Dirtsong: a Conversation with Fred Leone of Black Arm Band

Originally published December 31 for the Winter 2017 issue of Arts Commons Magazine.

In Brisbane, Fred Leone is driving as we converse over the phone. Though it’s nearing the afternoon, Leone sounds exhausted, having slept little the night earlier as he premiered his own production that he had written, directed and produced all by himself.

“I just feel so—there’s a weight off my shoulder. I feel fulfilled,” Leone sighs, relieved. The respite is brief, however, as he is lined up to showcase his production the following week in Tramway, Glasgow.

Leone, 37, an Australian aboriginal with ties to Butchulla and Waanyi Garawa country, as well as being of South Sea Islander descent, likes to keep himself busy.

As well as facilitating his own set of productions, Leone also serves as the guest artistic director for the Australian indigenous performance organization Black Arm Band and its multimedia production of dance, song, and black and white visuals, Dirtsong (2009), premiering on Feb. 27, 2017 at the Jack Singer Concert Hall as part of Calgary’s International Festival of the Arts.

It isn’t hard to interpret the meaning of Dirtsong’s title, about an individual’s relationship with the land. Yet, Leone says the meaning is multifaceted: “It’s our connection to [our] land—not only our physical connection, but also our spiritual connection to the land and to its people; [Dirtsong] is the modern day interpretation of the “simmering of the spirit”.

“I was told when I was young, all those people who ever sang those songs and brought those down are with you,” he says. “The spirit that we encapsulate within our contemporary music, it’s felt and it’s moving.

“When you sing it—when you voice it, they come through a moment of time and they [our ancestors] come back and they’re happy.”

The idea of Dirtsong, shared by hundreds of Australia’s indigenous groups, is not too different from the perspective of Canada’s First Nations people. As well, the indigenous groups of both countries suffer very similar plights due to the resounding effects of colonization: the loss of language, culture, and that of assimilation; where each new generation of indigenous people remain products of diaspora.

Leone says groups and initiatives such as Black Arm Band, that promote values of indigenous culture through education via the arts help stem the cultural decline.

“[The interest] in indigenous performing arts is rising in Australia,” he remarks. “There’s many [productions] coming up at the moment, and it’s becoming part of our spinning of our indigenous narratives—now the mainstream wants it, they want to hear it and they want to feel it.

“And, if we're not doing anything with that dialogue, if we are not proactive with our learning . . . infusing it with our contemporary culture, music, dance then it's gonna be lost and its gonna die, and it is dying [sic],” Leone admonishes.

“I want so badly for my children to learn what I know—It kills me that when I look around the community that [our culture and language doesn’t exist] realistically in an urban setting.”

He says that being part of the Black Arm Band, as both a performer and guest artistic director helps with passing down and preserving Australia’s diverse and ancient (over 40,000 years) culture.  He states that the legacy “and footprint” that Dirtsong will leave is going to echo from “generation to generation”, both locally and worldwide.

“[For us] to see that all these people are listening, out there in the big wide world, it gives us hope.”