In 2015, Gondwana Choirs commissioned Riebl to create an original work, and Spinifex Gum – a Song Cycle had its premiere a year later, performed by the Gondwana Indigenous Children’s Choir and the Gondwana National Choirs. Marliya Choir was formed from the Indigenous Children’s Choir specifically to perform as part of the Spinifex Gum musical group.
“That [first] trip sparked a long and fascinating, once-in-a-lifetime project,” Riebl says. “I returned to the Pilbara seven times over seven years and have made lasting friendships with members of the Yindjibarndi community.”
These trips enabled him to learn the stories of the community, their ancestors and the land that would result in songs about racism, pervasive postcolonial attitudes and the corrosive capitalism that drives industrial projects at the expense of sacred land and plain justice. More than protest, though, the songs were serenades to language, the land, the everyday sounds of life for the youth in the Pilbara region: trains thundering over tracks, basketballs ricocheting off the dusty ground, the crackle of dry leaves in the wind.
The unforgettable, catchy melodies are not simplified or dumbed down for easy digestion. The song cycle was recorded for the first self-titled studio album in 2017. That album partnered Marliya with a who’s who of major Indigenous artists and activists, including Emma Donovan, Adam Briggs and Peter Garrett. They released a second studio album, Sisters, in 2019.
The release of their third album this week, a live recording of their Sydney Opera House performance in 2019, is likely to be – and should be – how more Australians discover the richness, the extraordinary storytelling and vocal power that emanates from such young women and their dedicated mentor, Riebl.
The show is no stranger to critical acclaim, receiving a nomination for a Helpmann award for best new Australian work in 2019 and rave media reviews. Spinifex Gum has played at Adelaide Festival, WOMADelaide, Sydney Festival, Perth Festival, the Garma Festival in north-east Arnhem Land, Red Earth Arts Festival in Karratha and Roebourne, the National Indigenous Music Awards in Darwin and Dreamtime at the ’G. But, for all the acclaim, it has not garnered broad, national attention from the public – yet.
The Sydney Opera House performance is released as a full album, with accompanying video of the breathtaking performance. One of the highlights of that night was Emma Donovan’s performance of Tom Waits’ gothic lament Make It Rain.
In the video footage from that evening, Gumbainggir singer Emma Donovan’s determined face is lit, her curly hair framing her like a mane, a halo. Behind her is the choir, perfectly still, each member gripping a microphone. Their voices are both angelic and entrancing. As the lights fully capture the young faces, white paint smudged across their noses and cheeks makes a stark contrast with their non-descript black outfits. This is no ordinary cover version. Donovan transitions from a gospel-style, gothic ode to Waits’ lament to deliver the final verse in Yindjibarndi language.
Waits shared the video of that performance on his social media, immediately drawing international attention to Donovan’s performance and the Spinifex Gum song cycle. Could Waits have ever imagined his song would reference dams and mining in remote Western Australia? The legacy of iron ore magnate Lang Hancock? Perhaps not. Riebl’s choice of the song was astute and magical.
“Holy crap. I screamed,” recalls Emma Donovan of discovering Waits’ social media share. “I was shaking and texting Felix because Tom Waits had shared Make It Rain in the last seven hours. I probably rang every uncle and aunty, telling them about it. It’s a heavy song, Make It Rain, but there’s a meeting place in it that can help do justice, tell more of that story. Brothers like Felix, his vision … he knows how to bring mob together in a really respectful, mindful way. Seeing him at rehearsals and the way he is with the choir, it’s very special.”
‘Brothers like Felix, his vision … he knows how to bring mob together in a really respectful, mindful way.’
Singer Emma Donovan
Donovan’s relationship with the girls is also special.
“Seeing a sisterhood is a big thing for me,” she says. “There’s these young friendships, these sister-girl, solid relationships … I just saw what a beautiful space this was – so much love there. When I sing with them, I can get up and feature in a track with them, but half the time I just want to stand there and be one with all of their voices, and I just wanna hear them. It lifts me; it takes me somewhere.”
Some things stick like spinifex gum/ Like ants on honey/ Like money on scum. (Spinifex Gum)
“The Pilbara for me as a songwriter is a fascinating place,” Riebl says. “I was able to see an aspect of Australia that involved a landscape and industry that goes on around that … While Spinifex Gum found inspiration in the Pilbara, it speaks about a broader Australia as well, that’s what resonates.”
Riebl continues: “Spinifex Gum stands in the space where, if I write as a non-Indigenous songwriter about a death in custody or disproportionate rates of youth incarceration, I’m writing from my perspective. I believe this is a non-Indigenous issue where it’s our systems that are letting people down. That’s a difficult space to be in sometimes, but it’s only possible if collaborations are true and communication is good.”
“The bravery of these young women to sing, to co-write and to understand what they’re singing about … we’re speaking about a broader Australian story where Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia collides and sometimes celebrates and sometimes protests that space.”
They put our kids in the system/ Findings, reports, and royal commissions/ Numbers, statistics when they’re making decisions/ Assess the risks and build another prison. (Locked Up)
Riebl’s great accomplishment, among many, is to have created a contemporary musical work that represents Australia today: the stories from hundreds of years ago are still alive and the destruction of Juukan Gorge and the threat of damage to the Weelumurra Caves by mining in the Pilbara have fuelled new stories and passions.
“Ollie and I always set out to do something musically and visually brilliant with Spinifex Gum,” Riebl says. “We wanted to totally upturn the cliches of how a choir looks and sounds. We never put a ceiling on those young singers, and they have exceeded our expectations at every turn.”
Spinifex Gum Live at Sydney Opera House is out now.