive to practise! If you’re looking for new music-making opportunities yourself, try the group search section of the CMVic website and get a party going in your own brain.

When you listen to music, multiple areas of your brain become engaged and active. But when you actually play an instrument, that activity becomes more like a full-body brain workout. What’s going on? In this TedTalks video from 2014, Anita Collins explains the fireworks that go off in musicians’ brains when they play, and examines some of the long-term positive effects of this mental workout. [Directed by Sharon Colman Graham, narrated by Addison Anderson, music by Peter Gosling].

Source: https://www.ted.com/talks/anita_collins_how_playing_an_instrument_benefits_your_brain?language=en#t-8963

Full transcript available here

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Rhythms & Beats Drum up Community Connection in Hurstbridge

When Annie Fletcher and her family moved back from WA to Melbourne, Hurstbridge seemed a nice spot at the end of the train line. It wasn’t until they’d been living there a few months that Annie realised the rich arts community they’d been fortunate to move into.

Keen to get into more hand-drumming, Annie decided to hook into the local scene, in particular the regular jamming sessions at St Andrew’s market, which at that time had a weekly drum circle. This lead to a conversation with the local neighbourhood house about starting a beginners group and, fourteen years later as Drum Connection, the beat goes on.

“I wasn’t a particularly experienced drummer at that time but, because I’d been a teacher for many years, I used my teaching skills to work out what I wanted to teach and how and it just grew from there. My intrinsic love of rhythm had also been honed over many years with my passion and tertiary study in Dance.”

Numbers were low to start with, but running the group gave Annie an opportunity to assimilate into the community, “it helped me find my place and it was just so rewarding”.

Participation in the new group continued to grow with spots of natural fluctuation, but the community music experience continued as a weekly dose of positive good fun.

“I always say there are no mistakes in the drumming, there are just variations on a theme and a bit of jamming is fine. People like that and if they struggle with a particular rhythm, they can just play the first beat of each bar or the main beats of the rhythm and when the finishing call comes, they can whack the drum again and finish with the group, so it’s accessible to all.”

Drum. worksh.18.DSC_2895 copy 2
Keeping the beat at a Drum Connection workshop

Annie has found that some drummers just keep coming back while others take time out and return after an extended break. Consequently, a consistent core has developed with several drummers having earned themselves a Drum Connection ‘10 Year badge’!

“Over the years we’ve built up a community which is really very special and the group always welcomes and nurtures whoever walks through that door.”

Drum Connnection participants vary widely in age, ranging from a few older school-aged kids through to seniors. Everyone jollies each other along, learning, nurturing and playing as a collective group. Annie runs two long sessions, one on Thursday evenings and one on Friday afternoons. Within these sessions, levels 1, 2 and 3 are covered in particular time slots, which allows specific groups to learn layers of the shared rhythms at a complexity appropriate to them.

Drummers are offered an opportunity to perform at community events and when this occurs all of the different drum voices are combined within a structure for the whole rhythm, so that the entire group can play as one ensemble.

DrumConnection. Senior Dun Ensemble.jpg
Drum Connection’s senior Dun ensemble

Annie also likes to introduce a singing element into her workshops, when simple parts of traditional songs can be taught to accompany an appropriate rhythm. Annie saves this ‘surprise’ until around week 3 by which time anyone new has settled in. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘oh you’ll never get me singing but of course, in time, they all sing!”

Occasionally, people will express concern that they lack enough rhythm to join in, and some people certainly find drumming a bit trickier than they expect to, but Annie has found that when she can assist them to relax, the drumming falls into place more easily. A number of drummers come to Drum Connection as part of a personal recovery process. For people who have suffered some sort of trauma, loss, bereavement, separation, anxiety or illness it can be of assistance when they are at a transition phase in their lives. “Often people will say to me afterwards, “that was just the best thing”.

“Some people find they can actually switch off from the big thing in their life because they are concentrating so hard on drumming, others find they can go into this quite meditative state and those people might have one or two rhythms you can see really working for that person and they totally zone out.”

