I arrived in a darkened room, with folks sprawled on the floor, listening to the sounds of Australian sound artist Tahlia Palmer, AKA Amby Downs. You wouldn’t call this long form soundscape comforting, with Palmer keen to explore notions of intergenerational trauma and exchange, though on the large sound system, there was something really powerful about her layered field recordings, something intangible yet provoking, dusty and windswept that speaks to the outback. It was actually quite beautiful; a repetitive swell that emerged from within her earthy sounds was nothing short of hypnotic.
US based Ojibwe musician Joe Rainey, adorned in a cap, with a portable cassette player in hand took to the stage with no introduction. He simply pressed play, revealing barely distinguishable monologues and conversations. He was joined by Andrew Broder on electronics who you might also know as Fog – who was responsible for one of my favourite early 2000’s Anticon adjacent albums Hymie’s Basement. I wasn’t expecting Broder’s presence, but then again I didn’t really know what to expect as I’d only just watched a couple of You Tube clips of Rainey prior to attending, though was very clear immediately that he was doing something very special.
His approach is to reimagine traditional Pow Wow singing, perhaps contemporalise it. His experimental music equally as informed by hip hop, dirty R&B, dub and industrial noise. With smatterings of predominantly spoken word material on his cassette, he would speed up, raise the pitch and swap cassettes over Broder’s often quite rhythmic, albeit distorted beats and electronic sounds. Periodically he would step up to the mic and the hairs would stand up on the back of your neck. The power of his voice was something to behold, the strength of his Pow Wow singing, grounding the music in tradition and connection, in his spirituality. It was beautiful, powerful and mesmerising. An incredible gift. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Prior to his final piece he addressed the audience for the first time and attempted to contextualise what we’d just witnessed. His chilled demeanour and gentle voice was a direct contrast to the power of his performance, yet he was still a commanding presence. He spoke of racism, white privilege, dispossession and the connection he felt of being welcomed to country in Sydney. Whilst his music isn’t without political connotations, he went to pains to point out that whilst he might be creating new genres and sharing traditions that are rarely shared, the connection he’s looking for is with his family. He carries personal items to keep him grounded, such as the necklace his sister in law made. Tonight was the first night of his Australian tour when he didn’t cry when he sang a song he normally sings with his daughter.
And as he launched into his final song, the beats lurched and fizzled and he leaned into the mic we felt that connection too. It was impossible not to. It’s such a rare and beautiful experience to encounter such forward thinking music so grounded by the past, yet brimming with innovation and connection in the now.