A musical collaboration united by the sand and the surf, ‘The Spirit of Churaki’ tells the story of an Aboriginal man heralded as the Gold Coast’s first lifesaver after performing the first documented rescue of a swimmer in 1911, with many subsequent rescues to his name. Featuring an extraordinary lineup of Australian musicians, the production married the modern and the traditional in one unforgettable night of music presented by Bleach* Festival and Festival 2018.
Lead artistic collaborator, co-composer and cultural advisor Kyle Slabb talked to us earlier in the year about the piece, which explores not just the life and philosophies of Churaki and his community at the time but also topics such as incarceration rates, depression and traditional culture of the Yugambeh people. A mix of genres provided the production with a range of musical flavours; from an amped up traditional welcome, through soul and hip hop, into anthemic rock and an even shades of country, the dozen mainstay musicians demonstrated a prowess and versatility that kept the audience on the edge of its sandy seats.
The crashing ocean, so intrinsic to the Saltwater people, provided the perfect natural backing to the action on the stage. Dramatic visuals by Vernon Ah Kee lent the piece a moving backdrop full of ocean images, sunsets, and even visions of young Churaki himself, performed by Bijang Slabb with a moving intensity and striking depth that belied his years. The wonderful Darren Compton was the sole live dancer, easily drawing the eyes of the crowd with his unique blend of traditional Indigneous dance and contemporary pop-lock techniques, as well as his cheeky characterisation.
Musically directed by Brian Ritchie of Violent Femmes fame and with a sound design by artist Lawrence English, ‘The Spirit of Churaki’ managed to be both an incredibly professional production as well as a vastly moving one. Darker content, such as the slow blues number knocked out of the park by young Jarulah Slabb (“because of my colour, I’ve been locked up for 200 years”) sat comfortably alongside more uptempo tracks, with powerhouse Colin Usher’s vocals an evening highlight. Famed singer / songwriter Leah Flanagan brought her heartfelt vocals to the night with a solo number about Churaki inspired by a poem written by elder Aunty Joyce Summers, a wistful and nostalgic moment, complete with ukulele. There was even a reggae-inspired track performed by Kaleb Slabb. (Seriously, how talented is this family? Bee Gees eat your hearts out.) The diversity of the show’s musical genres was reflected in the instruments being played on stage; boomerangs alongside bass guitars, cajons and a violin, digeridoos and electric guitars just some of the many instruments utilised within the production.
Ultimately, the mood of the production was a uniquely uplifting one. The story of Churaki – his bravery and sense of cultural obligation – was nothing short of inspiring. The rest of the content acknowledged the darker history and current problems faced by Australian Aboriginal people but overlaid it all with a tone of optimism and hope. It was perhaps best summed up by Kyle about two thirds through the night.
“We’re Aboriginal people. We’re not a statistic, not a number on your program, we’re not the ‘Aboriginal problem.’ Maybe, if we listen to the land, listen to our people, listen to our history, we might be the Aboriginal solution to some of the problems in our country.”
‘The Spirit of Churaki’ was a highlight of both the Bleach* Festival and Festival 2018 programs. If you were unlucky enough to miss it, it will be performing on the Gold Coast at least once more at HOTA on 26 May. We know we’ll be there.
IMAGES (C) Peter Wheeler Photography.