1967: Music in the Key of Yes

Concert Hall, January 17


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Yirrmal Marika. Photo: Prudence Upton/Sydney Festival.

The 1967 referendum was merely a start, but it remains loaded with symbolism. Now, as its fiftieth anniversary approaches and the mood for further change – even a treaty – is in the air, this performance exuded a healthy optimism as it celebrated in song that belated starting-point for constitutional recognition of the First Australians, the subsequent gains and the countless disappointments.

Nine singers and a six-piece band explored songs by Indigenous artists, songs relating to the quest for equality (including US civil rights anthems), and a couple of hits from 1967. Meanwhile two big screens showed images and such footage from the time as interviews with blacks and whites about the referendum. Despite 90% support bigotry was never far away, with one magnanimous “yes” voter’s summation being: “It can’t do them any harm. It might do them some good.”

With strong voices and boundless conviction crowding the stage, Arnhem Land’s Yirrmal Marika, a grandson of Yothu Yindi’s Dr Yunupingu, stood out. His wailing, braying, beautiful singing, whether on traditional or non-traditional material, drew us into the riches of this ancient culture with thrilling impact.

He was in some heavyweight company, with Leah Flanagan, Dan Sultan, Emily Wurramara, Radical Son, Adalita, Alice Skye, Ursula Yovich and Thelma Plum all having their chances to shine. Radical Son delivered searing versions of Archie Roach’s Took the Children Away and Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come. Inevitably My Island Home, Solid Rock (Sacred Ground) and Treaty made appearances, the latter having especial resonance in a concert celebrating constitutional change.

The band, led by Melbourne trombonist Jordan Murray, included the exceptional guitarist Stephen Magnusson, whose every solo was a gem. Yet between band and singers sometimes insufficient energy was generated to be quite as contagious as it should have been.

The impressive Sultan led the full cast for the Beatles’ A Little Help From My Friends (leaning heavily on Joe Cocker’s version), and it certainly felt like everyone in the room was a friend on this night.