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6 April 2023

mulaka milaythina - The Hunting Ground

Louise Denson and Nunami Sculthorpe-Green Image: Louise Denson and Nunami Sculthorpe-Green  
© Jacob Collings

The 27th Clarence Jazz Festival in Rosny, Tasmania in February 2023 included the world premiere of a unique and memorable commissioned work, mulaka milaythina - The Hunting Ground. The 35-minute work was commissioned by Clarence City Council with the generous support of Festivals Australia. Four months of creative collaboration between pianist/composer Louise Denson, and palawa/warlpiri researcher/historian Nunami Sculthorpe-Green, resulted in an eight-section suite for narrator and ten instrumentalists (2 violins, viola, cello, alto/tenor sax, trumpet, trombone, bass, drumkit/percussion, piano), which sits stylistically between the jazz and classical worlds.

The idea for the commission originated with Clarence Jazz Festival directors Stevie McEntee and Bec Varcoe. For several years, McEntee and Varcoe have been enacting an explicit diversity and inclusion agenda for the festival. The opening event features Tasmanian Aboriginal performers and themes, taking place at piyura kitina (Risdon Cove), the infamous site of the first massacre of Tasmanian Aboriginal people by British colonists. This land was returned to the Tasmanian Aboriginal people in 1995. The festival programming includes artists from across Tasmania's multicultural community and offers prominent platforms for women and gender diverse artists.

Nunami was the 2022 winner of the Tasmanian Tourism Minister's Young Achiever Award for her innovative tours - Takara nipaluna - Walking Hobart - that focus on truth-telling and the representation of Tasmanian Aboriginal stories in the public-facing history of Tasmania. McEntee and Varcoe came up with the idea to commission Nunami to research the history of the mumarimina people, a tribe of the Oyster Bay nation and the original inhabitants of the land east of the Derwent River, and to develop both a walking tour and the text for the creative work, mulaka milaythina.

Having secured her participation, they approached Louise to work collaboratively with Nunami and compose music as a response to the story, and to accompany and frame the narration. Louise and Nunami were assisted by dramaturge Sarah Hamilton both in the refinement of the text and the knitting together of the music with the story.

As elsewhere in Australia, previously ignored or buried information about the process of dispossession and the attempt at elimination of the Aboriginal population is slowly coming into public view in Tasmania. A British settlement was established at Hobart in 1804, and the suitability of Tasmania's soil and climate for agricultural pursuits soon became evident.

As settlers spread out across the island, the possibility of peaceful co-existence with the traditional owners of the land became more and more remote.

The founding of Hobart marked the beginning of a century-long campaign to rid Tasmania of all its original inhabitants. This campaign was thought to have been successful, with trukanini, a member of the South East nation from Recherche Bay, commonly designated 'the last Tasmanian Aborigine' upon her death in 1876. In fact, there are no known descendants of the Oyster Bay nation alive today. However, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, founded in the 1970s, has proven to be an important focal point in the successful organisation and self-actualisation of the community.

mulaka milaythina is a work with truth-telling at its heart. It is not a happy story, and the text does not shy away from recounting some brutal and shameful incidents. But Nunami felt strongly that the work should also emphasise the strength and solidarity of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community, and the hope that Tasmania will continue to evolve towards a fairer and brighter future for everyone.

The work opens with the ensemble creating an improvised soundscape evoking the Tasmanian bush as Nunami sets the scene with a text in palawa kani. A bass pedal point introduces the first piece as the text describes the beauty of the plains of Clarence shire - the hunting ground. 'Quiet Country' is a ballad with jazz inflected harmony and shifting tonal centres, and a trombone solo by Joe Weller.

'Dance' begins with clap sticks and the ensemble clapping and stamping a rhythm together. We are introduced to the first of the main characters in the text, Kalamaruwinya, the boy from Kangaroo Bay, who becomes an admired warrior and leader of his people. The melodic phrases in the trumpet, violins and piano are transcribed bird songs arranged in call and response. Drummer Tom Robb contributes short solos on both percussion (clap sticks, rattles, shakers) and drum kit before violinist Charlie McCarthy offers a lively, folk-influenced solo. The cheerful tempo evokes the importance of family, community, celebration and connection to country, and the joy they bring. But by the end of 'Dance' the mood has turned sombre. The displacement of the mumarimina people from the land they have been living on for millennia has begun. The rich plains across the river from Hobart are rapidly being usurped by pastoralists, and the kangaroos on the hunting ground are being replaced by sheep. The mumarimina people are being driven away.

