Irine Vela, Artistic Director of Outer Urban Projects, works with young rappers, singers and beat boxers in the outer suburbs of northern Melbourne. She remembered a play from Greek antiquity, The Frogs by Aristophanes. It gave her an idea. In The Frogs, Dionysus, as Ms Vela puts it in her program note, is ‘frustrated with the diminishing community spirit, culture and literature of Athens and decides to undertake a journey to the Underworld to find [poet and dramatist] Euripides… to bring him back life with the hope that his words can inspire’. Ms Vela too believes passionately that words can inspire, move, give hope and inspire action. But Dionysus also finds Aeschylus, and he wants the chance to be brought back to life. A poetic battle ensues and Dionysus must choose between them. Ah-ha. Was this the first ever example of a ‘poetry slam’ where poets battle it out for supremacy? So… was – or is – Poetic License to be a production of The Frogs? But first…
The Habibis – Ms Vela herself, playing bouzouki and lute, Mulaim Vela on guitar, and Pascal Latra, the vocalist, and a ring-in from another group, Saray Iluminado, Kelly Dowell, on frame drum and clarinet - arrive on stage. It’s all very relaxed and casual, and Ms Vela talks direct to the audience – and some of the audience answer back. Possibly not what we were expecting, but the Habibis are the support act – the ‘warm up’ act – for the show to follow. The songs are traditional Greek songs and they are haunting and beautiful. The Habibis then are joined by other members of Saray Iluminado – vocalist Nela Trifkovic and Dan Witton on bass. The singers harmonise, the instruments behind them, weaving these songs – yearning, modern but ancient – so that they leave half the audience entranced and the other half wistful as they remember. We are happy to listen and sometimes clap in time, for forty minutes or more.
After a break, the show – which is not a play – they emphasise that - and certainly not The Frogs – begins. There’s a harpist, Genevieve Fry, and Ms Vela returns with her bouzouki. The poets, rappers and singers are in distinctly urban garb. The ethnic mix is multi-national. Kevin Nugara, with a beanie and tats, and Dante Sofra, in a kind of school uniform blazer, lead off. They’re rappers in urban Afro-American mode and they pile up the words and the rhymes at dizzying speed. A member of the Stolen Generation, Maryanne Sam, does a double act with Ms Vela as straight woman. A slim woman (Piri Astride), who might be from Africa, dreadlocks piled high on her head delivers emotion charged poetic visions. A fellow (Milad Norouzi) with a pony tail sits silent for a while, but he gets his turn – and it’s about love and is it possible. They are joined by a Samoan woman (Grace Vanilau) who makes exquisitely graceful movements as she combines hints of Maori haka with her poetic rap. The poetry of all is angry, protesting, but not whining: it’s about injustice, it’s from the heart and it comes from proud people. Then there’s Ileini Kabalan who sings softly and plaintively, drawing us intimately into her emotions – and Koraly Dimitriadis, of Cypriot origins, who speaks with angry economy. Finally, to leaven the poetry and add a ‘traditional’ Ocker note, comedian Rod Quantock, comes on with his blackboard and chalk to warn us that we must not hope for change – we must act or we are doomed.
The show works best when these disparate talents become a real ensemble, their voices and words and music weaving together, bouncing off each other. This artistic combining and cooperation (ironically the reverse of The Frogs) is strangely involving and beautiful. Despite the sad places from which the words may come, the words are truth telling and they go beyond mere preaching to the sympathetic converted; the unmistakeable effect is positive, undefeated and up-lifting. The wave of emotion culminates in the cast dancing and including half the audience with them on stage too as Pascal Latra sings another lovely Greek song that pulls everything together.
These talented, passionate people are not, sadly, the people you see too often on CBD main stages. But they are there, in the outer northern suburbs of Melbourne, with things to say and the skills to say them and sing them. What they needed is a creative space and an innovative creative leader – Ms Vela – to bring them together in that space. Then this wonderful show is what happens. There should be more than five performances. I hope there will be.
Photographer: Miguel Rios.