pick up sticks
by Sean
Please note: MP3s are only kept online for a short time, and if this entry is from more than a couple of weeks ago, the music probably won't be available to download any more.


Day six at the 2003 ottawa Bluesfest.

We sat happily and awaited White Cockatoo.

"White Cockatoo is a unique performing company that hails from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. The artists are a group of senior Aboriginal men from the Mialili, Rembarrnga, Guningu, and Burrara language groups, who share the same social and family affiliations. Their corroboree (music, song and dance) is a part of one of the earth's oldest unbroken artistic traditions. Their homeland is the traditional birthplace of the Australian Aboriginal musical instrument the Didjeridu."
What eventually emerged was a white Australian man in a tuxedo. He welcomed us with jocular charm, talking about that "oldest unrboken artistic tradition" thing - blaming Australia's (initial) lack of invasion upon its desolation and absence of "tucker." He threw in a number of Australian colloquialisms, but also some words from aborigine language. Each of the latter was said with a little dramatic flourish. All things considered, I thought I was listening to the soundtrack of The Gods Must Be Crazy.

Eventually he introduced one of the members of the troupe, who walked out wearing a red loincloth, his body covered in swathes of white paint. The man then played the didjeridu - his circular breathing was incredible (ie, he never stopped for air), but there was a perplexing lack of dynamics in his performance. For those of us who have heard so-called "professional" didj players, it's interesting to see that the original Aborigine tradition calls for very little of the fancy "barks" that people associate with expertise.

When the didjeridu player finished, our Colonialist Guide then introduced the rest of White Cockatoo - two singers ("songmen"), and two dancers. What followed were six or eight songs, each with sameish didjeridu playing, sameish wail-singing, sameish stick-hitting (each of the performers hit two pieces of wood together, with alternating rhythms), and sameish dancing. While some of the rest of the audience was bored by the (apparent) monotony, I found it mesmerising. Hearing the little differences in style and feeling, trying to understand the different way-of-thinking that abstracted these strange dances out of conventional stories. It was the dancing that was most wonderful - sudden, high-stepping movements; careless twisting of legs. If I didn't know better, I would have thought it was contemporary dance - surprising, moving, different.

Of course, my postcolonialist alarms were going off like crazy. I've read too many essays on cultural imperialism, subalterns, mimic-men and orientalism to be able to view this through a naive North American lens. There was something alternatingly infuriating and hilarious (such gall!) about the fact that a white man in a tuxedo was explaining each song, cracking light jokes about how different we are from the "noble" Aborigines (They believe in "devils," ha ha! And you can tell someone's not a devil because they eat or go to the toilet! Ha ha ha!). It's not that I think that the performers were innocant, oppressed, Pocahontas-like victims - how could I think that, having delved into Spivak, Said and Bhabha - but worse still, I couldn't imagine them in a sustained way as anything other that cynical, Coca-Cola-swilling, fully indoctrinated Australians. I pictured the members of White Cockatoo going backstage, scrubbing off the make-up, throwing on a pair of Levis and watching Survivor: The Amazon. Flashes of this image kept interrupting my viewing of the show. "Is that guy faking it?" I kept wondering. "Or are they playing us 'lovers of Culture' for fools?"

And I don't know the answer.

Later, we made our way to the front of the mainstage for Kool and the Gang. We only stayed for three songs, however. It was simply the cheesiest thing I've ever heard. While I had been hoping for some organic funk awesomeness, Kool and the Gang's performance was instead saturated with skyhigh eighties synths, the funk on par with the theme-song to Perfect Strangers (but without Balki's hilarious antics). What's more, 80% of the band was under 35 - this wasn't Kool and the Gang, it was Kool and the Gang of Kids Who Auditioned for the Record Label. The players were all competent, the fresh-faced singer charming, but the music was simply loathsome. A huge disappointment.

Hawksley Workman wasn't much better. "Oh, get over yourself," said Julian as Workman cooed and preened on-stage. I've never liked the guy's stuff, and my opinion goes unchanged. He's like a junkie Rufus Wainwright, and I like neither junkies nor Rufus.

I went home, and listened to Ron Sexsmith's "Cobblestone Runway", Elbow's Cast of Thousands and Doves' Last Broadcast using my new (blissful and comfy) headphone pads.

Posted by Sean at July 11, 2003 1:55 PM

Acch, Sean, again you lost out by not sticking around. The first half hour was total crap, I agree, but when they got down to business it was SWEEEEET. "Jungle Boogie", "Hollywood Swinging", "Can't get enough of that funky stuff" and of course "Celebration" all rocked - not to mention an inhuman trumpet solo. And I'd say having three original members out of six people on stage, one of whom was Kool himself, is not so bad. Patience, Sean, patience is key.

Posted by Martin at July 12, 2003 3:15 PM

-Oh yeah and I, too, hate Australians. Jerks.

Posted by Martin at July 12, 2003 3:16 PM

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about the authors
Sean Michaels is the founder of Said the Gramophone. He is a writer, critic and author of the theremin novel Us Conductors. Follow him on Twitter or reach him by email here. Click here to browse his posts.

Emma Healey writes poems and essays in Toronto. She joined Said the Gramophone in 2015. This is her website and email her here.

Jeff Miller is a Montreal-based writer and zinemaker. He is the author of Ghost Pine: All Stories True and a bunch of other stories. He joined Said the Gramophone in 2015. Say hello on Twitter or email.

Mitz Takahashi is originally from Osaka, Japan who now lives and works as a furniture designer/maker in Montreal. English is not his first language so please forgive his glamour grammar mistakes. He is trying. He joined Said the Gramophone in 2015. Reach him by email here.

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Dan Beirne wrote regularly for Said the Gramophone from August 2004 to December 2014. He is an actor and writer living in Toronto. Any claim he makes about his life on here is probably untrue. Click here to browse his posts. Email him here.

Jordan Himelfarb wrote for Said the Gramophone from November 2004 to March 2012. He lives in Toronto. He is an opinion editor at the Toronto Star. Click here to browse his posts. Email him here.
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our favourite blogs
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Back to the World
La Blogothèque
Weird Canada
Destination: Out
Endless Banquet
A Grammar (Nitsuh Abebe)
Ill Doctrine
A London Salmagundi
Words and Music
Petites planétes
Gorilla vs Bear
Silent Shout
Clouds of Evil
The Dolby Apposition
Awesome Tapes from Africa
Matana Roberts
Pitchfork Reviews Reviews
i like you [podcast]
Nicola Meighan
radiolab [podcast]
CKUT Music
plethoric pundrigrions
Wattled Smoky Honeyeater
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Torture Garden
Passion of the Weiss
Juan and Only
Horses Think
White Hotel
Then Play Long (Marcello Carlin)
Uno Moralez
Coming Up For Air (Matt Forsythe)
my love for you is a stampede of horses
It's Nice That
Song, by Toad
In Focus
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The Rest is Noise (Alex Ross)
My Daguerreotype Boyfriend
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st-viateur bagel
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le pick up
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drawn + quarterly
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blue skies turn black
montreal improv theatre
passovah productions
le cagibi
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pop pmontreal
yoga teacher Thea Metcalfe

Cult Montreal
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