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A groundbreaking tenure that evolved Noongar culture

David Prestipino -

As the sun set on Iain Grandage's transformative tenure as artistic director of Australia's longest-running cultural festival this month, he recalled how the stars aligned amid a global pandemic to help deliver a series of groundbreaking festivals that celebrated and continued the evolution of Noongar culture.

Mr Grandage, a West Australian cellist and Helpmann Award-winning composer, recalled "pleading with the stars one night" to throw him a lifeline after his initial creative concept stewardship - celebrating the world's river cultures - was thwarted shortly after his first Perth Festival program in 2020, when COVID-19 suddenly spread west.

"I started by wanting to have these ever-expanding circles of inclusion, so I began very close to home," Mr Grandage said of his debut festival, themed Karla (Fire), before recalling the spur to pivot to a deeper, sharper focus of Noongar culture, one of the country's largest First Nations linguistic and cultural groups.

There was no shortage of material; the Noongar nation encompasses the entire South-West of WA, spanning two oceans, five regional jurisdictions, 14 unique subgroups and 45,000 years of culture, still alive through songlines and stories.

Two Indigenous artists and linguists, Clint and Kylie Bracknell (nee Farmer), were crucial conduits in the triumphant exposure of Noongar culture across the festivals from 2020-2024.

Kylie, a Festival associate artist, director and adviser, and Clint, a composer and musician, had produced a Noongar-language remake of Macbeth called Hecate at Mr Grandage's first festival in 2020, a groundbreaking production that garnered renewed interest in Noongar language and the artistic director to localise his creative vision, after the pandemic limited the logistical scope of future productions.

"Indigenous representation was always a deep part of my intentions at the beginning ... Kylie suggested these [future] themes should each have a Noongar word attached to them, names for their geographical manifestation, names which then lead to poetic, philosophical and cultural links," Mr Grandage told National Indigenous Times of how his vision evolved.

Programs across the ensuing four years have "celebrated the bedrock of Noongar culture and amplified the voices and stories of this place, spread even wider into the world across the arc of the Festivals of my tenure".

Kylie and Clint played critical roles behind the scenes and on stage throughout ensuing festivals, themed Bilya (river, 2021), Wardan (ocean, 2022), Djinda (stars, 2023) and 2024's culmination Ngaangk (sun, 2024).

Mr Grandage said the pair were crucial to the Festival spotlighting Noongar culture, with their creative company Boomerang and Speak "at the vanguard of creating new experiences with Noongar culture at the centre of that".

Mr Bracknell composed music for what would eventually become 2022's epic Noongar Wonderland of storytelling and dance at Perry Lakes, and was subsequently commissioned to write a piece for the renowned San Franciscan Kronos Quartet for 2023's festival, before returning to Perth, where is now a professor at the University of Western Australia's Conservatorium of Music, researching ancient songlines and devising projects to help preserve and protect ancient cultural heritage.

From the south coast of WA, Mr Bracknell would later release the music from Noongar Wonderland with DJ extraordinaire Paul Mac in 2022 under his alias Maatakitj (a name Kylie gave him that loosely translates to "long legs like a spear").

The stars also aligned for Maatakitj ahead of this year's festival, which runs February 9 to March 3 across Perth and regional WA, leading to his impending performances with one his musical icons, after what appears to be another case of magical intervention.

"Iain called me and asked 'if you could pick anyone to work with, anywhere, who would it be?'" Mr Bracknell recalled.

"I said Angelique Kidjo, because when I was 18 or something, I remember seeing her version of Voodoo Chile where she's singing part of it in her language, and I remember being really impacted by that.

"Through her I started listening to other musicians from Africa and elsewhere that were singing in their own languages. ... quite often I didn't know what they were singing about - but instantly it gave me ideas about, 'well would that be a more truthful way to do things', something that's more grounded in place and in heart."

The day after his conversation with Mr Grandage, the Festival got a call from Ms Kidjo's management, confirming she was touring Australia and wanted to connect and work with someone who knew about Songlines.

And so the pair will perform a series of concerts at the Supreme Court Gardens, before the festival crescendo, a free, all ages event at the same venue, Under The Same Sun, where Ms Kidjo will collaborate with WA's leading Aboriginal musicians, including Maatakitj, Gina Williams and Stephen Pigram, and local and international greats such as Sampa The Great, Paul Kelly, Flewnt and Mama Kin, boosted by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra.

"She wants to learn about the way music goes here, she's just a real global statesperson of music, she goes everywhere, collaborates with everyone, all the best you know," Mr Bracknell said of multi-Grammy Award winner Kidjo.

"It's a massive honour to be in her presence and share some ideas... she's world class, she's really something else."

And so to Perth Festival 2024 and Mr Grandage's swansong, a theme "based on a return to the single star that feeds us all, Ngaangk" ... the sun, star or mother in Noongar.

"Once you have the sun, which is also mother, then it feeds the third part of that, which is Boodja, also another female entity, the country itself," Mr Grandage said of the theme.

"So just the whole 2024 program, there are features on trees, and sunlight, climate and the environment, and then a whole series on mothers and what our matriarchal lineage is, so each has their own part to play."

Mr Grandage has steadfastly delivered a beautiful series of Perth Festival programs he hoped had been part of the glue that binds, and made people "feel closer to this place, and to each other", with his Festival tenure a watershed moment for Noongar culture.

"At the middle of every program and theme is Noongar understanding," he said.

"Because the country that we stand on is not going anywhere, the stories that live here are not going anywhere.

"So that is why Noongar work is so at the middle of what we do, and then Aboriginal work more broadly across the country, and then the works from other artists both from across the country and the world."

Maatakitj is among many Indigenous highlights across the Festival, others being Noongar opera Wundig Wer Wilura by award-winning songwriters and storytellers Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse, as well as:

Ngapa William Cooper

This creative collaboration between Yorta Yorta Dja Dja Wurrung singer-songwriter Dr Lou Bennett AM, singer-songwriter Lior and composer Nigel Westlake tells a remarkable tale you have never heard before.

Flewnt's Boorloo Block Party

A celebration of First Nations music and culture, with free, all-ages events in Broome, Geraldton & Busselton and a ticketed 18+ event at the Rechabite Hall in Perth.

Under the Same Sun

A free all-ages event in the Supreme Court Gardens featuring some of the finest voices on this planet, including Paul Kelly, Angelique Kidjo, Guy Ghouse, Sampa The Great and Maatakitj.

The full 2024 Perth Festival program can be found here.


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