The Spirit of Churaki

The Spirit of Churaki

The assembled Churaki Company receives a standing ovation at the end of the delightful show

Posted by Jeremy Eccles | 28.05.19

Dates: 27.05.19

They've escaped from Queensland and appeared for one night only (why??) in the Sydney Opera House as part of the Vivid Festival. And what sunny Queensland joy they brought with them – along with the sort of First Nations sensibility that would have done wonders for the reportedly grumpy Ken Wyatt, the new Indigenous Minister, or for a promotion in the Sydney Morning Herald's earnest efforts to advance the Uluru Statement and its Voice to Parliament.

The last time I heard Bundjalung (or is it Bandjalung as Djon Mundine prefers to call it) it was also courtesy of Bundjalung woman Rhoda Roberts – now running the SOH First Nations programming, but then creating the ground-breaking Dreaming Festival for the Olympics, Amazingly it was 'Waiting for Godot' in translation! Love to see it again. But clearly, Bundjalung is a living language to be celebrated in this Year of Indigenous languages. The assembled Slabb Family (Kyle – credited as cultural collaborator - Kaleb, Jarulah and Josh) in the band for this song cycle must speak (and sing) it at home. And, as with 'Godot', they're not modest about seeking out interesting partners. In 'The Spirit of Churaki', they've brought in Brian Ritchie of The Break, Violent Femmes and the MonaFoma Festival in Tasmania as musical director, conch and exotic recorder player, the constantly experimental Greg Sheehan on percussion, and the Queen of the E-string, Veronique Serret on a soaring and screeching electric violin.

The show is the result of a three-year collaboration between the Slabb family and those select Australian artists. Since its debut in 2018, 'The Spirit of Churaki' has been performed at the Gold Coast Bleach Festival, the Commonwealth Games and the Woodford Folk Festival, and been nominated for a Helpmann Award. Tim Baker, who is the best-selling author of numerous books on surfing, may have been the writer (no program offered), and the visuals in the form of filmed seascapes around Fingal Head, Aboriginal feet hammering into the sands and texts in his familiar style were by Brisbane artist Vernon Ah Kee.

But if you went expecting a biography of Churaki – the son of the Gudjingburra King Conway, deputed by his father to look after the visitors trying out the new sport of surfing in Bundjalung waters in 1909, two years before the non-Indigenous folks at Coolangatta thought of setting up a surf lifesaving system – it's pretty light on detail. Some newspaper reports of this “dusky hero” being mentioned in despatches. But you get every sense of a living culture in song and dance, in language, in the sense of responsibility for visitors to their Country, in concern for land rights and stolen generations, and in the stories of the past being passed down by people like Auntie Joyce Summers. Lovely film of various elders' wrinkled faces merging into saltwater ripples.
The official description of the music is “a night of traditional Aboriginal dance, transcendent surf rock, and mellow Oceanic beats”. I have to say the young man singing 'Why?' so movingly seemed to have come right out of the Delta Blues to me. And a set of Saltwater songs had just a hint of the Celtic, especially in Serret's accompaniment. Plenty of variety.

There's a CD, but after being underwhelmed when hearing a number played on ABC Radio National compared to the joyousness with which the whole house responded to the music live, I'd pressure your local art centre to extend 'Churaki's' touring sometime soon between tomorrow and the end of 2021.


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The Spirit of Churaki

The handsome young Bundjalung man chosen to portray Churaki on film during the show

The Spirit of Churaki

Ceremonial dance somehow fits on to the tiny stage space left by the screen and the band


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