The Voice of Sydney: In Defense of Busking

Buskers – they are the people you walk past in the Central Station tunnel, the people you see standing on street corners or pounding away on their guitars in Pitt Street Mall. You hear them, their music echoing through you as you speed past and try your best to avoid eye contact. But despite all your best efforts, you can’t help but listen to them, and be comforted by their presence.

This weekend, I made the trip into Pitt Street Mall to catch Australian indie duo Winterbourne play a set to celebrate the release of their newest (and long awaited) EP Pendulum. As an avid fan of their work, I had no qualms about standing in the chilly weather in my warmest coat to see them capture the attention of hundreds of people passing through the Mall. It was a beautiful sight, seeing these guys, long time favourites at the Mall, play brilliantly and capture the hearts of many old and new fans. If the line of teenage girls, indie music lovers and the odd fangirling Mum, waiting to meet them afterwards was anything to go by, they truly were the stars of the day.

But what really got me about their set was their complete respect for the busking culture at Pitt Street Mall. Sure, Winterbourne owe a lot of their success to years of busking. A friend of mine has been to see them busk numerous times since she first stumbled across them in 2012. But to see them continue their dedication to busking and show the same humility and respect for their fellow buskers even after their successes beyond the busking scene, was incredible. They knew the names of all the familiar faces at the mall. They encouraged everyone who had come to see them to stay and see the young kid performing after them, who had, in a brotherly act, lent them his power boards for the last hour. And then they stayed back and stood in support of him and his crew for the next hour, having a chat with the performer to go on after that – the well known paint bucket drummer. The camaraderie between all these performers, all familiar with each other’s work, even if they hadn’t seen each other on the Mall for some months, was tremendous, and incredibly heartwarming.

Busking is a huge part of the culture of Sydney, and the regulars make everyday commutes and lunch breaks special. I remember the day one of my favourite buskers, a guitarist that stood at the Martin Place fountain nearly everyday, stopped playing there. I didn’t realise until then just how comforting it was to hear his music echoing through Martin Place as I walked through from a study day at the State Library. I felt as though Martin Place had lost its soul that day, and the silence that stood in his place felt strange and uncomfortable. Most of all, I felt bad that I had never taken the time to throw some money in his guitar case as a thank you for his contribution to the voice of Sydney.

Sydney has some pretty awesome buskers going around, and if you are lucky enough, on the right weekend, a few hours around the city, or even standing on Pitt Street Mall, can turn into the best local music festival you could find. This weekend proved to be one of those festivals.

So next time you walk past the busker who makes your little part of Sydney sing, take a moment to stop and listen to them, throw some money in their case and thank them for their music. Because one day, they might stop standing on that street corner, and you will lose the familiar voices that you didn’t even realise you would miss.

 

This article is for Robbie, the blues guitarist and singer who stands in the Central Station Tunnel. Thanks for your music every morning on the way to university. Also, to Winterbourne, who made a cold drizzly Saturday brighter with their music.

Winterbourne’s new EP Pendulum is available to purchase here.

© Hayley New 2016

 

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What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi: A Review

A few weeks ago, I walked into my favourite bookshop and was immediately struck by the sight of a book with no hard spine (that’s right, no spine), the cover title shining bright and gold across the image of a hand sketched rose. Between the openness of the spine and the beauty of its cover, I couldn’t help but pick it up. I know we are told not to judge a book by its cover, but if it was the cover that made me pick up this book and buy it I am very glad it did, for it is easily the best book I have read so far this year.

Helen Oyeyemi’s collection of short stories What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is a masterpiece of modern writing. Moving between stories about books and roses, women who inherit libraries, puppets with deeply philosophical internal lives, parents and stepparents of teenage fangirls, haunting relationship studies and diaries that were never meant to be opened, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, delves into a deep understanding of the ways in which we like to imagine our lives colliding with the fantastical and fairytale-like world of our imagination.

On the back of my copy sits a quote from Ali Smith, saying that Oyeyemi is “a writer of sentences so elegant that they gleam” and I cannot imagine a more perfect way of describing Oyeyemi’s writing. The richness of her language pulls you in and envelopes you without hesitation. The deftness with which Oyeyemi writes the fullness of her imagination across the page strikes me as one of the most accomplished feats in contemporary English-language literature.

