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Songs of renewal

WHEN Lou Bennett performs beside the Maribyrnong River in Footscray next month, it will be the latest step in an emotional journey through time and language. As part of the Black Arm Band's acclaimed dirtsong, Bennett will be singing words written by Alexis Wright, the Miles Franklin award-winning author of Carpentaria.

Bennett, the Black Arm Band's part-time artistic director and a long-term member of the ever-evolving ensemble of indigenous and non-indigenous artists, describes Wright's text, which was commissioned for dirtsong, as an ongoing inspiration. ''It's so poetic, it sings from the heart and it's so articulate, so intelligent,'' she says. ''The kinds of ideas she can get across in her written words have really inspired all of us to continue writing in whatever form that is, whether it be music or journals or books or plays. She's quite an amazing character.''

The January 19 performance of dirtsong will be the culmination of the Footscray Community Arts Centre's Wominjeka (Welcome) Festival, which kicks off on January 11. From humble beginnings two years ago, next month's festival boasts an expanded, nine-day program of performances, celebrations, workshops, ceremonies, forums, exhibitions and film screenings that showcase the thriving indigenous arts and cultural scene.

In the glorious riverside surrounds of an arts centre that has become a local institution, this year's program includes everything from hip-hop workshops for young people to exhibitions and on-site demonstrations by master weavers, a program of contemporary films by Wayne Blair (The Sapphires) and Warwick Thornton (Samson & Delilah) among many others, and a family day community lunch that welcomes to the neighbourhood recently arrived refugees and asylum seekers.

The dirtsong performance is the last chance local audiences will have to see the ground-breaking show before its US debut in New York on February 22. The show has been touring extensively since it premiered to packed houses at the 2009 Melbourne Festival.

Dirtsong is a meditation on connection to country and the myriad associations that conjures, from community obligations to identity, memory, language and place. It is told through moving imagery, text, music and songs written in 11 Aboriginal languages by Black Arm Band members and guest artists past and present, including Bennett, Paul Kelly, Kev Carmody, Dan Sultan, Mark Atkins, Deline Briscoe, Emma Donovan, Sally Dastey and Stephen Pigram.


Wright says she was surprised and delighted to receive a call out of the blue several years ago from Black Arm Band producer Steven Richardson, a fan of Carpentaria, who asked her to write a libretto for a performance that would become dirtsong. ''I'd never written a libretto before but I felt really proud to be approached by Black Arm Band because I just think they're wonderful,'' Wright says. ''Everyone in the Aboriginal world has such a high opinion of the Black Arm Band collective. It has grown since 2006 when it was first established … [to] become the most respected and important collection of Aboriginal artists in Australia, and perhaps the most loved, not only by our own people … but Australians all over, and it's getting a reputation that's becoming widespread internationally.''

Wright might not have known much about writing for performance but, through her work as a writer, editor and activist, she had a lifetime's experience collecting stories, capturing distinct voices on the page and listening to elders discuss their feelings about law and land. ''I learnt to listen,'' she says. ''I hope that comes through in dirtsong.'' She's not convinced she wrote the libretto she was asked for. ''It didn't turn out to be really a libretto,'' she says. ''I don't know what you might call it.''

The songs that grew from Wright's words were written and performed in each songwriter's language. This was a complex process involving extensive consultation with families and communities to observe cultural protocols and, in many cases, retrieve languages banned and lost since European settlement. ''Some of the artists had to have linguists work with them to help them access their own languages, some people hadn't even spoken their language, so it was quite an emotional journey,'' Bennett says.

Dirtsong takes performers and audiences on a journey through country that focuses attention on what connects rather than divides. Bennett, who is part-way through a PhD on Aboriginal language retrieval at RMIT, says the unique songwriting process behind the production feels profoundly positive. ''Our languages have been decimated …'' she says.

''We weren't allowed to speak our languages under law. I believe if we are able to retrieve our languages, that we have another vehicle for healing - for all Australians, not just for Aboriginal Australians. Language is such a powerful thing. I don't think people give it enough credit for … how it holds things together … .''

Wominjeka is at Footscray Community Arts Centre, 45 Moreland Road, Footscray, January 11-19. footscrayarts.com