Bamiyarra Signal Dinner, 18 Nov 2011

Bamiyarra goes public

Bamiyarra Signal Dinner, 18 Nov 2011
Ustad Khair Ali Shahristani, Photo courtesy of Anthony Rodriguez-Jimenez

Our first public outing was scheduled for the 18 – 19 November 2011. It was to be held in collaboration with Afghan Voices, a project based in Afghanistan that trains young adults to produce news and documentaries. We were excited by the prospect of having a number of their team in Australia, screening their videos and developing a collaboration with ours. Regrettably, Afghan Voices had their funding cut, limiting their plans for an Australian visit. That left us with venues to cancel in both Sydney and Melbourne. We were disappointed, but sought to make something of these efforts.

Friday 18 November remained as a date we ought make use of. The Home Lands management committee thought so too and decided we proceed with an invitation only event that would bring all those involved in our project, from its inception to the present, to acknowledge what we have achieved to date and present our plans for 2012. It was to be no ordinary meet and greet, cheese and crackers affair.

The venue would be the youth arts space, Signal, nestled on the banks of the Yarra River at Southbank within the city of Melbourne. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre would cater for the event and our team would decorate the gallery. Invitations went out and the process of pulling together a night with light entertainment and informal presentations commenced. It would, however, transform into a micro-epic, launching both a new project name and brand design, a preview of a video trailer, two speeches and a surprise guest musician. It would also become the most documented event I’ve ever been involved with.

The setup

Team Bamiyarra arrived about 5:30 having left a scriptwriting workshop in Dandenong that wrapped around 4. I’d been told that much of the day led to discussions, not about their scripts, but about the evenings events. The crew were getting excited and I’d spent the day tweaking the video trailer, right down to the final hour before driving to Hurstbridge and taking an hour long train into the city.

Signal staff were just incredible. I’d forgotten just how easy-going people in these work spaces can be. No effort spared to get the gear we required to turn their gallery into a venue that represented both Hazara traditions and the aspirations of our team. It worked. As the boys got to work hanging everything the girls organised their fabrics on trestle tables. Everyone had some thing to do. No complaints, just a whole lot of fun in seeing Signal transform into our space for the night.

Bamiyarra Signal Dinner, 18 Nov 2011
Ramzan and traditional clothing

In the midst of all the hanging I was trying to find the posters and postcards Viola Design had produced for us. They’d been delivered to the City of Melbourne’s CH2 (Council House 2). It was looking quite shut for the day and I’d not been able to contact anyone who may still be in the building. Fortunately members of the Home Lands management committee swung into action. John Smithies, Cultural Development Network, rode off on his bike not knowing that Vicky Guglielmo, City of Melbourne, had in fact received my text messages, found our materials, bundled them under her arm and walked to Signal in the rain as John called to tell me he’d arrived at the CH2. What a champ. He simply rode back and was genuinely delighted to see the posters going up and cards distributed. The food had arrived, guests were finding their way in, cameras appeared in abundance and we were ready to roll, or so we thought. The musicians had not yet arrived and they were to open the evening.

Bamiyarra Signal Dinner, 18 Nov 2011
Hossain points to our brand new poster!

Turns out the musicians we’d been expecting, for one reason or another, were unable to make it. Another musician had been contacted and he was on his way, by train, from Dandenong. It turned out to be the legendary Hazaragi singer, Ustad Khair Ali Shahristani. Some of the boys walked up to Flinders St Station to meet him, managing to get back to Signal just as Farkhonda Akbari was to raise the virtual curtains and open the evenings proceedings.

Good evening everyone

As we neared the 18th it occurred to me that throughout the entire history of Home Lands, and I’d been there since its inception, we had few celebrations and even fewer opportunities to meet informally – that all whom who had worked within the project had not yet come to know our teams as friends with whom we were sharing our lives with, genuinely contributing to the delicately nuanced fabric of those oft used words, community and culture. As our time pieces blinked 19:30 I looked around and saw that we were doing just that, and we were still at Bamiyarra’s early inception.

From the bookkeeper to the designer, from the Hazara and Youthworx teams, almost all our artist mentors, the long-standing Home Lands management committee and everyone else in between, conversations were struck and food consumed. It was a most nourishing affair.

