Keyna Wilkins: ‘Yulugi is a dialogue across cultures’

Keyna Wilkins is a restless artist. An adventurous soloist, equally brilliant as a pianist and flutist, she has been exploring the possibilities of jazz and improvised music – mostly through her Ephemera ensemble. Now she has launched a new, inspiring project, Yulugi, in collaboration with Gumaroy Newman, the acclaimed Indigenous song man and didgeridoo player descending from the Gamilaroi and Wakka Wakka nations. Here is what she had to say about it.
Yulugi | Drawing by Mowena Wilkins
What is Yulugi? How did this project come to be?
Yulugi is a dialogue across cultures, inspired by the Australian landscape and animals, and accompanied by projected imagery. I met Gumaroy while working with violist Carl St Jacques for his solo viola album launchElemental Prayerin 2017 at Mosman Art Gallery. I was accompanying one of Carl’s pieces on the piano, and doing a solo improvisation; Gumaroy was opening the show with a performance involving poetry and didjeridu playing. We got on well and I was struck by how great a player he is – as well as being a nice guy.
How would you describe the dynamics between you two?
In terms of style, I have been classically trained and have branched into jazz and flamenco, but I am most comfortable in the space in between all these styles where these textures merge and coalesce. I found it very natural to freely improvise with Gumaroy. Gumaroy is incredibly talented and has been taught by elders since he was a young child. For both of us, music is profoundly spiritual, especially ensemble improvisation, when the musicians are on the same wavelength. For me it’s personal spirituality – connecting to my inner self through sound, and trying not to think or plan anything, completely flowing with the moment: a stream-of-consciousness in a musical sense.

At the same time, we are listening intently to each other and having a musical dialogue. In terms of visual inspiration, we’re trying to convey the heart of Australia with dream-like sequences alongside landscape depictions and animal mimicry, and echoes of tribal lores, drawing on a myriad musical influences and aiming to create a unique and authentic soundscape of Australia.

Keyna Wilkins and Gumaroy Newman | Photo: Ellie Parnell

What kind of statement do you wantto make with this project?

This project is a symbol of how different cultures should focus on living together in harmony, which is something both Gumaroy and myself believe in.

For a while, I have been fascinated by Indigenous music and the original cultures of this continent and I have been trying to find a way to explore this through music. I contacted Gumaroy late last year, and discovered he was interested in collaborating with Western instruments as well. So, we met for a jam, and soon it was clear that we both loved the intermixing and merging of our sound worlds. Since then we have had a few sessions. Each time, new territory is explored and the music seems to flow effortlessly.

How does it fit in with your other projects?
For both of us this project is a little different to others. At this time, Gumaroy mainly performs in ceremonies and indigenous traditional performing troupes, though he has performed extensively around the world in pop and rock bands including at Glastonbury Festival at with Christina Anu. For myself the aspect that is similar to my other projects is the fact that it is largely improvised. But working with a didgeridoo player is new to me and very exciting as I love the earthy tones.
How ‘jazz’ is this project?
This is a great question. The fact that it is improvised links it to the jazz world, though there are aspects of many other styles of music as well. I guess many people interpret “jazz” differently and in terms of bebop solos, no there will be none of those, but there will be beautiful modal solos from both myself and Gumaroy, having a musical dialogue throughout our set. I feel that jazz is an umbrella term for everything in the history of jazz over the last 150 years as well as contemporary improvised music.

Keyna Wilkins and Gumaroy Newman present Yulugi at Sydney’s Lazybones Lounge on Tuesday 30 July