Monthly Archives: January 2011

Raggamuffin tops

About half an hour after arriving at the Raggamuffin reggae festival, I worked out what was unfamiliar about the crowd. Not one person was wearing over-sized, black-framed glasses and black skinny jeans. None of the girls were wearing 80s polyester dresses or looked like 1950s virgins. There were Rasta mamas with their locks piled high and curvy girls wearing short shorts or mini-skirts, there were big broad Islanders, suburban white kids, a smattering of forest hippies, young African guys in green, red and gold B-boy caps, a couple of  older surfers…it was a mixed race, mixed bag kind of crowd that reminded me of street festivals in London. It also reminded me how white my suburb is.

‘Hey,’ I said to my friend S. ‘There are no hipsters here.’  No Ray-Ban Wayfarers or shirts buttoned up to the neck. Just a sea of original looks that had my friend and I entertained for hours in a game of ‘Would you get away with that outfit?’ How about The Original Wailers’ backing vocalist’s tight, bleach-splashed jeans, stiletto heels and a ruched, black satin shirt? Or Jimmy Cliff’s backing vocalist’s long strapless dress in bold green and gold stripes? What about taking on the Queen herself – Mary J. Blige, now 40, who emerged on stage in sunglasses, a black leather shoulder-padded jacket, white singlet, wide black leather cummerbund, leopard print tights and boots that would make a dominatrix call for mummy? I don’t think so.

There are no hipsters at a reggae festival  because reggae is not cool and the  scene is so roots-y that hipster irony would get bear-hugged to death. When The Original Wailers invited the crowd to sing along to ‘Buffalo Soldier’, they sang along. When Maxi Priest wanted ‘to hear all my ladies scream’, the ladies screamed. When Jimmy Cliff sang ‘I can see clearly now’, the audience chanted that indeed, it was a ‘bright, bright, sunshine-y day’. Wave your arms in the air? Of course. And at the end of the night, when Mary J. asked everyone to light up the night in celebration of her first Australian visit, Sidney Myer Music Bowl was transformed by phones and lighters into a glowing cavern.

Many had come to Raggamuffin to see Mary J. Blige. Eighteen years, nine Grammys, nine albums and no Australian show until Raggamuffin. One fan was screaming so loudly I thought she’d take out my left eardrum. Other fans were looking forward to seeing dancehall artist Sean Paul and were disappointed by a no-show that was neither explained at the gig, nor flagged on the Raggamuffin website. But I defy anyone to remain disgruntled in the face of Jimmy Cliff’s charm offensive. ‘He’s like the Leonard Cohen of reggae,’ S. said.  It was true that, as with Leonard Cohen, the good vibes just seemed to emanate from him, making everyone, including his band, grin like idiots.

One of the reggae originals, star of the 1972 film ‘The Harder They Come’, Jimmy Cliff is now 63. Not only is he still touring, he’s limber as a cat. He’s also one of the only people who can get away with wearing a T-shirt bearing his own name and an entirely red outfit with glittering gold shoes. What else marks him as a higher being is hearing him sing songs like ‘Many Rivers To Cross’ – a song he wrote in 1969 – as if no-one had ever heard it before. When he lets rip with the soaring opening line, he’s still feeling the pain of being a stranger in England, trying to find his way over those many rivers. And it still gives me the chills. Hearing the song build as his backing vocalists deliver the big gospel chorus response was almost painfully good.

Strangely though, it was during Jimmy’s happy sing-along set, to the strains of ‘No more war’ in the song ‘Vietnam’ that I saw an act of aggression. A young woman came flying towards me through the crowd. She’d been propelled by two fierce women who wouldn’t have looked out of place among the teeth-challenged backwoods folk in the recent film ‘Winter’s Bone’. The women glared at the poor girl, who burst into tears as her friend tried to shuffle her out of harm’s way. Later I saw that one of the scary women had ‘Attitude’ tattooed at the base of her spine. ‘You really need to advertise that?’ I thought.

The scary women had disappeared by the time the banks of keyboards, mikes and a towering drum kit had been rolled out for Mary J. Blige. Raggamuffin is billed as a reggae event but Mary J. is in no shape or form a ‘reggae’ artist. She’s a hip hop/ R& B star, she has a big, beautiful voice and a show that includes three backing vocalists and two dancers who were the bomb. Look, I enjoyed the spectacle but after a few songs, I felt guilty for having such a primo position at the front and gave it up to one of Mary J.’s many adoring fans. R&B has never really been my thing.

Dancehall – reggae’s fast and loose cousin – is something else again.  It’s the salty to reggae’s sweet.  But if you think women can do better than be a man’s bling, dancehall can be a guilty pleasure.  Let’s just say that an alien, from watching a lot of dancehall videos, would think that men on Earth wear clothes while women wear bikinis, and men stand upright while women writhe on all fours.  Between eye rolling and laughing, I can seem quite unhinged while watching these videos. But it’s a complex world, isn’t it? I love dancehall. I watch the video of Sean Paul’s 2002 hit ‘Get Busy’ and think about entering the pre-no smoking law fug of reggae/dancehall club night More Fire * back in the early years of the noughties. Friends and I would go there at midnight or so and dance for a couple of hours until the pounding bass and cigarette smoke drove us back out into the night. Sean Paul, I would have been in heaven if you had turned up to Raggamuffin and performed ‘Get Busy’. I would also have loved to have gone to the party depicted in this video.  Sean Paul, you didn’t show.  And I’m not at the party in this video. So given that imperfect universe, we’ll just have to turn up the volume and shake it.

