With one voice
This year’s Melbourne International Jazz Festival took the Big Jam concept (opening the festival with a large, outdoor, audience participation music event) in a new direction with ‘With One Voice’. ‘With One Voice’ invited singers from a range of music traditions, all of whom use improvisation in their work, to teach a sample of their tradition to the audience. The Festival invited me to lead and facilitate the event, and devise a musical finale that would draw the different artists’ music together.
With One Voice took place on 2 June and opened with Lamine Sonko.
Lamine is an amazing performer, a Senegalese culture-keeper who is now based in Melbourne. He got us all dancing, clapping, and singing in Wolof language.
Next came the SKIN choir, a Melbourne-based indigenous choir that sings of urban indigenous experience. Each of the choir members is a professional singer-songwriter in their own right.
They taught a song from the Torres Strait Islands; the audience kept one of the lines going while the choir broke into parts, then drew us back together again in the chorus. “They were the stars of the show,” an audience member said to me later.
I found it hard to choose the star of the show though! Next on was Katie Noonan (also MC for the event) who taught the audience to sing the South African protest song Senzenina. Katie then improvised over the top, then invited Lamine to improvise, and invited members of the audience onto the stage to sing alongside the SKIN choir.
Lisa Young took us into an entirely new world. Lisa is a specialist in South Indian vocal percussion, konakol. She deftly divided the crowd into 4 separate groups, taught a part to each group then cued us all in and out while she soloed over the top. The rhythms are spoken, but pitch (high, middle, low, bending, swooping, etc) is important and adds a lot of shape and expression to each line.
For the finale, Katie performed her song Breathe in now, a song about being in the moment, open and present. We layered in the SKIN choir chant from the Torres Strait, Lamine’s clapping movement, and Lisa’s konakol rhythms as an accompaniment to the song. The audience got to revisit everything they’d learned in the last hour and bring it all together in a new context. It was beautiful. The sun was shining, the crowd of 1000 or so was singing their hearts out, and all those different traditions were drawn together. Perhaps a favourite moment for me was hearing Lamine and Lisa trade their respective vocal rhythm traditions in rapid, virtuosic exchange as the music soared into the final chorus of Breathe in Now.