Annie believes it’s unnecessary to highlight the healing or meditative aspects of drumming for discussion in the context of these community classes, preferring to consider these positive outcomes as an added bonus of the experience of participation and rhythms in a shared music-making context:

“People will discover this for themselves, it doesn’t have to be labelled… it can still be having this effect for many people whilst other people are just enjoying the music or the social aspect. Drumming can be different things to different people and we don’t necessarily need to put a label on any of those.”

Kids have joined in with Drum Connection workshops over the years, usually accompanying a parent although not always: “Anyone over the age of around 10 is welcome. I have occasionally had someone as young as 7 and although it’s an adult class there’s no problem them joining in if it works for them. It can be a nice thing for a parent and child to do.”

This month Annie is starting a series of drumming workshops in Hurstbridge specifically for kids, to gauge interest and uptake. “There are some good music programs in the local primary schools but for any kids who can’t get in or are too young, it could offer a good transition… I’ll give it a go and see!”

Article by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with Annie Fletcher 

drum connections


If you would like any more information about these classes or single workshops for specific groups, contact Annie: Mob: 0407 102 578; Email: annie@drumconnection.com.au;  
fb: Drum Connection Aus

 

 

 

 

 

 

A tribute to Ben Leske, by Gillian Howell

How do we measure the legacy of a singing leader? It seems apt that, as I ask myself this question, a song comes to mind:

How many cabs in New York City?

How many angels on a pin?

How many notes in a saxophone?

How many tears in a bottle of gin?

(Paul Kelly, Careless)

How many songs were taught and were shared? How many connections and bonds were formed? How many experiences of being held or embraced in harmony, or of adding one’s voice to a solid-gold, full-bodied unison? There are many ways that a singing leader’s efforts and commitments can be traced. The researcher in me thinks about network analysis, imagines tracing a song on its pathway from leader to choir, from choir members to other leaders, from leaders to leaders. Or tracing connections and friendships, new choirs formed, new leaders inspired.

Benjamin Patrick Leske, musician, composer, researcher, community singing advocate, conductor and choir leader, passed away this month from brain cancer, aged 37. I am not the only one of his friends feeling bereft. There are many others who knew him longer, who had shared more songs and more conversations than I had with him. But in our short friendship, Ben and I bonded. We shared stories from the PhDs in community music that we were both pursuing at the time (his about the experiences of young LGBTQI singers in a Melbourne choir, mine about young music learners in war-torn countries[1]), and we shared our experiences of dealing with the compounding challenges of major illness and treatment during PhD study.

Ben Leske
Ben Leske

The community musician in me remembers Ben teaching the song ‘Let it Go’ (not the one from Frozen, but another, drawn from a Michael Leunig poem and cartoon and set to music by Melbourne composer Suzann Frisk) on the Excursion Day bus during the International Society for Music Education’s Community Music Commission in Edinburgh, July 2016. A colleague sent me her recording of that song-share recently, capturing Ben’s voice as he sang the song line by line, repeating as necessary, with the bus passengers echoing him. “I’ve never told this story to a busload of people before!” he admitted, before sharing the significance of the song with the group. More than one person refers to ‘singing while crying’ in that recording.

More recently, Ben led a pop-up choir in a performance of the same song in the ward of St Vincent’s Hospital where he had been a neuro-oncology patient many times. He donated a framed print of the Michael Leunig cartoon that had made the song so meaningful for him, a print that now hangs on the wall of the ward. Leunig and Frisk joined Ben for this special event.

Singing leaders bring people together to sing, both informally and in more formal structures. Ben conducted many different choirs in Melbourne. One speaker at the memorial service began to list them, and I learned that Ben’s conducting ‘tentacles’ had reached more widely than I knew. I was in the audience for the inaugural performance of the Footscray Community Choir, a choir that he co-founded with pianist Chris Nankervis. It was a lovely, affirming concert. The audience was invited to sing as part of the program, a programming inclusion that spoke to Ben’s commitment to getting people singing and connecting with each other. They performed a superb rendition of “Wonder” by Emeli Sandé. It was the first time I’d heard that song, although I’ve listened to it many times since. Its opening lyrics (“I can beat the night, I’m not afraid of thunder, I am full of light, and I am full of wonder”) bring a lump to my throat now. I can imagine them resonating for Ben, and am sure it was by design, not chance, that he chose a song that would affirm the strength, resilience, and wonder of every one of his singers.

