Soul of an open country

IT'S 4 AM in late June, and we're in Longreach, driving to Winton in central western Queensland for the opening gig of the 2007 Queensland Music Festival, which is at sunrise on a property just past the town. It's freezing out here in June, still dark, and we are warned about wallabies on the road – timely advice, it turns out, as we need to take heart-stopping evasive action twice in the first ten minutes. Before the sun actually rises, the night sky is transformed by an amazing light show, and we are compelled to get out and stand by the road in the vast space, to drink in the scale, the fading stars, the cold crisp air, and the shots of turquoise and orange that light the pre-dawn sky.

At Winton, we join a small crowd at the nondescript paddock which is the festival site. The locals think it's cold, too – they are rolled in doonas and beanies, like giant caterpillar pupae. Jazz legend and artistic director Paul Grabowsky opens the gig on the art-case piano, a Steinway grand beautifully inscribed by senior indigenous artist Judy Watson especially for this event. He is followed by twenty-five young African voices, the African Children's Choir, all AIDS orphans, who have been billeted in Winton for the past few days, working with local school kids on a piece for this event. And then, just as the first of the sun's rays reach us, Kate Miller-Heidke's pure voice, swooping and soaring in a little song about waking up with a loved one.

Winton has been the opening site for the QMF before, so they know the drill. Last time, it was Graeme Leak's musical fence, whose rare sound has since been sampled by Gotye for the bass line in his hit song 'Eyes Wide Open' (2010). Winton's mayor, in classic countryman's outfit, speaks briefly and with remarkable honesty about his apprehensions about how this community would cope with these African kids, and about the transforming experience it has been for people to be part of their lives for a week and to share their spirit and performance.

It's all over far too quickly – it's one of those rare and precious cultural encounters where people, place and performance are so totally in sync that you don't ever want it to stop – and we're warming our hands on boiling hot bushman's tea. We meet a couple who drove the twelve hundred kilometres from Brisbane to be part of this event – they try to get to most of the Festival. Their only comment – they want more.

The Queensland Music Festival happens every two years. Its statistics are like Queensland – big – and unlike those of any other event here or overseas. The QMF covers the whole of the state, from the Torres Strait to Brisbane; it works with modest state funding, and in a financial and cultural partnership with regional communities of all sizes and political persuasions; its artistic directors, all iconic names in Australian music (since 2003, Lyndon Terracini, Paul Grabowsky, Deborah Conway, and currently, James Morrison) travel more kilometres in a year putting together a festival than most of us do in ten – James Morrison flies his own plane. In the two-year period between festivals, more than thirty separate events built with, in and for each of the participating communities are imagined and developed, support is negotiated from sponsors, and then over a two week period mid-year, the programme is staged. Some projects take two festivals – four years – to come to fruition, and some, like the festival's support for instrumental music in remote Aboriginal communities, are ongoing.

Events range from madly ambitious to the gentle and intimate. In 2013, the QMF staged a successful attempt at a place in Guinness World Records for the largest symphony orchestra: 7,224 musicians from school bands, the pro-am music community, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and the occasional international superstar, playing at Brisbane's iconic Suncorp Stadium under the baton of James Morrison. Look it up on YouTube – guaranteed to make you smile.

In the same year, the tiny town of Tambo, settled in 1863 and the oldest town in western Queensland (current population around four hundred), was host to Tambo – Heart of An Open Country, a gentle musical theatre celebration of its history and people, featuring country singer Graeme Connors. Like many smaller communities caught up in enforced local government amalgamations, Tambo was feeling a sense of loss of its own history and identity. But on the two nights, eight hundred people turned up to enjoy the music and to reconnect with each other, their shared history, and their town.

What is it about this festival? What is it about bringing people, their stories, and their place together in a shared creative endeavour which is so special for participants and for audiences? Some of the answers emerge from QMF's survey of people who were at Heart of an Open Country. People wanted to feel part of their community, to have fun, and to show others what their town could do. And they got what they wanted: they came away feeling fresh pride in their community, and in where they live. Many said they learned new life skills, and would stay longer in education and training or seek out new study opportunities.

Behind the Cane, the project for Bowen in 2012, uncovered the virtually hidden story of the South Sea Islanders in Queensland. Artistic director Deb Conway said:

Behind The Cane is about 'Blackbirding', the practice of importing, often by trickery, citizens of New Caledonia, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and PNG to work in establishing Queensland's cane plantations, salt pans and railways. The practice continued up until the introduction of the White Australia Policy when many of these workers suddenly found themselves rounded up, shipped out and dropped off somewhere regardless of their origin country. The people who managed to avoid being deported made a permanent home in Queensland.

