Music and Community – an interview by Tamsin Kerr

Pigeonholing Linsey Pollak or his practice is not possible. Every time, I offer a neat definition, Linsey tells me a counter-example. There are no rules to Community Cultural Development; projects jump out at the relevant time – specific needs in specific places that Linsey meets with enthusiasm, experience, and love for music and people.

Perhaps he aims to bring out the music in us all – to de-commodify the art of music. The current focus on audience development keeps the majority of us passive consumers of musical spectacles. Opportunities for risk-taking and community music making are lost in the limited musics of the marketplace. Linsey dreams of a society that doesn’t have a word for musician, because everyone plays music (just as we don’t use “breather” because we all breath). But then Linsey is also a consummate composer and performer of fine music, an instrument maker, a comedian and entertainer making music with everyday objects (most famously the carrot), as well as someone who makes music part of the everyday.

Perhaps, music is a tool to a more creative society that enjoys and respects the contributions of many cultures. Perhaps, music is a way to empower the marginalised – therapy for the disabled in our society. Perhaps music “brings disparate people together”, building the social capital of a community – there’s a lot of jargon that could be used. It’s not something that Linsey intellectualises or commodifies. He asks, “What is needed here?” “What might result from something that doesn’t exist?” Linsey offers new possibilities to people who don’t know or even dream that such possibilities exist. And then provides the skills born from 30 years of practice in engaging communities through music.

Why music? Predominantly because it’s a more collaborative media than the hierarchy of theatre or the individuality in visual arts. In a 1998 interview with Luke Jaaniste in Music Alive, Linsey says: “I think that for me, music is an art form that’s got real power to bring people together, and when a community makes its own music, a musical and cultural life can be established that effects the creativity, diversity and energy of that community.” He tells me most people are involved with music; at the very least, everyone listens to music.

A few stories about some of the many projects Linsey has coordinated may help to show the breadth of his practice. At first, Linsey just fell into it. Living in a group house in Redfern, their open door policy meant a lot of kids from the street helped to form a chaotic atmosphere; Linsey showed them how to make instruments, Murray did puppets. Soon, joined by Rose  they rented an ex-chicken farm on the edge of Sydney, transporting groups of  kids in an old open truck to weekends of joyful chaos. . Being “dead poor” and unfunded, the process was sustained through Murray’s taxi driving and Linsey’s job as a hotel porter. By 1975 there were enough circus and entertainment skills to take 10 of these kids to a big children’s community festival in Canberra. “Pipi Storm” was born, later growing to a collective of 25 people becoming a key springboard to community arts development in Australia.

After nearly 3 years making instruments in London and living in Macedonia studying gaida (Macedonian bagpipes) and sometimes living with gypsies, Linsey returned to Australia wondering how to inspire mainstream Australia with the Macedonian culture of everyday family and village music. One night in 1980 a dozen young Macedonian men heard Linsey’s busking as they were leaving the cinema. They danced to his music til after midnight and Linsey had his answer. In the summer of ‘82 Linsey played with a group in the balmy air of a Newtown park. Someone asked if they’d be there next week. They were and by the end of that summer over 400 Macedonian and non-Macedonian Australians came to dance in the park on Sunday afternoons. Old Macedonian musicians who’d thrown away their pipes on emigrating started to play again. When Linsey returned to play another park concert 15 years later, many of the old timers arrived to participate and remember their initial sharing of the importance of their culture. This time, instead of no instruments, not only were there gaida players with instruments but two bagpipe makers turned up – Macedonian music has a firm place in Sydney’s culture.

In the mid 80’s, Linsey proposed, established and coordinated a multicultural music centre and café in the North Perth Town Hall, so as “to expose the incredible cultural wealth and diversity of marginalised cultures and artists hidden from the mainstream” (Pollak, 1994; personal background provided to successful CCD Fellowship Application). Three staff, 300 musicians and 60 dance groups participated in a huge range of dances, workshops, courses, and performances culminating in the first Perth Ethnic Arts Festival in 1984, in which 90 groups performed to an estimated 30,000 people.

Two recent projects on the Sunshine Coast also rate a mention amidst the multitude – the Big Marimba in 1995, and the Gympie Goldrush Multicultural Festival in October 2000. For me, maybe because I was there, the Gympie Festival is the epitome of CCD and is discussed in the accompanying sidebar.

