Adelaide Festival 2017 Music Review: 1967: Music in the Key of Yes

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 12.33.52 pm1967: Music in the Key of Yes performers

What: 1967: Music in the Key of Yes 

Where: Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre

It’s a cliché to say that the 1960s were a decade of change. In the shadow of the Vietnam War and the broader Cold War and threat of nuclear annihilation, protest movements multiplied throughout the Western world. Mirroring better-known events in the United States, Australia experienced its own anti-war and civil rights movements, with the situation of Aboriginal Australians gaining ground as an important political issue.

In May 1967, following more than a decade of campaigning by Aboriginal activists such as Faith Bandler, a referendum was held asking Australians to vote on two proposals: that Aboriginal Australians should be counted in the Australian census, and that the Commonwealth Government be given the power to make laws pertaining specifically to Aboriginal Australians. Previously, Aboriginal issues had been handled by the states, if at all. Campaigners hoped that such legal reforms would bring Aboriginal and non-Indigenous (which, at the time, mostly meant white) Australians closer together, and pave the way for policies and laws that would improve the health, welfare and social status of Aboriginal people. It must have been a moment of great triumph and hope for these activists when over 90% of non-Indigenous Australians voted yes to both proposals.

It has now been fifty years, give or take a couple of months, since that result – which brings us to the commemorative concert, 1967: Music in the Key of Yes, held at the Festival Theatre on 15 March. The concert featured an impressive lineup of talented Aboriginal Australian musical artists including Yirrmal, Thelma Plum, Dan Sultan, Leah Flanagan, Radical Son AKA David Leha, William Barton, Ursula Yovich, and Alice Skye, along with a five-piece backing band and guest musician Adalita. The set list combined original music by the performers (You Are The Mountains by Alice Skye, Deep Blue Sea by Yirrmal) with protest songs (A Change Is Gonna Come, Took The Children Away, Solid Rock, People Have The Power) and a few 1960s classics (Blackbird, Feeling Good, With A Little Help From My Friends).

One of the best moments in the show came right at the start, with the welcome to country by Kaurna man Vincent ‘Jack’ Buckskin. Among the musicians, all were impressive, but William Barton was an absolute standout. His solo performances combining yidaki (didgeridoo), voice and guitar were compelling, while the yidaki also contributed some beautiful complexities to songs by other artists. Alice Skye’s stripped-back, ethereal vocals and piano were also poignant and lovely, while Yirrmal’s passionate and melodic songs surpassed language barriers.

Despite these high points, overall, I was left less moved and less impressed by 1967 than I had expected to be. While acknowledging that my expectations for the performance were quite high, given the talent on display and the emotional significance of the subject matter, I was a little disappointed. If the songs and footage were intended to form a cohesive narrative, it didn’t really come across. The historical context was a little sparse and could be hard to follow: words flashing briefly across screens, showing five or ten seconds of interview before cutting to the next clip, mixing footage from Australia and elsewhere. Perhaps the creators assumed that anyone interested in attending would be familiar with the history, but it would not have detracted from the music to interweave the songs a bit more explicitly with the narration and interpretation of historical events.

Another less than wonderful aspect was Dan Sultan’s apparent lack of familiarity with the cultural norms of a typical Festival Theatre crowd. Sultan delivered a performance that was very energetic but marred by his continual cajoling of the audience to make more noise or participate more. It wasn’t that the audience was unappreciative of the performances – the proof was in the enthusiastic applause after each number and the multiple standing ovations – but it just wasn’t the kind of setting where people would typically dance, shout or make noise while the musicians were actually playing. Sultan’s refusal or inability to read the room became increasingly awkward as the evening went on.

As a non-Indigenous person, it’s not really for me to judge whether the promise of the 1967 referendum result has been fulfilled. I certainly believe that while things have improved since the 60s, Australia still has much more work to do to improve the lives of Aboriginal Australians and make amends for the injustices that have been and continue to be committed against them. 1967 struck a balance between positively commemorating the referendum as a significant turning point and reminding the audience of the struggles that continue today. While I didn’t find the show as impactful as I had expected it to be, continuing to commemorate these events and to share the stories of our country through the arts can only be a good thing.

3 out of 5 stars

– Matilda Handsley-Davis

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