“The project for me began from a musical point of view, because if it’s not strong musically, it doesn’t matter what you’re trying to say in the messaging,” Riebl says. “There are songs about the disproportionate rate of Indigenous youth incarceration and deaths in custody, but that’s not the whole show. It’s also about the simple joy of singing, the strength of friendship and family. It’s about writing songs that bring the chorus to life.
“Even with issues people would normally find unbearable, the voices leave you with optimism, renewal and energy. That’s something we never could have predicted.”
Spinifex Gum sing a song cycle with movement performed by the Marliya Choir. On stage, there are 12 to 18 choir members performing, aged 12 to 20, but there are 30 members in the entire Cairns-based group. They sing in English and Yindjibarndi and have toured around Australia since forming seven years ago. Aside from Riebl and McGill, choir conductor Lyn Williams directs the group and Deborah Brown, a former Bangarra Dance Theatre dancer, creates their choreography. Together, they create a setting for the girls to shine.
They have already released two studio albums, with a third in the works, and a recording of their live performance last year at the Sydney Opera House will be released next month.
They will be opening Melbourne’s feast of live music this summer, Live at the Bowl, and could not be a more fitting choice, kicking off the new year with the particular power of united voices.
“We’ve all wondered how we can get that energy back after nine months of singing being banned because of the pandemic,” Riebl says.
“Rehearsals have been held on weekly Zoom sessions, but then we also think the energy may be better than ever. They’re an incredible bunch of girls. They’re not all as assertive off stage. On stage they look battle ready, but off stage they’re just teenagers.
“There’s a real sense of discipline and pride when they get ready for the show and prepare. They get their braids done and put their hoodies on and there’s an amazing transformation. You get a group of laid-back schoolkids, but on stage they’re doing something that is truly world class.”
The choir has a level of sophistication that Riebl did not set out to achieve but that has naturally evolved, perhaps through the exploration of social issues. The girls’ families have a strong relationship with the choir and they all have a say in the songs’ subject matter, with some starting to compose as well.
“The songwriting process is becoming collaborative, which is so inspiring to see as it comes through,” he says. “We’ve always had really high expectation on the singers. If you’re going to do something well, do it really well.”
Spinifex Gum perform as part of Live at the Bowl, Sidney Myer Music Bowl, on January 8. Tickets start at $25. liveatthebowl.com.au