The Big Marimba community project involved 400 people making 2400 tuned xylophone bars over 10 weeks in the Cooroy Butter Factory. The bars came together to form Humarimbas – a Linsey Pollak invention that makes music collaborative – a marimba is slung between two people so that at least three people play at any one time. The makers got to keep and play their instruments as part of Brisbane’s 1995 “Brisbane Biennial”  Music Festival. As well, 320 metres of these marimbas were strung along Victoria Bridge, played by all manner of Brisbane passers-by. The project was recorded and made into a video by Noosa District High Year 12 film and television students. It was funded as a commissioned project for the Brisbane Biennial International Music Festival.

Linsey commonly works in partnership with existing festivals, avoiding the need to play the funding game directly and reducing the time spent on the ever-increasing administrative requirements. Rather than being directly involved in a single organisation, Linsey finds it easier working as a lone operator, able to come in and out as required. While he supports the ongoing funding of large arts organisations (afterall they often commission him), he would like to see more money go to small organisations and individuals. The bottom line for Linsey is that individuals free up the field and break down the fences with exciting projects where real change is possible.

Mostly Linsey designs his own projects, locating the funding and partners needed to make it happen – he is a cross-cultural entrepreneur. Linsey’s CCD aims are to work with his local Sunshine Coast community subsidised by performing and making instruments. He’s a big supporter and participant in the annual Woodford Folk Festival (“the most exciting cultural phenomenon in Australia… an incredibly strong and powerful community force”) and coordinated “A World of Difference” multicultural mini-fest in 2000. But Linsey says he’s taking a break from CCD at the moment, so as to revitalise and maintain his interest. His partner, Jess interrupts, pointing out the numerous CCD projects he has on the boil. It’s just a convenient fiction that allows Linsey to put some focus into private rehearsals and performances of his own compositions.

I leave my interview with Linsey feeling humble and vaguely incompetent – it doesn’t feel like Linsey wastes a moment of his life with the inconsequential (and I’m not sure my intellectual need for definition doesn’t come perilously close to the latter). He is engaged and engaging, passionate about community and about music. When I have been involved in or listened to community performances directed by Linsey, I spend the next few hours unable to hear any sounds without turning them into music – the whole world becomes alive with rhythm and notes. Perhaps this is Linsey’s greatest legacy – encouraging the joy and fun of active collaborative creation in the daily music of life.

“Celebrating Diversity: The Gympie Goldrush Multicultural Festival”

The Gympie Goldrush Festival is an annual event, celebrating the beer drinking, country music culture of Gympie – there’s a street parade, the Apex club fundraises by selling chips, people guess the weight of rocks, and a concert and fireworks end the day.

Working with Terry and Kay Kitchin from the Goldrush Festival Committee Linsey suggested a multicultural component to the festival and got funding through Festivals Australia, a Commonwealth government group encouraging cultural activities at a regional and community level. The Goldrush committee agreed, maybe without realising how much the festival would be changed.

Locals were involved in free workshops over the week preceding the festival. The workshop opportunities were diverse and fun: Brazilian dance, samba percussion, African singing, bamboo anklung, Zimbabwean marimba and Macedonian gypsy brass band. A lot of people participated in the workshops and a lot more joined in on the day of the Festival. The Gympie Goldrush street parade was transformed – the Brazilian dance and samba group mixed it with the Gympie and District Caledonian Pipe Band; the Macedonian gypsy brass band, led by Linsey, played on the main street beside Gympie Toyworld.

While the division between the general festival and the multicultural component was evident during the day (the multicultural bit had its own park and there were  less cowboy hats), that night the stage hosted a multicultural concert. Olive Bennett and Pearl King (two local Indigenous Elders) welcomed people to the gathering  and a didgeridoo started the night. Instead of the usual few hundred or so who leave after the fireworks, around 2000 people stayed ‘til late, appreciating the opportunity to hear the best of the workshops as well as a number of very fine multicultural artists.

A lot of people asked Linsey why he would do a multicultural festival in Gympie, pointing out that it wasn’t Gympie’s culture. But often large sections of a community are marginalised to the extent of being hidden. For example when Linsey invited a PNG dance group from Brisbane, it turned out that  their relatives lived in Gympie. A lot larger and more diverse group of people came to the festival in 2000 – in reality the culture is out there, it’s just not often collectively  recognised and celebrated.

Community cultural development is about expressing the culture of the whole community and particularly the less visible bits that might get left out of a more mainstream approach. Linsey uses community music to make sure we all get to acknowledge and appreciate our connections to this diversity – it’s community re-creation!