It is a story of modern slavery, of family dislocation and loss, and it evokes echoes of the history of Queensland's relations with Aboriginal people. It took time and effort to piece together, from personal histories, fragments of material, family folklore, sketchy formal records. But some people heard the story of the South Sea Islanders for the first time, and for some, it created a pathway to their own family histories:

Thank you, thank you, thank you a thousand times, thank you QMF. For your vision and foresight to want to learn about our ancestral stories and to want to tell it out. It is one thing to research and enquire but to be able to take all the information gathered and transpose it into song and dance, music and drama in such a way as to be able to convey to an audience OUR STORY so accurately is why I (WE) can't begin to thank you enough.

The story was brought to life for me. My mother told me how my great-great-grandfather was brought out to Australia. I cried and could feel the pain, being a mother of seven boys. Seeing their determination not to let the circumstances dictate their lifestyle and their hard work. It made me appreciate and be proud of my heritage.

It's a project that deals with painful and potentially divisive material, but it celebrates, heals and unites. Deb Conway again:

The performance, played over three nights to eight thousand people including elders and dignitaries, was the cause of enormous pride amongst the Australian South Sea Islander community and launched in great style a new venue, the Bowen Sound Shell. The performance is something that is still being talked about and I believe helped to heal some old wounds. The build up to the performance, the research, the writing, the rehearsals and ongoing consultation is what made the project so compellingly potent, relevant and deeply moving. That of course makes my heart sing.

THERE'S A DIFFERENT challenge in Gladstone in 2014. This time it's James Morrison's festival, and Boomtown, the story of a town founded in the 1890s, but since the 1960s riding the boom and bust cycle, servicing the vast resource industries of Central Queensland. It's a fundamentally Queensland story, but one with resonance for many Australian towns. Aluminium, coal, cement, sodium cyanide, liquid natural gas, the fourth biggest coal-exporting port in the world, on a stunning bit of coastline inside the Great Barrier Reef. Like much of Australia, it's a place people come to, to build a future and seek their fortune, with all the challenges that such communities have. It's a place for men, their work and the affairs of global resource enterprises, with the lives of families and community always in their shadow.

Aptly, everything about this show is big. Three hundred cast (all locals), one hundred crew, with tugboats, bellringers, taiko drummers and a horse. On an enormous industrial-strength stage perched on the edge of the harbour, with a backdrop of water and a stand of gumtrees for a screen, Boomtown is set in the '60s, and told through the eyes of a teenage boy (George), struggling with the challenges of relocation to this frontier town: living in a caravan, and trying to find himself and where he fits in this strange and apparently hostile new place. It's brave and it's acutely relevant. On 24 January 2014, the Australian featured a major article, 'Gladstone pays a high price for its new industry': three liquid natural gas plants, an influx of eleven thousand new workers, and $70 billion worth of infrastructure.

The huge shadow of industry that has taken George's dad; the challenges to the environment and to Aboriginal ownership and culture of such developments; the power of the weather (Gladstone was hit by flooding from the tail of Cyclone Oswald in January 2013); and the personal struggle for individuals adjusting to life in boomtown communities are all there, told with humour, power and moments of tenderness.

There is a fabulous group of 'Stepford Wives' performing the opening and finale; a Gangnam sequence; a crowd-scene of zombies in hi-vis vests; dancing tugboats on the harbour, and every musical style you could imagine. And at the end, with George, the audience starts to see beyond the externals, the inhuman scale of the things that define Gladstone, and to understand that it is a community of people, all doing their best to make sense of the world and what they have been given. Finally, we're all singing along with 'Isn't it great to be in Gladstone' with the Stepford Wives – and truly, there's not a dry eye in the park.

And what did Gladstone think about Boomtown? Performers discovered new skills and confidence:

Boomtown was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Because of this project I have new confidence in myself and my vocal and acting abilities. Working with the creative team has influenced me immensely and I cannot thank them enough for the opportunities they have given me.

And the town also found out new things about itself, as CEO of the Gladstone Industry Leadership Group Kurt Heidecker wrote in the Observer:

Boomtown has been a rare opportunity for us to reflect as a community on our trials and tribulations, and individually consider some uncomfortable questions. What future do we want for our community? What is Gladstone's identity? What is industry's role in our community?

