City Recital Hall, January 25


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Paul Grabowsky, Daniel Wilfred and David Wilfred. Photo: Jamie Williams

Here was a decade-long collaboration stripped back to something elemental: just Daniel Wilfred’s voice and bilma (clapsticks), David Wilfred’s yidaki (didjeridu) and Paul Grabowsky’s piano. At the end Grabowsky described the Wilfred brothers (from South East Arnhem Land) as his favourite musicians with whom to work because “they do something nobody else can do. This is our music.”

The collaboration certainly re-contextualises both Grabowsky’s improvising and Wagilak traditional songs. The latter are suddenly awash with harmony, and the piano improvisations now emerge from a musical landscape not just half a world away from American jazz, but one that is part of a culture thousands of millennia old. This is one of art’s great gifts: to provide insight into the minds and hearts of people separated not just by geography, race, faith or culture, but by time.

Daniel Wilfred’s singing was as startling as a lightning bolt. Coarse-grained and braying like some ancient reed instrument, his voice was also incandescent, blazing a trail across the yidaki’s earthy drone. Yet, for all the implicit drama of the sound, the singing itself was often relatively restrained, as if there were no call to make too big a fuss about living, loving, observing, grieving, laughing and dying to people who have shared those things for 60,000 years. Aesthetically it was sometimes a shame, however, that Daniel’s trebly bilma were the trio’s loudest sound.

Unlike that of so many practitioners (whether busking, in concert or at ceremonies), David Wilfred’s yidaki playing largely eschewed ornamentation in a favour of a mesmerising warmth, width and beauty of sound. His drones defined the tonalities around which Grabowsky spun his inventions. Sometimes these inventions – wondrous in their own right, especially harmonically – emphasised rather than bridged the musical gulf. They could seem as out of place as an abstract expressionist image would in the stained glass window of a medieval cathedral. Yet the very improbability of this juxtaposition held its own interest, and certainly warded off any chance of predictability infecting the music amid the many confluences.