Christmas in Darling Harbour – Brent Clough and the ABC of World Music

At the recent Aria awards the Australian music industry inducted Midnight Oil into their Hall of Fame. The tribute was profound not the least because the Bondi band Silverchair played the tribute: the Oil’s own I Don’t Want To be The One.

Silverchair’s super charged rendition of the Oil’s song was more than a musical lionisation. It was a political statement too. In the middle of the nationally televised performance Silverchair’s inspired leader, Daniel Johns, graffitied the back of the stage with a spray can: PG4PM.

Across the young modern Australian national consciousness the popular message was unmistakable: Peter Garrett For Prime Minister. Garrett has progressed his profile as prophet and sage since his days as vocalist- front man for Midnight Oil. Now the MP for Kingsford Smith and the Labour Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Environment and the Arts, Garrett was apparently taken aback. But the writing is on the wall.

Of course the Arias are only the tip of the Australian music iceberg.

I am writing this in Darling Harbour, Sydney. My flying visit here has many layers. I am seeking out fellow music thinkers to talk about how New Zealand music is plugged into the World Music scene.

Day two of my visit leads me to a rich conversation with Brent Clough – an ex-Tauranga broadcaster who now works for the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).

As a teenage student at Otumoetai College he famously managed to infiltrate a hotel room to talk with Bob Marley for a golden half hour the day after his Western Springs Concert in 1979.

Clough went on to cut his teeth as a broadcaster working for Radio BOP in the 1980s when he had his own regular music show called The Sound System. Now he is producer and presenter of a highly regarded World Music radio programme which is broadcast each afternoon on ABC Radio National called The Daily Planet. We share a huge respect for the BBC’s Charlie Gillett who is perhaps the best known researcher/broadcaster in the World Music domain.

Clough reflected on the rise of Rogernomics and the consequent “atomisation of New Zealand society” which was well underway as he relocated to Sydney in 1984.

“I remember seeing Herbs playing with UB40 after the Auckland Springbok test in 1981”, he says. “When Herbs sang Azania I looked around at the audience and saw many protesters who had demonstrated against the tour earlier that day – people with broken arms and scarred faces. I realised we were a country virtually caught in a civil war”.

That alignment of music with political change has given Clough a passion for researching and disseminating the good news on his Daily Planet broadcasts.

I ask him “Where is the edge?” His response is a rapid and informed account of the current rise of the international Afrobeat movement. He’s a fan of Fela Anikulapo Kuti (the Nigerian inventor of Afrobeat who died in 1997), politicized by Bob Marley and influenced by the energy of James Brown. “When you dive into Fela Kuti’s music it’s a long way to the bottom”. The Afrobeat movement is a collective, green, alternative approach to making music and spreading ideas, and it’s kept alive by Fela’s son, Femi and by a new generation of US bands like Antibalas, Nomo and the Chicago Afrobeat Project.

Clough is a staunch believer in the power of public broadcasting and holds fast to the idea that music can affect and nurture change. He actively playlists current New Zealand releases – last month Whirimako Black’s recording of the jazz standard Autumn Leaves (translated into te reo by BOP residents Carol Storey and Huria Tawa ) was played on The Daily Planet across Australia.

Clough also has his finger on the pulse promoting antipodean music as part of the bi-annual Pacific Wave Festival staged in Sydney and seeking out international venues where New Zealand indigenous music is played. He assures me that the notion that “New Zealand is the new Jamaica” is alive and well among UK DJs who are routinely playing the new Pacific reggae sounds in Britain.

Sydney seems drenched in the arts this weekend. This is after all the town where Hollywood’s Australian born Cate Blanchett has just taken up the position as artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company.

The music rags are promoting lists of shows ranging from the alternative band New Pornographers, concerts at the Basement club by Irish songwriter Paul Brady, a street performance of Phil Kline’s 1992 Unsilent Night involving 2000 performers carrying boom boxes playing pre-recorded tapes of Christmas carols. On the Saturday evening a quarter of a million fans attend Carols In The Domain featuring Oz Idols, the Wiggles accompanied by the Australian Youth Orchestra.

Ambling from Harbour Side across the glass covered overpass above the light rail to Pyrmont Street a small child is following me and my companions. She is hand in hand with her parents and she is singing – her clear innocent voice echoing in the relative silence of the closed chamber. I turn and our eyes meet momentarily and she smiles.

She’s singing about Santa and his:

“Six white boomers
Snow white boomers
Racing Santa Clause through the blazing sun
On his Australian run.”

Written by Liam Ryan Thursday, 21 December 2006

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