I think my favourite of the stories contained within this collection are the first “Books and Roses” and last “If a book is locked there’s probably a good reason for that don’t you think”, framing the collection with a strange sense of myth and magic contained within the regular spaces of life, libraries and offices respectively. Although, to be able to pull favourites from this collection is extremely difficult. Each short story is prefaced with beautiful titles, titles that grasp your curiosity and make you feel like you are reading a short poem as you begin. For a collection of short stories, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours sometimes feels more like a complex poetic novel-like concoction, with minor characters from earlier stories reappearing and toying with the characters in later stories. In a way, there is a sense of a history wrapped around the characters in these stories that only becomes more complex and interesting as the stories progress. The ultra-realist and hyper-imagined elements of these stories come together brilliantly in the shared universe of Helen Oyeyemi’s collection.

After reading this collection, I will admit, I rushed out to get my hands on more of Oyeyemi’s work, to dive back into the gleaming imaginative style she so fantastically brings to life. As a reader, I am in awe of her masterful command of language and storytelling. As a writer, I am extremely jealous.

I also have to commend the team who worked on the construction and publication of this collection of Helen Oyeyemi’s work. The physical reading experience was amazing, the spinelessness of the book adding just the right quirk to complement Oyeyemi’s writing, and making for a wonderful tactile reading experience.

I cannot recommend this collection enough to anyone even remotely interested in unique, beautiful, and skilfully executed writing. If you love delving into rich honey language and seeing imagination collide with the everyday, go and get your hands on a copy right now. You won’t regret it!

 

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is available in all good bookstores.

As always, INWORDSANDINK encourages its readers to shop at and support their local independent bookstores.

© Hayley New 2016

Sydney Theatre Company’s Disgraced: A Review

Very rarely, there comes a play that gets at the heart of a particular social moment, and grabs that moment to shake out all the things we tend to turn away from in the hopes we don’t have to recognise them for what they are.

For me, Ayad Aktar’s Disgraced is that play.

Disgraced, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, tackles the tension around contemporary relationships with social spaces and faith in a world that is so wrapped up in disavowing religious belief systems – specifically Islam. The central figure of Amir is very vocal about his problems with the faith he was raised in, and the culture surrounding that faith, but the play does something very unique, and seemingly very natural in not blaming the faith for Amir’s self-loathing, but Amir himself. It is clear to audiences from the outset that Islam is not the villain of this play, nor is America or capitalism or any of the usual suspects we are used to blaming. Instead, the villain here is warped self-perception and self-destruction. Somehow, this play does that nameless thing in tackling head on what the post-9/11 landscape of American mentality looks like and how it impacts the personal and enclosed spaces of the home and the relationships within it.

Sydney Theatre Company’s current production of Disgraced, the first time this play has been staged in Australia, doesn’t disappoint. I was lucky enough to get tickets for the first preview showing and it was a masterpiece of modern theatre performance. The staging was brilliantly designed, the set facing equally across all sides, so that the action of the play could be regarded with equal access no matter the direction of movement across the stage. We can see the vague silhouette of the bedroom, the balcony facing out onto New York, the slight glimpses into the outside world in the hallway leading to the apartment and the escape of the kitchen space, the place that Emily (Amir’s wife) often escapes to in order to re-balance the apartment’s emotional space. There are hints of an outside, but we feel just as closed in, just as claustrophobic, as the characters themselves. There are no places to hide from the bristling and uncomfortable discussions taking place in front of us.

Having recently read the play for a university course, I went into this production with high expectations for how it would tackle the central relationships of this play. STC’s production, much like the play, doesn’t try to blame anyone for the problematics played out on the stage. Instead, the movement and the interludes that take place between scenes allow a lull, a brief silence, in which the audience can reflect on the vastness and complexities of the action they have just witnessed. These are real people, we all know these terrible people and their morally ambiguous behaviours. But there is something about voicing them so openly in the theatre space, addressing topics that are normally hidden beneath the veneer of respectable social interaction, that makes these people startlingly repulsive and endearing all at once. You want to hate these people, but you can’t. Because somewhere on that stage, if only for a line or two, is you.