'Across Country' describes the dispersal of people from their lands, with a solemn but defiant theme over a steady rhythmic pulse. The theme is stated by the strings, then the horns, as Nunami describes the misfortunes which begin to befall Kalamaruwinya and his family. He joins with members of other tribes, Chief Tungkalungita and a young warrior, Kikatapula, to mount a resistance to the inexorable encroachment of the colonists. They return to Kangaroo Bay and live in an uneasy truce with the settlers across the river in Hobart. Erin Sherlock then contributes a trumpet solo over a hip-hop groove before the ensemble states the theme a final time. But the truce does not last.

'Hanging' describes an incident in 1826 when two men from the Aboriginal camp at Kangaroo Bluff are accused of killing a pastoralist. 'Old Man Jack' and 'Young Man Dick' are abducted from the camp and imprisoned in the Hobart gaol. They are tried in a duly constituted court; however the proceedings take place in English, a language they do not speak; they are denied effective legal representation, and they are not allowed to give evidence in their defence. The piano sets the tone with a continuo semi-quaver figure in the right hand while the left hand and the bass play a threatening motif in minims and semibreves. The strings are layered in, playing various figures until the trombone and tenor saxophone join the motif in the low register, bringing the tension to a peak. There is an abrupt change of mood: a soulful, full-throated tenor saxophone solo by Spike Mason underpins the text which describes the sorrow and worry of the people at Kangaroo Bluff as they wait for news of their kinsmen. The tension builds again as the solo progresses until we learn that, not surprisingly, the two men have been convicted of the murder and hanged. An explosion of anguish is followed by a declaration of war on the invaders.

'War and Negotiation' alternates between D and Eb phrygian creating a disturbing, dissonant modality. The horns play a repeated figure with the piano outlining an alternating pattern of 2 bars of 4/4 and 2 bars of 6/4. The violins play a rising and falling, highly chromatic unison line in the 6/4 bars, which evokes the episodic, unpredictable nature of the raids and battles of the frontier war. The tension rises to a climax and an abrupt final chord. It is followed by a series of plaintive calls from the horns as Nunami describes the negotiations between the colonial government and the remaining Aboriginal people of Tasmania. They are exiled to Wybalenna, a settlement on Flinders Island in the Bass Strait.

'Exile' begins as we are told of the misery and devastation which ensue - children sent to the Orphan School in Hobart, the anguish of separation from country, the ravages of hunger, cold and diseases to which the Aboriginal people had no resistance. Chief Tungkalungita and the warrior Kikatapula both 'pass on strange lands', as does Kalamaruwinya, an end not fit for such proud leaders of their people. 'Exile' is an emotive ballad in Eb minor played by the rhythm section trio, featuring solos by both Louise Denson and bassist Hamish Houston.

The setting moves from the more distant to the recent past in the final section of the piece. In 2010, the Tasmanian Aboriginal people joined together to oppose the building of a highway bypass at Brighton, a community north of Hobart, which would result in the destruction of sights of cultural and historic significance for the Oyster Bay nation. A protest camp was set up on the banks of the Jordan River, originally called kutalayna. 'kutalayna' reprises the melody from 'Across Country', but it is altered and reharmonised to emphasise the themes of solidarity, resistance, community and family exemplified by the campaign to have the route of the bypass changed.

Despite the archaeological assessment that kutalayna was the oldest, richest site of its kind in the state, the protest camp was removed by the authorities and the bypass was built. Nunami says, "This was a hard defeat. Not our first fight and definitely not the last But one we won't soon forget".

The suite concludes with a reprise of the dance rhythm in 'Forward', with the melody using motifs from 'Quiet Country'. The major key communicates the possibility of a positive future as Nunami declares: "We will be here each, every and for all time, at the camp by the water's edge".

Louise and Nunami agree that the collaborative process was highly rewarding, both because of the opportunity to expand their artistic practices, and the novel pleasure of not working entirely alone for once! But most of all, they embraced the opportunity to present a work which has great importance in the present moment. Nunami says: "in lutruwita/ Tasmania truth telling is rarely done… [This was] a really fantastic opportunity for people to connect with the true history of this place and the stories of our people that they might not have been exposed to previously… Louise's composition, and the way the musicians here have bought it to life has been such a powerful experience, getting to tell these stories in a whole new way."

mulaka milaythina was performed as the opening event of the Clarence Jazz Festival, and again on the final day when it was also recorded. Nunami, Louise and the ensemble are looking forward to having to the opportunity to present the work to a wider audience in the coming years.

Images: Rosie Hastie

Subjects discussed by this article:

Louise Denson is a pianist and composer of jazz and classical music. She has recorded five CDs under her own name and performed at Australian jazz festivals and abroad. She was a Senior Lecturer in Jazz at the Queensland Conservatorium from 1999 to 2020 and recently relocated to Tasmania, where she is developing new musical pathways with new collaborators. Her compositions have been recorded and performed by national and international artists.


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