*Chant Down celebrates ten years of  More Fire on Saturday February 12.  It’s now smoke-free, of course.

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The year of the Cat

‘What do you think an evolutionary reason for stage-fright might be?’ I asked my friend M., as you do while sitting on a beach without a care in the world. I was thinking about Cat Power, aka Chan Marshall, who I was going to see play the following night. I hadn’t seen her play but it seemed like everyone I knew had. Some had seen her in brilliance; others had seen her brought down by stage fright. A friend described as ‘terrible’ the concert she’d seen and acted out Cat Power hiding and skittering around the stage (this was, admittedly, funny, in a hand-over-mouth kind of way). Another said she would never go to another Cat Power concert because the one she’d seen had been so brief. People’s opinions about these meltdowns varied wildly, from ‘Why doesn’t she just get it together?’ to ‘I liked it. It was real.’ Continue reading

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Shall we dance? Or just pointe?

This week’s travel involved my friend H. and I taking ourselves on an excursion west-side. Destination: the fabulous art deco Sun Theatre to see the film ‘Black Swan’. The last time I headed across town to a deco cinema, it was to The Astor to see ‘The Red Shoes‘, a flick about…a tortured ballerina aiming for perfection. One of the scenes in ‘Black Swan’, in which ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) is dreaming herself into the lead role in Swan Lake, reminded me of a documentary about the soccer player Zinedine Zidane.  In that film,  the sound design sometimes takes the viewer into Zidane’s private experience – you hear the sound of thousands of fans as the sound of an ocean’s swell from far away, infinitely softer than the thud of the ball off his boot. Similarly, in ‘Black Swan’, the sound of Nina dancing is so precise and intimate that the viewer is taken into her world.  In hearing the brush of a shoe against surface, the breath of exertion –  one is reminded that this ‘dancing’, or in Zidane’s case, this ‘playing’ of sport, is hard physical work. As the camera closed in on Nina’s crippled toes, I thought how bizarre it is that ballet dancers do this work en pointe, especially when most of the time it looks kind of dumb. ‘How did this tippy-toes dancing come about?’ I wondered. I turned to the interweb. Continue reading

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She’s a femme fatale

This week I went to an exhibition of Gustave Moreau’s work on the theme of the femme fatale. ‘Here she comes, you’d better watch your step…’  Yes it’s nigh impossible to shrug off that Velvet Underground song whenever the words ‘femme fatale’ come into your orbit, and the sound of that haunting yet faintly comic German accent of Nico’s.…’She’s-going-to-break-your-heart-in-two. It’s true’. Let’s get it out of your system so we can move on.

Gustave was painting ‘fatal women’ during the 19th Century when the idea of the dangerous seductress was wedded to the term ‘femme fatale’. Fast forward to the ‘40s film noir era, and duplicitous women with toxic allure were turning up everywhere, accompanied by men rendered powerless by their charms. In the 1947 film ‘Dead Reckoning’, Humphrey Bogart as Rip Murdock, tries to save his buddy Johnny from lounge singer Coral ‘Dusty’ Chandler with this line: ‘Johnny, why don’t you get rid of the grief you’ve got for that blonde, whoever she is? Every mile we go, you sweat worse with the same pain. Didn’t I tell you all females are the same with their faces washed?’ Read that last line again and again. I promise it’ll keep making you laugh. Continue reading

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Paul Kelly’s ‘How to make gravy’ – a book review

I spent the final business hour of the final day of 2010 hunkered down at the City Library finishing the last book I read last year – Paul Kelly’s memoir ‘How to make gravy’. I had to polish it off quickly because the book was overdue and I was feeling guilty about denying a fellow book lover the opportunity to borrow it over the holidays. For those who don’t know of Paul Kelly (unlikely in Australia but this is the ‘world-wide’ web after all) – he’s a musician who would be a strong contender for Best Ever Australian Songwriter with other nominees being Nick Cave, The Go-Betweens’ Grant McLennan and Robert Forster, and Don Walker. I may be revealing my vintage with this list so if anyone would like to add to it, or dispute it, be my guest. Continue reading

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I’m New Year

A German friend told me that in Germany they have a New Year’s Eve tradition of burning some metal, then dropping it into water and scrutinizing its shape for portents of the year to come. She said that in Spain it’s traditional on New Year’s Eve to eat 12 grapes. ‘Do you have a New Year’s Eve tradition in Australia?’ she asked. ‘Apart from getting as drunk as possible?’ I asked. ‘No, I don’t think so. Sometimes you’ll get people singing “Auld Lang Syne” but not everyone knows the words.’ Should auld acquaintance be forgot…and the lyrics to this song. As I made my way home from a party in the wee hours of the morning, I saw the Australian New Year’s Eve tradition was in safe hands: a man reeling from one side of the footpath to the other, stopping to cling vacant-eyed to a fence, trying to shrug off his triple vision. Close to my place, a taxi was stopped in the middle of the road, one bare-chested passenger was out of the taxi, wobbling to who knows where, while another aggressively directed traffic to go around the cab: ‘There’s been a f…..g accident, you moron!’ he shouted to one confused driver. Happy New Year! Continue reading

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