Judging by the quality of this event and its wholehearted community support, after Boomtown we are better placed to weather our community's future challenges. And (as we do) we know, just as we did for Boomtown, we will be able to call on the skills and talents that already exist in our community.

UNDOUBTEDLY, SOMETHING SPECIAL happens when QMF works with a community to create and stage a new musical work in which they and their town are the main players. In every evaluation (and the QMF does this assiduously) in the words of participants, audience and community leaders alike, there is a common experience from this process, regardless of the scale or complexity of the project: people feel more strongly connected to their community, and proud of what their town can do.

What is the source of this magic?

One key ingredient is the willingness of the QMF to invest significant time and effort in each creative development, from the generation of the initial concept to the stage triumph. The numbers are staggering. To look at just one example, Ailan Kores, the festival's opening event on Thursday Island in 2011, was a huge choral program drawing on the local store of sacred music and hymns adapted into Torres Strait culture and featuring six soloists, sixty adult voices, forty children, and thirty-three members of the Queensland Youth Orchestra. It was the culmination of four years of QMF presence in the Torres Strait, reflecting the complexity of working across vast distances, logistical challenges and cultural and language barriers. The Torres Strait is further from Brisbane than Hobart, covers 48,000 square kilometres (mainly water), with eighteen inhabited islands and two Cape York communities, and six distinctive geographical, cultural and linguistic traditions. The QMF held ninety meetings, sixty workshops and forty-three visits to create Ailan Kores, which was just one of the total 109 in the 2011 Festival.

Another key ingredient is the transformative effect of working with serious professional artists. While many cast members may be amateur, these are not amateur shows. Each project is led by respected professionals, such as composer Scott Saunders (Boomtown), creative producer Marguerite Pepper, working with Sean Mee as director and Josh McIntosh as designer (Behind The Cane and Boomtown) and writers Michael and Marjorie Forde (Behind The Cane and Tambo). The exposure to quality creative work and thinking pays off, in terms of learning, skills development and capacity-building, inspiration for local musicians and performers, and in the final product which showcases local talent to its own wider community. Young performers see the possibility of formal study and a professional career. In the Torres Strait, people are inspired to form a new permanent choir under the leadership of noted local musician Cygnet Repu, to build on the work undertaken for Ailan Kores.

There is an explicit commitment here to leave a legacy. Sometimes, as in Gladstone, a new local arts group is formed out of the many small groups working separately in the arts and brought together by the festival. Sometimes it's entirely personal, like the life-long choral singer in the Torres Strait who is reconnected to her passion after the loss of her partner. Sometimes it's enduring community infrastructure, like the new performance space in Anzac Park on Thursday Island, or the Bowen Sound Shell.

THERE IS A special significance to making work which bears witness to the lives of ordinary (and extraordinary) people and their communities. It is electrifying for people to see their own stories told on the stage, to have their lives become the stuff of song, orchestra and performance. They feel acknowledged and valued, they belong in a statewide undertaking and they take their place in the cultural fabric of their big state. Reflecting on his first QMF, James Morrison says:

It's a big place. But everywhere you go, people identify themselves as Queenslanders. A statewide festival makes sense in a way it wouldn't in another state. Yet within that shared identity, the character of each community is different, and the musical connections and traditions vary hugely – like a microcosm for music itself.

And then there's the music, with its extraordinary power to touch our emotions, to rouse us to action, move us to tears, to frighten or to soothe. Human brains have been hardwired to respond to music from an early stage in our evolution, so it's not just the musically educated or interested who can participate: pretty much everyone in a community can find in a QMF event something they respond to, and can derive enjoyment from the ultimate performance.

These are projects with extraordinary dimensions: they bring together community members around a common aim; they seek out and celebrate culture and heritage – the qualities and quirks that have gone into giving each town its distinctive character; they reach across cultural and social barriers and stimulate connections that may have been difficult to make; they enable some truths to be told; and they have that special something – they are fun, and they can really move you. It is difficult to think of another community activity that assembles so many potentially transformative elements in a single project.

So this is what QMF does. This working together with commitment, with a focus on culture and creativity, and with attention to people, place and process, culminating in a triumphant performance: it builds resilient communities. This is the characteristic that enables communities to overcome the challenges of what and where they are and that makes recovery from natural or man-made disaster, sometimes year after year, a possibility. Makers of public policy should take note – a modest investment in culture can have far-reaching benefits, and they are benefits that people really value.

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