Pride, empowerment, education and inclusion: Lou Bennett on dirtsong

Black Arm Band Musical Director and performer Lou Bennett is the cofounder of the internationally successful folk group Tiddas and works as an actor, composer and soundscape designer. Josephine Giles caught up with her between Black Arm Band shows in London and Darwin.

Lou Bennett, Black Arm Band
Lou Bennett, Black Arm Band

Hot on the heels of representing Australia at the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, the Black Arm Band are presenting dirtsongat the Melbourne Recital Centre on 1 September.

Inspired by the words of Miles Franklin Award winning writer Alexis Wright dirtsong is a powerful musical journey through Australia’s cultural heartland. Set against a backdrop of moving imagery and text, dirtsong features songs sung in 11 different Aboriginal languages by a cast of exciting performers, including Dan Sultan and Emma Donavon, backed by an ensemble of the city’s finest jazz musicians.

Honouring the 20th anniversary of the High Court’s historic Mabo Decision, this performance of dirtsongwill have added resonance with an introduction by Gail Mabo.

When Black Arm Band first performed in 2006, could you have imagined the band would represent Australia at the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad and then be travelling to New York?

When we performed in 2006 is was a one-off (two-off!) performance that we were all very proud of. I didn’t expect it to last for six years and to be performing and sending a beautiful message of strength and pride four productions later! You just never know what will come of a performance that tells a story of truth.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was very young I wanted to be an air hostess but I was too short! I wanted to travel the world and thought this would be a great way. Little did I know that my music would do this and much more!

What animal best represents you, and why?

The fresh water, long neck turtle. Watjerupna. This is one of the totems of the Yorta Yorta nation. Our country man/woman. We belong to them as they belong to us. Eat good fish and shell fish, greens. Connected to country, wise, old, slow and purposeful in behaviour – I try to be all these things.

When did you first perform? How old were you then?

I was 19. I performed with my uncles’ band, The Shades, at the Echuca Workermen’s Club.

Do you have any formal musical training, or are you self-taught?

When I was nine years old I had five years of organ lessons and then later in my twenties I had two months of vocal coaching. The rest I have learnt from my family and personal experience.

Who or what has inspired/had the greatest influence on you as an artist?

My Nanny Iris. She was an amazing musician, performer, Nan and all round good soul. Being of mix race … lots to sing about on this subject! I think it has driven me to aim for the highest in all that I attempt. When I was younger, being ‘brown’ was seen as a ‘disadvantage’ … it’s the complete opposite now.

Who is the artist (living or passed) you would most like to work alongside?

Tracey Chapman. She inspired me to pick up the guitar and sing my own story/song. She is so charismatic to watch on stage too.

If you weren’t a performer, what would you like to be?

A chef/restaurant owner. I love food as much as music. Definitely something to do with food.

What is the most embarrassing thing that has happened to you on stage?

Performing with the Tiddas and the Coors in Up State New York at Huge Heffner’s resort, I came on stage in front of hundreds of record company reps and promoters in a long dress (very unusual for me!) and tripped and fell onto the stage. I haven’t worn a dress on stage since. Shame job! Hahaha!

What is the best?

Performing with the Black Arm Band and international artists at the Sidney Myer music bowl for Seven songs to leave behind. It made me realize my potential to walk the stage with international artists.

What is the most inspiring place you have visited?

Australia! Remote communities. if you ever get a chance, an invitation, take it. It is truly life changing. I recently went to Yarrabah in north Queensland near Cairns and found myself in a place of tranquillity, where the freshwater meets the saltwater, coconut palms swaying in the breeze and little crabs sunning themselves on the rocks at the water’s edge. Not to mention the generosity and kindness of the community. Wasn’t long enough though. Thanks sista Lou-Lou!

What would be the first five tracks you would put on a mix tape?

‘One Love’, Bob Marley
‘Superstition’, Stevie Wonder
‘Crossroads’, Tracey Chapman
‘Where’s your head at!!’, Basement Jaxx
‘Weeping in the Forest’, Uncle Archie Roach

How do you prepare on the day of a gig – do you have a pre-gig ritual, or a lucky charm?

Rest, drink lots of water and not talk too much, and if we rehearse on the day to only give 70% to save my performance for the audience. I talk to my ancestors and ask them to guide me just before a show. I also like to get ready with the girls from the Black Arm Band! We sing, we try on costumes, we put make up on, we prepare in good spirit.

What is your favourite post-gig snack?

I try not to eat too close before singing. Nothing worse than burping and singing at the same time. I’m more likely to eat after a performance and have a couple of drinks. If I had a choice, anything Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese. LOVE peking duck, pho and agi dashi dofu.

What is your favourite way to unwind?

Spending time with family and friends, cooking, eating, fishing, gardening, swimming and sitting still.

Who is the most important person in the world to you?

I can’t separate my mum, dad and sister. Let alone my Aunties and Uncles and cousins. I’d never hear the end of it. HA! My family are extremely important to me. They have always been there for me as I will be for them.

What does it mean to you to have Gail Mabo introduce these performances of dirtsong?

Gail is a beautiful sista. She made me my first set of kulup (traditional shaker percussion from Torres Strait). She is like royalty to me. Her personal and family story is part of the historical landscape of Australia, which every Australian should know about.

The much-loved Ruby Hunter passed in 2006, and Archie Roach is not singing with the group at this time. As well as being a loss for the public, what effect has this had on the Black Arm Band?

I miss her very much. She gave Tiddas our name in 1990. Aunty was our mum on tour with the Black Arm Band. We are determined to tell our stories because of Aunty Rub and Uncle Arch. They have instilled this in us. I recall Uncle Archie saying, “Tell your story your own way because if you don’t, someone else will.” It emphasises how important it is for Aboriginal people to tell our stories in our own way.

What is the best thing about performing with the Black Arm Band?

We are family. We love, we argue, we make up!! We have our fair share of problems but we work through it. It’s so empowering to be on stage together and we’re all doing what we love. As Shellie Morris said, “We are not just a band; we are a movement.”

What do you hope audiences will take away from dirtsong when it is performed in Melbourne on September 1?

An appreciation of the stories of Aboriginal Australia. Pride, empowerment, education and inclusion. And the importance of our cultures and languages to Australian culture. We are the first peoples of the country … we are still here … alive and thriving.

Black Arm Band
Saturday 1 September
Melbourne Recital Centre

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