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‘Ruby’ – a perfect marriage of instruments and song


Indigenous singer Nancy Bates has joined musicians from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra for a moving Virtual Concert Hall performance that blends a 60,000-plus-year-old songwriting tradition with classical instruments.

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Nancy Bates, a Barkindji woman from New South Wales, spent years touring with Archie Roach and wrote her song “Ruby”, about Roach’s late wife Ruby Hunter, as a special gift for the singer-songwriter.

To celebrate National Reconciliation Week, the ASO invited Bates and SA composer Julian Ferraretto to collaborate and arrange the song for a performance with orchestra wind trio Geoffrey Collins (flute), Dean Newcomb (clarinet) and Jackie Newcomb (contra bassoon).

The result is now available on the ASO’s Virtual Concert Hall, with Bates saying the sound of the instruments with her song was a perfect marriage.

Ferraretto describes the whole experience as an “exciting and visceral” one, “bringing together the combined gravity of symphony orchestra musicians and a 60,000-plus-year-old songwriting tradition”.

Here, the pair discuss the song, the significance of their collaboration and how it all came together.

Songlines have been a prominent feature of Aboriginal cultures for more than 60,000 years. Nancy, can you explain what they are and the significance they have to you personally?

Nancy: Songlines are navigational tracks travelled by the creation spirits who created the land, lore and animals.  Songlines are embedded into the landscape because you “sing it up” as you move from place to place, sharing the songs between language groups.  Personally, I am so sad that I was denied my right to learn my songlines because of the destructiveness of colonisation.  Going to the Garma Festival in NT, where songlines are unbroken, I feel a deep sense of loss.

How are contemporary new songlines established?

Nancy: The first thing is to acknowledge the songlines, acknowledge before you play.  Being authentic and writing songs that contain important messages, that are wise and that incorporate community.  I do a lot of songwriting with community groups, like Adelaide women’s prison, and I think that is part of how you establish a new songline.

Tell us about the song ‘Ruby’ and the meaning behind it…

Nancy: I wrote this song for Archie Roach, who I toured with for almost four years, and it’s about his beautiful wife Ruby Hunter, who was an incredible singer-songwriter in her own right.  I think often women are catalysts for the birth of beautiful music because our love inspires.

It’s also about the invisibility of women in the music industry, and Ruby stood for women’s music, and for black women in this country.

To sum it up, it’s about the contribution of Ruby Hunter to the Australian musical landscape, and to Archie Roach.

You spent years touring regularly as a backing vocalist and rhythm guitarist with Roach, and have said that performing on stage with him is the “closest thing to the spirit”. What do you mean by that?

Nancy: The music of Archie Roach is “skin music” – it weeps from his skin. If you have not immersed yourself in the catalogue of Archie Roach, then you are not fully realised as a songmaker.

When I said it was the closest thing to spirit, I mean that the depth of Archie’s music, the enormity of his voice and storytelling, and the feeling in the room would be transcendental. People would cry and release their pain, and there were times that Archie’s presence was so enormous that you would be overcome.

The love he receives without command is pure and divine.

How did you feel when asked to do this collaboration?

Nancy: Just so excited and appreciative. I mean, who gets to do this kind of project? I think the ASO is genuine in wanting to collaborate with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in SA because they see a real benefit for their musicians in having a relationship with First Nation people and through their music.

Julian: I felt it was a huge privilege and also a big responsibility to arrange Nancy’s songs. Her music carries on a 60,000-year tradition. I was also really excited to work with the ASO. I’ve worked with them a few times now and I know and trust the musicians to beautifully shape any melodies that you give them.

Geoffrey Collins, Julian Ferraretto, Jackie Newcomb, Dean Newcomb and Nancy Bates.

How did you work together?

Nancy: From my perspective, it was organic. I have never worked with these instruments but I got to learn about them and realised how compatible they were for “Ruby”.  It’s intimidating working with trained musicians when you are not yourself, but we found common ground and that was the song “Ruby” itself.

Julian: We worked together first by listening to lots of different music – playing music to each other for a couple of hours. Nancy played me classical music that inspired her, including Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf”, as well as lots of music from Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter, and told me stories around them. Process-wise, it was different to how I usually work, because I normally go to the melody and the harmonic structure of the piece. Nancy highlighted the importance of the lyric and the narrative of the piece. We talked about those particular lines in the songs which need to be brought forward.

Early in the collaboration you spent a lot of the session listening to music – ranging from Archie Roach to Mozart and Elvis Costello. How did those artists and music inform the piece?

Julian: We looked at pop musicians who used reeds and winds in their arrangements and the space that they filled. Archie Roach was important because of the connection to the song and because he is underrated while being one of the most important voices in Australian music. It was hard to ignore Mozart – Mozart is such a master of balance and colour, and his wind serenades teach you something every time you hear them.

The work is recorded with a wind trio – ASO flautist Geoff Collins, clarinettist Dean Newcomb and contra bassoonist Jackie Newcomb. Describe the sound they added to the original work?

Nancy: I cannot speak highly enough of the trio – they’re outstanding musicians and beautiful people who made me feel like a rock star. The sound of the instruments was the perfect marriage for the song. In fact, I will now go and formally record the song with them. I think we could do more gigs together once venues are open again. and that’s an exciting prospect.  We learned a lot from each other.

Julian: The trio’s sound kind of holds the work up and surrounds it, almost creating some scenery around the story. Their function changes through the piece – in the opening, they set the scene. There are moments when they surround the lyric and lift certain phrases and other times they function like backing singers in a band.

How do you feel about the completed project?

Nancy: This project has been one of the most beautiful and special opportunities ever given me… there was a genuine exchange of stories and perspectives and a warmth between us all. We also workshopped the ASO’s “Acknowledgement of Country”, which was an unexpected but significant outcome.

Julian: I think this project feels like a beginning – bringing together the combined gravity of symphony orchestra musicians and a 60,000-plus-year-old songwriting tradition. It’s exciting and visceral. There was a sense in the room that something new and exciting was happening and our heads are now buzzing about where we go from here.

The Virtual Concert Hall performance of “Ruby” can be viewed online here until June 13.

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