30 November 2021

Navigating a complex history: Songs from a Stolen Senate

| Michael Sollis
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Susan Ellis from The Griffyn Ensemble.

Susan Ellis from The Griffyn Ensemble. Photo: Supplied.

During the past 12 months, The Griffyn Ensemble has collaborated with eight of Australia’s leading First Nations creators, transforming words spoken in Australian Parliament into song for Songs from a Stolen Senate.

Having these artists generously share their take on national identity, with topics ranging from climate change to genocide, is a humbling experience.

“It is a way to respond to this issue of deaths in custody and have power – to protest and voice our stories,” says Yuin composer Brenda Gifford.

As a 35-year-old white Canberran, how do these First Nations perspectives impact my creativity and life as an Australian? What right do I have to answer such a question when I am steeped in white male privilege?

This question was posed to me when Songs from a Stolen Senate was first performed online last year. The reception was extremely positive, however we were also confronted by sinister groups on social media who directed vitriol towards us and First Nations Australians for promoting these works.

I won’t repeat such awful comments, but will say it was an eye-opening experience. I’ll never know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of a First Nations Australian, but this made me wonder what it must be like to have to deal with such hatred every day just because of the colour of one’s skin.

One provocative comment about our artistic exchange stood out: “Isn’t this a bit of a oxymoron… ur stating issues of Aboriginal culture while u have a all white band… seems ur just having a ride on ye old bandwagon? [sic]”.

Perhaps the comment was motivated by vitriol, but it also asked a confronting question: as a white Australian, what relationship do I have to the tens of thousands of years of culture in this country, and to its custodians?

As the comment correctly identifies, the performers in Songs from a Stolen Senate are white Australians, and the composers are First Nations Australians. It is a challenging distinction since we are all artists who want to work with one another and share perspectives with a broader public.

The project draws together artists who are long-term collaborators, and these collaborations are not determined by the colours of our skin, but by an alignment of creative spirits that develops through artistic exchange – one that can’t be planned or sought.

Members of The Griffyn Ensemble performing.

The Griffyn Ensemble performing. Photo: Supplied.

For example, Griffyn Ensemble performers Chris Stone and Holly Downes have worked with Noongar singer-songwriters Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse for years. Hearing them write music to the words, “They have no word for stolen, they have no word for freedom, what kind of civilisation is this?” affords a depth of insight into our history that we could not otherwise experience.

Performing the sounds of eucalypt leaves to signal the historic Barunga Statement between Bob Hawke and First Nations leaders, as written by Dharug composer Christopher Sainsbury, is breathtaking. These spine-chilling works arise from collaborations between likeminded artists that explore our national psyche.

Are these works informed by the artist’s unique voice, or is this because of their First Nations background, as the original comment alluded to? No doubt it is both, but does it matter? Would Jimmy Barnes be the same artist if not for his cultural upbringing in the slums of Glasgow?

We are all influenced by our background and stories. In addition to their incredible artistry, which should be considered national treasures, these artists bring culture and knowledge from the longest living history on the planet, combined with culture and knowledge from their Anglo-Celtic heritage, as Aranda country music legend Warren Williams keenly points out.

By listening to such voices, perhaps we will share perspectives that bring us all closer to the land, history and spirit of the country we reside in. If collaborating with these artists means jumping on a bandwagon, then so be it – it’s one I hope you can join us on.

Michael Sollis from The Griffyn Ensemble.

Michael Sollis, centre, from The Griffyn Ensemble. Photo: Supplied.

Great art affords discoveries and insights into ourselves and the world around us. For me, reconnecting with Ngunnawal artist Richie Allan – who I had played football with more than a decade ago – was a life-changing experience, and gave me an awareness and connection to the culture of the land where I was born, something I have embarrassingly not felt in my white-privileged upbringing.

Regardless of background, perhaps art and creativity gives us all the chance to listen to each other and connect to the land where we live.

Surely we will be more richer for having done so.

Songs from a Stolen Senate will have its live performance premiere at The Theatre, Belconnen Arts Centre, at 7 pm on Saturday, 13 March, 2021. Tickets are currently available here.

Michael Sollis is Director of The Griffyn Ensemble.

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georgiesouth11:34 pm 09 Apr 21

We were lucky to hear this concert online last week and were gobsmacked. Seeing musicians from cross-cultures together on stage exploring these tough issues was inspired. It’s caused our family to move out of our comfort zone and hear more from these Aboriginal musicians who wrote the music, as well as some deep conversations round the dinner table.

Please do more of this – you’ve won us over, and Australia needs more voices for reconciliation.

This whole article is just racist and sows division. Shameful that the site would publish it.

rationalobserver8:09 am 09 Mar 21

I dont think I’ve ever read such drivel before in my life.
Is it a product of hotel quarantine and a mini bar by chance?
Please, stop driving the wedge in farther for the sake of your artistic ego.

russianafroman10:59 pm 08 Mar 21

Cool virtue signalling and race-baiting to get clicks

Capital Retro7:14 pm 08 Mar 21

This is too deep for me – I can’t reconcile what is being argued.

It’s cross-cultural and inter-cultural collaboration. No different to many football teams or workplaces, for example.

“Isn’t this a bit of a oxymoron… ur stating issues of Aboriginal culture while u have a all white band… seems ur just having a ride on ye old bandwagon? [sic]”.

Should English musicians play music composed by Germans (or visa versus)? Should people from Indian play music composed in France (or visa versus)? Should anyone be able to play music composed by people of other ethnic groups?

Sounds like a big US influence in those comments. Us/them. Tribalism. Seeing a lot of that on the net from Americans. I despair to see these comments appearing in Australia. Let us all partake and share and appreciate music. Learn about our music and along the way appreciate each others cultures.

” … as a white Australian, what relationship do I have to the tens of thousands of years of culture in this country, and to its custodians?”
A very good question – but one that can also be asked from different perspectives:
– As a person born from indigenous persons, what relationship do I have […]?”
– As a person born from indigenous persons from the other side of the country, what relationship […]?
Answering those questions can provide an answer to your original question – by learning the lore and knowledge, and connecting with the land you can have a very productive relationship with the tens of thousands of years of culture in this country, and its custodians.
Connection to the land is not just an indigenous privilege – but as a continuous culture they have been practicing it for lot longer than Europeans have to their countries. But as individuals, they have been practicing it for their lifetime and this is something we can all participate in.

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