Black Arm Band
When the Black Arm Band took to the stage for the first time in October 2006, their concert murundak (meaning 'alive' in the Woiwurrung language) was a triumph. The rousing performance closed the 2006 Melbourne International Arts Festival, received a standing ovation and widespread critical acclaim for what one reviewer described as "a sweaty, powerful, uplifting example of why cities and governments invest in festivals".
Black Arm Band was initially conceived in early 2005 when Victorian indigenous artists began talking about holding a concert to celebrate, consolidate and contextualise the work of pioneers of contemporary Indigenous music. Though initially Victorian-based, it quickly became clear that to truly reflect the story of contemporary Indigenous music, the concert would need to include a wider collection of musicians and performers from all over Australia.
A team of collaborators including Steven Richardson, artistic director of North Melbourne's Arts House, began working together to develop the show's content. "From these discussions about repertoire, pretty quickly a powerful social essay emerged that we thought we could craft into a special performance," says Richardson.
When the concert began to take shape, the Black Arm Band was offered space and resources at the Meat Market in North Melbourne. Two intense workshop periods in April and July 2006 followed. The residency was among the first at the Meat Market after the Victorian Government's three-year redevelopment of the site, which re-opened in October 2004.
Murundak by the Black Arm Band.
Photo: John Sones Photography
A turning point for the band came when Kristy Edmunds, then artistic director of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, invited the band to present murundak as the festival's closing night performance. With only a few months to go, the Black Arm Band needed funding to bring the project to performance standard. Arts Victoria's funding programs provided $18,000 for rehearsal and presentation costs.
Reviews of murundak naturally focused on the extraordinary impact of the concert on the audience, but for performer Rachael Maza-Long the impact on the performers was just as powerful. "The first time we performed murundak we realised what we had. I don't know that these musicians had ever all been on stage together. It was quite amazing."
After the Melbourne Festival performance the Black Arm Band went on to achieve national success, performing at festivals across Australia including the 2008 Sydney, Perth and Brisbane arts festivals and Womadelaide; and winning a 2007 Helpmann Award for Best Contemporary Music Concert.
In June 2008, with support from Arts Victoria, Black Arm Band took murundak to the UK. The band's sell-out performance at the London International Festival of Theatre received a standing ovation from the audience.
With further support from Arts Victoria, Black Arm Band returned to the Melbourne International Arts Festival in 2008 to premiere Hidden Republic, a collaboration with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Where murundak honoured the music and story of Indigenous Australian's struggle for civil rights, Hidden Republic looked forward in hope, reflecting the promise of 'post-apology' Australia.
Black Arm Band's third performance, dirtsong, premiered at the 2009 Melbourne International Arts Festival. In dirtsong the Band evoked a sense of geographical place and connection to country with words from Miles Franklin Award-winning author Alexis Wright.
Black Arm Band continue to thrive, performing for over 100,000 people at the Domain for the Sydney Festival, performing as part of the Cultural Olympiad at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010 and continuing to perform their lauded works across the country.
From a small seed of an idea that had been germinating for years, an extraordinary musical experience has grown and developed. Through its rich musical repertoire, the Black Arm Band tells the stories of indigenous Australia - stories of tragedy and triumph, resilience and hope, protest and celebration; and brings broader recognition to some of this country's best contemporary musical talent.