A Queensland Music Festival by Noel Mengel
Ten years before the birth of Queensland Music Festival in 1999, two of Australia’s finest songwriters were on a camping trip to Wivenhoe Dam. Sitting around a fire, instruments in hand, something started to flow, and fast. By 2am they had a song.
The songwriters were Paul Kelly, from Adelaide, one of Australia’s most-loved musical artists, and Kev Carmody, from the Darling Downs, then with a growing reputation as one of our most powerful songwriters, Indigenous or otherwise. The song, From Little Things Big Things Grow, told the story of the strike by Gurindji stockmen in the Northern Territory in 1966 and the land rights struggle.
The song, its anthemic qualities, the wisdom of the title itself, spread out slowly. It wasn’t a hit but it spoke to just about everyone who heard it. When it became an integral part of Queensland Music Festival’s Cannot Buy My Soul celebration of Carmody’s music at the Brisbane Riverstage in 2009, no one was in any doubt of the importance of the song or Carmody’s ability to vividly convey the Australian experience.
For thousands in the audience, for the performers, for Kelly, who calls that night one of the highlights in more than 40 years of making music, it was an unforgettable demonstration of the power of song.
It was also an affirmation of Queensland Music Festival in creating events that bind people together, that transform lives, build friendships and collaborations which keep bearing fruit. The way the song planted seeds in the minds of the listener, so too the festival. This year Queensland Music Festival marks 20 years and 11 festivals which have enriched the lives of Queenslanders in events from the Torres Strait to the Gold Coast and west to Bedourie and dozens of other stops.
The 1999 festival, then called the Queensland Biennial Festival of Music, was delivered after seven frenetic months of activity. New Arts Minister Matt Foley was clear that the festival should get out of the theatres and concert halls to the places where people lived. Artistic Director Simone de Haan and his team set out creating partnerships for emerging and professional musicians using our environment and stories as inspiration.
There was room for all genres. Rock On The Back Of A Truck took music to towns that rarely saw original bands. The Jazz Train teamed outstanding jazz students to work with players including jazz legend Don Burrows, stopping in towns from Brisbane to Townsville for workshops and concerts. Journeys in Time in Mackay brought together members of the Indigenous, Torres Strait and Pacific Island communities, culminating in a collaboration with African group the Drummers of Burundi. A world of collaborative possibilities was opening up.
The first General Manager of the festival, Claire Booth, says: “The reason the festival has been so successful is the great respect for place, recognising that wherever we are in Queensland these are communities with a lot to say and a lot to give.”
The logistics of the undertaking are as immense as the diversity of the programs: opera soared at Jimbour and musicals shone a light on social history. The Queensland Symphony Orchestra worked simultaneously with performers in Belfast, Istanbul and Jerusalem, shared on a giant screen, in CREDO. The Brodsky Quartet played Shostakovich; works incorporated A Musical Fence in Winton; Randy Newman played Brisbane for the first time.
That spirit of nurturing partnerships was alive: future Artistic Directors Paul Grabowsky, Deborah Conway and Katie Noonan all first took part in the festival as performers.
In 2001, under opera singer-turned-director Lyndon Terracini, Queensland Music Festival deepened its community engagement with the Rockhampton Gardens Symphony, with music by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin and 400 musicians and singers from the region.
Sean Mee’s experience in community theatre made him a great fit with Queensland Music Festival. Terracini explained to Mee his vision for a work in Mount Isa, one that switched on the entire city of 22,000.
Mee recalls: “Lyndon said, ‘You know they are obsessed by machines.’ And I had just seen on the internet people doing precision driving and tricks with machinery like bobcats.’’
So began Bob Cat Dancing, one of the signature events in the history of the festival. It attracted national attention and provided a roadmap for future productions. Hundreds of locals took part.
“An amazing thing happened, the entire town did get behind it,” Mee says. “We built a 60x40m stage on the bank of the Leichhardt River with the mine as the backdrop. We found great people like the bobcat drivers and Megan Sarmardin, who was 19 and blossomed into this wonderful talent as a singer.”
An audience the size of the city came to see it.
“The key idea that came from it was not to impose a story but see what skills and gifts the community has and work with that,” Mee says.
“Country people take great store in the value of the arts. They crave it but they have very little access to it as participants or audience. In Mount Isa there was a transformation, you could sense it and feel it. People didn’t think these things were possible and then they could see they were. It wasn’t that the Queensland Music Festival made it happen, it was the city that made it happen.’’
The success of Bob Cat Dancing in 2003 led to a sequel, Bob Cat Magic. The Road We’re On in 2009 was another breakthrough, created in collaboration with the community in Charleville. In 2011 Behind The Cane in Bowen told the story of the origins of Australia’s South Sea Island community. In 2013, Queensland Music Festival worked with 300 locals to stage Boomtown in Gladstone. That original vision of Queensland Music Festival, to take inspiration from the people and places of Queensland, was flourishing.
The festival’s growing reputation ensured the success of ambitious events. In 2007 Artistic Director Paul Grabowsky backed a concert inspired by Andrew Stafford’s history of rock in Queensland, Pig City. It achieved what many fans thought was impossible, the reformation of Queensland’s most influential rock band, The Saints, to headline the Pig City concert. In 2009, Artistic Director Deborah Conway took the Black Arm Band to perform Hidden Republic on Thursday Island, with the Queensland Youth Orchestra.
The networks, with councils and community groups, were strong. In 2013, James Morrison’s first year as Director, performances took place in 36 localities outside of Brisbane.
Artistic Directors always understood the need for iconic events that could grab attention. In 2013, the world’s biggest orchestra – 7,224 of them – assembled in Suncorp Stadium. Katie Noonan’s passionate belief in the power of the human voice led to You’re the Voice at South Bank, with John Farnham leading a choir of 2,500 in a rendition of his most famous song.
The collaborations encouraged by Queensland Music Festival keep spreading out.
Paul Kelly says the friendships encouraged by the Cannot Buy My Soul concert continue. “There was such love and respect evident on that stage, the way the singers performed, Kev enjoying every minute of it. The whole thing is vivid in my memory.”
Kelly returned to Queensland Music Festival in 2011 for Meet Me in the Middle of the Air, reimagining his songs with Grabowsky and his Art Orchestra. Kelly and Grabowsky continue to work together.
Last year Kelly performed at Queensland Music Festival’s Yarrabah Band Festival, which builds on the Indigenous community’s brass band tradition and is now an annual event. He says that is another of his most cherished career highlights, on stage with Yarrabah musicians, performing the song he wrote with his great friend 30 years ago.
From Little Things. They got that right.
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