Denmark Festival of Voice: Many Voices, Three Countries, One Heart

Denmark Festival of Voice: Many Voices, Three Countries, One Heart

Jon Solmundson

By Denmark Arts Council Artistic Director Vivienne Robertson.

Why did a small coastal town in Western Australia invite four Muslim Chechen women from the notorious Pankisi Valley in Georgia to come and sing songs of peace in the underground IGA carpark?

The Denmark Festival of Voice is not your average festival. One of only two dedicated vocal festivals in Australia, it is an exploration of diversity, celebrating voices from near and far and those from the edge.

The women of Ensemble Aznash Laaman. Picture by Hazel Blake

The Festival opening – 12 Voices 3 Countries 1 Heart, partly funded by the Department of Communication and the Arts Catalyst and Festivals Australia programs brought together the Chechen Sufi women of Ensemble Aznash Laaman, 6 Italian men from the remote Liguria Mountains, Australian-Jewish acclaimed performer Lior and a specially commissioned projected backdrop from local artist Nikki Green threading ancient prayer with global justice.

600 people waited in near-rain outside for the black curtain in the normally busy underground concrete carpark to be lifted, while inside the last of 200 tea-candles were being lit.

Following a Noongar Welcome to Country, the audience heard first the Muslim Call to Prayer, followed by a Muslim song of gratitude, a Hebrew song of compassion and a Catholic song of love. To conclude the opening local poet Alison Kershaw offered ‘Rainbow Spirit’ to launch the Festival with the intent of harmony.

This was our first year of inviting international acts to the Festival. We chose two highly unique vocal ensembles: the 6 piece male Compagnia Sacco, or ‘Ceriana Singers’ from the Liguria mountain region of Italy, and the 6 piece female Ensemble Aznash Laaman from the Pankisi Valley, Georgia. The vocal music of both groups is based in the ancient tradition of polyphonic chant, which has its roots in the homelands of Aznash, but is also practiced in certain areas of the Mediterranean, including the Ceriana Mountains.

The two ensembles share music profoundly immersed in tradition which also embraces song as ‘spontaneous expression, deeply rooted in the everyday’, marking the seasons, people, dramas, places and events of ongoing village life. Along with wonderful concerts and workshops throughout the weekend, following on from the Festival Opening, both groups engaged in a huge amount of cultural exchange with the community: wine tasting, olive pruning, singing with children, story-telling, dinners which became parties, excursions which involved everyone within site.

What was shared between Denmark and these two ensembles comes right back to the Festival Opening title: many voices, three countries, one heart.

Denmark Arts Council is a recipient of Country Arts WA’s Regional Arts Legacy Grant, made possible through the State Government’s Royalties for Regions Creative Regions Program.

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