Album review: Crossing Roper Bar Vol. 2 (the Young Wagilak Group and AAO) by John Shand

Review by John Shand

In an interview elsewhere on this website Paul Grabowsky describes the Australian Art Orchestra’s two collaborations with the song-men of South East Arnhem Land as ‘some of the most interesting music that I’ve ever been a part of’. You can hear why. Seldom has a cross-cultural musical experiment been more successful on so many levels, including warmth of heart.

CRB2 coverSome musicians seem to think that such cross-cultural endeavours are simply a matter of combining the blue of this person’s music with the yellow that person’s and coming up with a pleasing shade of green. When that attitude is in play usually all that happens is that merely the surfaces of the musical idioms are intermingled, and the result is a sludgy aural brown. Sadly missing is any deep understanding and respect, which you hear in the end product’s lack of truth and integrity.

The best cross-cultural collaborations occur when, with that understanding and respect in place, the intention is not to blend idioms, but to magnify commonalities, while largely keeping the disparate languages intact. The astounding Spanish singer Diego El Cigala (who is about to tour Australia) told me that he and the late Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes used to describe their flamenco/Afro-Cuban jazz collaboration as ‘like cousins getting back together after a long time without seeing each other’. Obviously the Young Wagilak Group and the AAO do not have as strong an element of overlapping musical ancestry beyond creating variations on a melody and the concept of rhythm as groove. But they have found commonalities in mood, texture, story-telling, improvisational approach and, perhaps above all, a sense of mystery.

This second volume was recorded three years after the first, and seven years after the collaboration began. The members of the AAO – Grabowsky (piano, keyboards), Tony Hicks (reeds), Erkki Veltheim (violin, viola) Stephen Magnusson (guitar), Philip Rex (bass) and Niko Schauble (drums, percussion) – remain the same. Benjamin Wilfred (voice, yidakki [didjeridu], bilma [clapsticks]) still leads the Young Wagilak Group with Daniel Wilfred (bilma, voice) and this time David Wilfred (yidakki).

The music is a nine-part improvisation in which the integration of the two approaches is perhaps more complete than on the first album, as wonderful as that was. The dominant – or certainly the most striking! – texture remains the braying, exultant singing. This time, however, the band feels like it is fully part of the same story, the same celebration, the same ritual. This cohesion is not just vertical, but linear, with the suite of pieces unfolding with an inevitability to them, while remaining replete with jolting surprises, both textural and emotional.

At its most dense the music has a primal intensity that is thrilling, but it is the ability for it drop away to something extraordinarily diaphanous that is particularly arresting. The Wilfreds’ singing seems all the more urgent when it is riding atop a band that is in this state of what we might call restrained agitation. And it is this interplay that breeds that sense of mystery, where both parties are enriching the other’s tradition; when the Dreaming of the Yolngu people intermingles with Western flights of imagination; where any demarcation line between ritual and creativity is blown away in a sand-storm of sound.

All members of the AAO convincingly find their way into this music. Magnusson’s star-spangled guitar playing is a form of dreaming all its own, and Hicks often generates a timbre on both soprano and tenor that is in perfect accord with the singing. Veltheim has a sixth sense for amplifying the eerie implications of the music, and the rhythm section can extrapolate a bilma pulse in myriad directions. Grabowsky, meanwhile, plays with typical invention, often inserting the most unexpected piano and electric piano parts and yet make them natural outgrowths of the soundscape. On ‘The Spirit Flies’ he underscores the singing with playing so delicate it makes you catch your breath.

If music can build bridges – and it assuredly can – then this aural one that Grabowsky, Benjamin Wilfred, the AAO and the Young Wagilak artists have built is as striking, inspiring and necessary in its way as that arch across Sydney Harbour.


Paul Grabowsky – piano & keyboards
Benjamin Wilfred – yidakki (didjeridu), bilma (clapsticks), voice
Tony Hicks – soprano & tenor saxophones, clarinet, bass clarinet, piccolo, flute, alto flute
Daniel Wilfred – bilma, voice
David Wilfred – yidakki
Erkki Veltheim – violin, viola
Stephen Magnusson – guitar
Philip Rex – double bass
Niko Schauble – drums, percussion


The Australian Art Orchestra –

Read what Tony Hicks said about playing with this powerful cross-collaboration

Read John Shand’s profile of Paul Grabowsky