And there were more choir projects planned. One of Ben’s last Facebook updates (20 January 2018) announced, “I’m excited to be working with Newlands Choir (formerly the Carpark Choir) from Monday! P.S. We’re currently recruiting, with vacancies in all sections”. I can remember the excitement with which he spoke about this new project too. Dear Newlands Choir, I’m so sorry you didn’t get to work with this fine musician and conductor. He loved to nurture voices. He would have been so committed to you.

How many stars in the Milky Way?

How many ways can you lose a friend?

Paul Kelly’s song drifts away from me at this point—it is impossible to imagine Benjamin Leske being a ‘careless’ friend to anyone. His memorial service filled one of Melbourne’s largest cathedrals, and friends and family in turn spoke of this kind, gentle, generous, funny, determined colussus of a man, sharing stories of the intrepid traveler and “Germanophile” who was an exchange student in Germany and studied in Freiburg, retaining many deep friendships there; the studious, contemplative, and curious young man who spent time living in a monastery in Cambodia; the organiser, devoted to Excel spreadsheets; the International Relations specialist who nurtured and realised his longheld desire to conduct, to compose, and to spread music and joy; the man in his prime, forced to confront his mortality and who reframed the diagnosis as an opportunity to live more fully, focusing on what really matters; the activist and advocate for brain cancer research, gay pride, and community singing; the beloved son, brother, godfather, friend; the loving partner and husband of Khang Chiem.

The songs keep coming. At the memorial service I learned that Ben was a huge Kylie Minogue fan. But I am a little older than him and ABBA comes to mind more quickly: “Thank you for the music, the songs I’m singing. Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing. Who could live without it? I ask in all honesty – what would life be? Without a song or a dance, what are we?” Towards the end of the wake, most of the remaining guests gathered on the stage to sing a song (from ‘Wicked’) that was new to me, but seemed so perfect and poignant for a celebration of this young man’s life. “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”

How much good in a single song? So, so much good. Go gently, Ben would say. Live fully. Love generously. And keep singing.

[1] Ben submitted his PhD in August 2017 and graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Melbourne in December 2017. I submitted mine in December 2017 and am nervously awaiting examiners’ reports.

Gillian Howell
March 2018

Sick of shopping? 10 reasons to give the gift of music and song, this season

 

  • It repeats on you only in positive ways and doesn’t get stuck in your teeth
  • It’s more effective than mistletoe in bringing people together
  • Music doesn’t kill your fingers all the way home from the shops in a bag about to break
  • It’s perfect shared with friends and there’s always enough to go around
  • It’s eco-friendly! Singing and music making requires neither gift wrap nor cellotape
  • Music won’t sit around gathering dust and is brilliant to re-gift
  • Your jeans may fit even better after a month of singing and musical indulgence
  • Instead of breaking after five minutes, it gets better and lasts a lifetime
  • No ransacking of the house is necessary for batteries or dice
  • Making music and singing is good for the heart, soul, health and well-being of yourself, your pals, your Aunty Sheila, and your community too

3 ways to give the gift of music and song with Community Music Victoria (we’ve got this covered):

  • Sign up your family, friends and neighbours to the CMVic monthly giving circle for a gift that gives all year
  • Renew your annual membership to Community Music Victoria for twelve months of music making benefits, including membership discounts on all events, camps and workshop bookings, and a range of wonderful resources
  • Make a one-off donation to Community Music Victoria. All donations over $2 are tax deductible so you’ll get another little gift in June.

Music is better made together:

Any donation you make can help ensure that more singing and instrumental music leaders get the skills they need to establish more groups, and that special projects like Voices of PeaceStreetSoundsSinging from Country, and That Girl can bring more music to more people who need it in their lives.

Deb Carveth, online editor Community Music Victoria.
December 2017