Looking around one could not help but notice that this was made all the more welcoming by the Hazara artwork, traditional fabrics and clothing which adorned the walls of Signal’s gallery. It was also made all the more striking by the rehearsals taking place outside. Chunky Move dancers were working on their routines for the launch of The Giant Theremin that was to take place the following night. One of the young Hazara asked me, pointing outside, whether this was experimental dance. Yes, young man, it certainly is.

Bamiyarra Signal Dinner, 18 Nov 2011
Anisa, Brynna and Sahema

Farkhonda, who not only assisted with the logistics of the event whilst on work experience with the Cultural Development Network, opened and MC’d the evening. Farkhonda described her role as ‘important as a bridge between the two cultures – the informality that is within the Hazaragi culture in contrast to the timed and set schedule of Australian expectations. I had to make sure there are no clashes and misunderstandings by actively staying in touch with both sides.’

Farkhonda, Photo courtesy of Anthony Rodriguez-Jimenez

In her opening speech Farkhonda described what had been achieved in the short time we had been working together.

This project has become an important platform for us, young Hazaras, in representing our selves through our personal stories and reviving our long-lost culture. In this short amount of time that we have spent in this project, we have been able to clear some of the blurred path towards an “identity” – a lost… a broken… identity.

Tonight we have brought some of our hazaragi cultural costume, musical instrument and other items. I invite you all to have a glimpse of the colour and pattern of our culture. In each of this art pieces a silenced story is hidden… story of deprivation, limitation, and oppression…. Yet Hazara woman have thread hope with their needle on the fabric.. And today it is our responsibility to carry the silenced legacy and shout it silenced voices, preserve a culture from the people of Republic of Silence – Hazaraistan, Afghanistan.

Following on from Farkhonda I went on to describe what this project has meant to me, paraphrasing observations made since our first days together.

We are learning a great deal from each other… we are investigating the nuances that make us different and yet not so different at all. We are collaborating on a range of projects that will provide our team with opportunities not only within the media arts, but to also improve our understanding of them, the origins and culture, and we may just find ways to create a better life for ourselves in what the Hazara describe as their golden age – perhaps it’s ours as well, a collective golden age where people from all over the planet discover and enrich each other with what they bring to the garden and what they share from it.

Weird trailer preview

Regardless of the type of event there’s always a bunch of stuff that goes wrong, that one must improvise to to find the proverbial work around and always plenty of last minute seat-of-the-pants schedule changes that you just have to live with. It’s not often that things get weird, and I mean so weird I don’t have a rational explanation for them, just grateful in this instance, that weird came to a kind of rescue!

In the final hours of the previous evening, as I was completing an edit of the Bamiyarra trailer, a discussion about the music I’d cut to had commenced on our private Facebook group. I’d originally cut the trailer to a song one a collection of works I’d been given that turned out not to be the track everyone thought I’d used. There’d been a printing error on the CD album cover. The song was not original Hazaragi. One of our team members, Zia Khan, a singer and songwriter himself, had given me a selection of his songs to use, so I reworked the trailer to one of his pieces to find this wasn’t appropriate either. I went back to the original track as there just wasn’t the time to re-edit to an entirely new piece. In fact, the music on the original track was perfect, it had been the lyrics, sung in Persian, or Farsi, that were at issue.

To this day I have no idea how this happened, but on screening the trailer the sung lyrics were entirely unheard through Signal’s PA. All you could hear were the instruments and a drone-like vocal in the background. But the lyrics, the entire vocal track was missing! Some weird voodoo had intervened and saved us all from embarrassment from those Hazara who might consider the song inappropriate. As it turns out, the song was entirely appropriate, for many other reasons, which I’ll explain in another post, but for now, what ever happened that evening was just weird, although technically if both stereo channels, left and right, were out of phase with each other…?

Cameras everywhere

It should be noted that Khair Ali’s songs and damboora were mesmerising. Kobra danced with Penne’s partner, the audience responded with warmth and admiration and I found myself amidst of galaxy of camera’s, their lenses catching filaments of gallery lighting making of them stars against a colourful, human space cloud. There were literally cameras of every variety every where! Everyone wanted their own perspective captured. What was more astounding was how few of these images recorded were shared after the event! I was expecting dozens of similar photos and videos appearing online. Not so. So, if sharing wasn’t on most people’s agenda, what was?