I applaud the decision of the creative team to keep the play situated in the imagined space of New York City, keeping it in its original American context. All the actors maintained authentic American accents and characteristics throughout the performance, and yet, there was still a sinister feeling that lingered in the background of the production, a feeling that this wasn’t just New York or even America anymore. The accents never slipped, but the audience’s mind often did slip into the all-too familiar feeling of racism, religious discrimination and self-loathing that is so prevalent in Australia at the moment. The story on stage could easily have been translated into an Australian context, but the deliberate choice to keep it American – a seemingly neutral space for audiences given the current state of American domination of entertainment spaces – makes it seem both alien and familiar all at once. We are caught between these worlds in a way that we really needed to in order for us to remember that these aren’t just characters on a stage, these are necessary reminders of the state of socio-political spheres in Western spaces at the moment, and the resounding impact that these spheres are having on the personal and internal spaces of both the racialised and the non-racialised.

Some slight issues I had with the show. The one thing I wished had been more cleverly or at the very least more sensitively addressed was the racialisation of Jory in the show. She is imagined in the play script and even in the dialogue as a woman of African American descent. However, there was something about the casting of Paula Arundell in this role that left the audience imagining her as more racially ambiguous – a bad habit in both theatre and film that keeps rearing its head. This may be a probably only I seem to have, and don’t get me wrong, Arundell absolutely nails the role, but I wonder if the casting of a seemingly racially ambiguous actor in this role was deliberate or not, and how this affects the character dynamic on stage. In a play that considers racialisation and cultural assumptions as this play does, it seems nearly inevitable that the casting of any and all people of colour onstage will be addressed, and potentially the casting of certain roles may become points of contention for different audiences. I am interested to see how other people discuss the casting of certain roles in this play.

Another complaint, though minuscule, is the absence of Emily’s ventures into Islamic art onstage. Her work is always mentioned, and the idea of a white non-Muslim woman experimenting with the Islamic tradition and Islamic artistic forms interests me greatly. However, the physical absence of this work onstage disappointed me, as I think it could have been an interesting point for the company to act around, to examine their reactionary behaviours, and without the audience being left to imagine the work (which leaves the potential for the audience, who likely have a small understanding of Islamic artistic traditions to imagine little more than a blank space on stage). It is understandable however, that this may have been a deliberate choice to make the audience examine their relationships to different cultural and religious art practices. Even so, I wish I could have seen the art myself.

All in all, this was a brilliant performance, and I cannot express how brilliantly the cast embodied this play and its intent. I was incredibly impressed with all the actors on stage, and cannot fault any of their acting – it was all rather masterful and incredibly compelling. A special mention for the lead actor Sachin Joab (who played Amir) who so convincingly portrayed the internal and often external battle with racial and religious expectations and self-loathing that drives this play.

If you have the chance to see this play, I highly recommend it. It is really something incredible and important, particularly given the current state of Australian cultural and religious politics, and ideas around relationships with the self, culture, religion and bigotry.

Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Disgraced runs from 16th April to the 20th of June. Tickets are available here, though they are selling out fast.

 

© Hayley New 2016

The Sea

The sea

staring with unblinking eyes,

sucking on the bleached bones

of driftwood skeletons

stripped and mangled

and thrown against the shore

sticky with sand.

 

The sea

nibbling on the toes

of feet that are too cold

for the ocean to keep

in its mouth

for more than a moment

at a time.

 

The sea

licking at her skin,

washing her of the grime

of two tides ago,

slipping its gums

across her hair,

staining them seaweed

and shell.

 

The sea

chopping at her memories

of brilliant midnight blue,

scattering them in salt

and swallowing them whole

for safe keeping

with other sinking objects.

 

The sea

shining bright against the moon,

slinking slowly forward,

teeth glistening,

devouring god’s lost objects

strewn across the shore.

 

© Hayley New 2016