One of the commitments I made to myself when I took up the role of President of the Folk Federation was, regardless of the controversy that this may generate, to attempt to open a dialogue on diversity and why it is of importance to us not only within this State but nationally. I think the issue is far beyond one of music & dance presentation. I sincerely believe it to be about national politics & about the national psyche.
It’s no secret that I have tended in the past to be a rather strident critic of events, and in particular festivals, where I believed diversity was being reduced and a disproportionate exposure to music that could be roughly defined as Anglo/Celtic was, in fact, increasing to the detriment of other genres. I have, on numerous occasions, discussed the reasons behind this lack of diversity and they are valid to an extent. However, I must also say that, regardless of the points discussed during these conversations, my discomfort continued and in fact amplified and contributed to my decision to write this as my ‘President’s report’. This is intended as a discussion point and not as a point of attack and I sincerely hope that the readership sees it this way.
The final precipitating event that drove me to write on this topic was a talk I attended recently given by Paul Keating. In that talk he raised the issue of the failure of Australia to take on the mantle of the Republic, as I too believe it should have, and its continuing deference and allegiance to the Crown and Great Britain and this nation’s ties to its legacy. He referred to our ‘horse and buggy’ constitution. The Constitution begins with the words: “Whereas the people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania, humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God, have agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and under the Constitution hereby established.” The Flags Act of 1953 that also fixed in law the design of the nation’s flag, was to contain in the top left hand corner the Union Jack, and further strengthened this nation’s allegiance to the Crown. This has now been further emphasised by the Queen taking centre panel on the new $5 note.
All of this is clearly understandable and acceptable given the historical connection that Australia has to the motherland. However, surely this thinking is now somewhat out-dated and Australia has moved far beyond this unilateral connection to the motherland alone. This change has been demanded by at least a couple of facts: that we have close to 200 immigrant cultures here in Australia, and 300 Indigenous language groups. Beyond these substantial and impressive figures, this nation has clearly demonstrated the remarkable capacity to not only tolerate but to embrace those cultures that emerge from backgrounds so significantly different to that which is the nation’s ‘dominant’ culture. This embracing of these other cultures has resulted in both a deep appreciation amongst many Australians of the gifts that they bring and a new phenomenon, the merging with these cultures in the expression of a culture that is uniquely Australian. This clearly demonstrates a willingness to first accept these other cultures into our own and then join with them to produce things of beauty that are greater than the mere sum of the parts. This is my reasoning behind my de-emphasis of the term ‘multi-cultural’ or ‘multi-ethnic’ and my pushing of the term ‘transcultural’. It is this transculturalism that reflects the true diversity of this nation. It is what we do when we take people in and then become, with them, members of a broader and more diverse society and celebrate both their gifts and our unity. It is also what tends to diminish when we are exposed to a culture of fear of others from non-English speaking countries and a reactionary drive to close our borders in the way that we have, and especially in relation to asylum seekers and refugees. Even though some would consider this to be a ‘long bow’ I do believe that these are all related.
At the National Folk Festival, for example, this embracing of transculturalism was so clearly demonstrated by the standing ovation that a wonderful and appreciative audience gave to Horse and Wood at the Trocadero, the transcultural act with which I performed as a guest. This response gave a clear indication that, while there needs to be a clear emphasis given to presentations that reflect the dominant language of this nation, there is also a hunger for representation of other things. It is this ‘crossing of boundaries’ which I believe to be a truly Australian characteristic. It does not singularly define the term ‘Australian’ because to claim that it does would also negate the many other reflections that exist of this notion and nation. ‘Australiana’ has to be a reflection of many elements of this nation’s history both past and in its current formation of what will be regarded as history in the future. The clear dominance of the defining language group certainly needs to remain. However, the beauty of what we do when we all get together as a nation of people from such an enormous range of backgrounds is the foreground of our national character. It is what defines us. It is what we are extremely good at, perhaps best at, in the global politic.
Transculturalism of our music and dance has always been one of our exceptional capacities. In fact we express this not only in merging with our brothers and sisters who come from non-English speaking backgrounds but we have also done it with respect to our English, Celtic and Gaelic brothers and sisters. We have crossed these boundaries with them too and we play stunning derivations and representations of what they gave many of our musicians as legacy. Very little of what Australians play as folk music in this country can ever be regarded as purely that of its source. It is Australian music and I believe strongly that it needs to be represented as such with respect to the source.
To conclude, I believe that any event here in Australia, while perhaps not ‘beholden’ to take on any act or genre of acts, may in fact have a responsibility to, wherever possible, reflect the demographic makeup of this nation.
I believe it goes far beyond mere economics. It goes to the very heart of what this nation is, what it ought to be and what it needs to avoid being. Every element of folk music and dance carries with it a political message. The emphases carried may not only reflect a national psyche, but may also drive it. I wonder whether that thought alone may require us to think deeply about the challenge of bringing about a reasonable representation of national diversity in our events.
I write about this as current President of the Folk Federation in the hope that you, the reader, take these comments as analytical rather than critical, as seeking a solution to a challenge rather than merely a hollow criticism. These are my views that I bring into this position and not necessarily the views of the committee of the Federation or individual committee members.