Bamiyarra Signal Dinner, 18 Nov 2011
Photo courtesy of Anthony Rodriguez-Jimenez

La Trobe University researcher, Rodriguez-Jimenez, shared his photos by putting them onto a CD-R. Some ended up on our private group, along with a few of mine, but the rest have yet to emerge, at least in public. There was much video shot as well. I counted at least eight or so Flipcams along with the Youthworx documentary teams gear. Phones and other devices may well have been consuming video data space.

I know now that Hossain has edited a short video about the launch, so that’s one outcome I’m looking forward to see. Also, Cultural Development Network staff were trialling the use of Flipcams as a means to quickly document and publish events. But I’m still curious as to the volume of documentation that took place and where all this ends up.

Ramzan, Bamiyarra Signal Dinner, 18 Nov 2011
Ramzan, Photo courtesy of Anthony Rodriguez-Jimenez

I did wonder why more of us weren’t downing our cameras and simply allowing the breadth of our senses to inhale, listen and enjoy Khair Ali’s stunning songs? Were people expecting to find a deeper intimacy in the privacy of their own homes, at the computers and sharing their insights with friends? Or were some immune to such an experience, using the camera as an excuse to not be seen to be unmoved? Artist and teacher, John Wynne argues that the ubiquity of digital recording devices affects how people experience the world, that the camera, for instance, becomes less a tool for enhancing memory, it diminishes it, acting as a barrier to direct experience (Wynne 2010). Where then is the experience? Are we replacing one form of experience with another, or simply fooling ourselves in believing that by recording the world around us we are more integral to it, preserving and replicating it. But a document of an event is not the experience of it. If we are replacing direct, meaningful experience with something our digital devices are mediating, what is it?

City lights

After packing up and with all our guests having left we stood outside Signal and marvelled at the city. Most of our team had not spent any, or much time at all within the Melbourne CBD, and certainly not of an evening. Some suggested we ought to have spent the entire day there whilst others were taking more photos and video of each other.

Team Bamiyarra - Signal, 18 Nov 2011
Team Bamiyarra – Signal, 18 Nov 2011

It was a lovely night, warm and shiny and not short of a few pranks which the boys are inclined to initiate. We took some group photos and bid each other farewell… I left with Neil Grant, editor of From Kinglake to Kabul, whom I’d met during my artists residency at Dunmoochin, to get a drink and share a train ride back out to the woods. We were keen to see if we couldn’t make sense of what just happened. A wide spectrum of feelings moved many of us from conversation to observation.

My meagre words here lend few insights to what transpired that evening, so once again I turn to Farkhonda’s insights. In a report she wrote on completion of her work experience, she pulls together a form of manifesto for young Hazaras drawing on their cultural history, and of the discrimination they have suffered.

The Hazaras for over two hundred years have survived by deepening their culture under the ground, to be not recognized, so it would lower the discrimination. After two centuries of oppression, Hazaras traveling abroad for survival have had to adapt to the hosted country’s culture. As a result, today, most of young Hazaras are completely unaware of their rich heritage and cultural symbols. Our aim, as young and aware Hazaras, are to re-introduce our culture in most contemporary form to attract our fellow young Hazaras in knowing their culture – in fact this will rebuilt an identity – we are polishing an identity from the ashes of genocide – from the trodden bones of our forefathers, from the smoke of our 2000 year old Buddhas and from the burnt hair of our mothers.

With this in mind, Farkhonda wraps her report on our event at Signal in elevated tones, summarising observations only a Hazara steeped in Persian literary culture, could put to words:

The Signal event was an amazing evening – colourful, cheerful, bright and enthusiastic to present Hazaragi culture in front of local government faces and people from other cultures. The spirit of Hazaragi culture strengthen us at that evening, we walked with no weight. One of the most prestigious feelings I have ever experienced.

Kobra, Photo courtesy of Anthony Rodriguez-Jimenez

Neil and I missed our train back to Hurstbridge, in fact, it had been cancelled, so it was back to the city for another 45 minute wait. The night ended late, but Bamiyarra was now out in the open and our projects would become ever more valuable to each and every person involved.

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