Eric Avery’s Aboriginal music response to the British Museum’s Reimagining Captain Cook exhibition

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It’s both easy and hard to describe this free one-off musical event which took place in the Great Court atrium of the British Museum on 1st March in the evening. The ‘easy’ version is that it is fusion music – Australian Aboriginal language and sounds blending with the music of Cook’s Europe, particularly the violin. But the truth is more complicated than that. This is a reimagining of how the ‘first contact’ might have sounded like if they had come together to make art and music, what they might have learnt from each other, how they might have collaborated and engaged with each other in a more respectful way.

The event represented the launch of the programme for Border Crossings’ ORIGINS Festival 2019, a multidisciplinary festival of indigenous arts in London, focusing on intercultural dialogue & showcasing the very best artistic work from First Nations communities across the globe. I was initially sceptical about the setting: there is no denying that the British Museum is a building designed to celebrate the Empire. While its original purpose was to showcase all the world under one roof, there was undoubtedly an element of ‘othering’ and displaying the ‘exotic’ there. But then I came to realise that this was the whole point: moving away from artefacts and allowing indigenous people’s voices to be heard, instead of viewing them solely as ‘objects on display’.

Eric Avery is a Ngiyampaa, Yuin and Gumbangirr artist, who plays the violin, dances and composes music. Working since childhood with his family’s traditional language and songs, he then learnt classical music by ear and then trained at the Australian Institute of Music. Equally comfortable with technology, Bach, Irish fiddles and hymns as he is with clapsticks, Aboriginal song and bird calls, Eric produces music unlike anything you might have heard before.

The solemn notes of church music played on the violin in the first piece Bach/Bark soon gave way to a plethora of voices (achieved through a looper), till it sounded like an orchestra of violins playing together in a canon, with occasional sharp cries and call outs from Eric himself, as if he was commenting on the music, using exclamation marks. The second piece, Thipinku Yuwii, introduced a call/response of two voices, one treble, one bass, imitating bird calls, sometimes shrill and strident, later harmonising beautifully. I was amazed at the variety of sounds that the simple clapsticks can produce. The last piece, Galinga, had a slower, almost hypnotic rhythm. It derives from a traditional rain song and Eric explained that it’s a frequently recurring theme in his compositions.

Although we are often told that music is a universal language, the truth is it takes time and patient explanation to appreciate a completely unfamiliar approach to music-making. At times it can feel like a hard slog rather than a joyous occasion. That was not at all the case here: Eric reminded us that music is fun and that a genuine dialogue between cultures makes all of us richer… and ready to party!

Border Crossings’ ORIGINS Festival of First Nations runs at various venues throughout London (including Southbank Centre, The Globe) from June 10th 2019 to June 23rd 2019. For more information and to buy tickets visit http://www.originsfestival.com

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