Zashto? Review SMH

Australia's immigrant experience is explored in song on this ambitious album

By  John Shand

October 31, 2023

'Zashto?' Mara! Big Band

Australians have long had a complicated attitude to migrants. While we enjoy the cornucopia of foods, racism is a rash festering just below the skin, waiting to be inflamed by the dog-whistlers. Zashto? – “why?” in Bulgarian – is a song cycle that asks why the migrant experience has often been so difficult and traumatising. It’s also a celebration of cultural diversity, performed by a dramatically expanded version of Mara!, a mainstay band of our world music scene for 30 years, which swells from five to 13 of the finest players and singers in the land.

The cycle’s first protagonist is Catherine Delaney (an ancestor of saxophonist/composer Sandy Evans), whose fondness for releasing political prisoners from her father’s Irish jail resulted in her being transported here in 1803. The Snare (composed by Andrew Robson with words by Mara Kiek) is Delaney’s imagined riposte to the sentencing judge, in which she says she’d do the same again rather than see her fellow creatures rot in chains. Sung in Gaelic by Kiek, it joins Henry Lawson’s Past Carin’ as being among the most moving songs in the Mara! canon.

Then we’re given the perspective of a Bulgarian migrant, who arrives with a heart full hopes and ends with “uncrowned dreams” in her soul. Called Nekoronovanite Printsove (Uncrowned Princes), this was composed by Evans with words by Marcia Malinova-Anthony. Hauntingly sung in Bulgarian by Silvia Entcheva, it has an Evans soprano saxophone solo and an a cappella finale that are equally hair-raising. Its sequel, More (Sea), sustains the drama, the tone embittered and ultimately resigned, with Kiek now the lead vocalist and the introduction including a brooding feature for bassist Lloyd Swanton, while Gary Daley’s accordion solo hints at a blither future.

The third protagonist is an Iranian refugee, who tells us of her years in limbo on Nauru in Yek Zemzemeh (A Whisper), written by Llew Kiek and Maryam Faghihi Rad, and sung in Farsi by Jarnie Birmingham. Here the central character wills herself to be tempered rather than crushed by the experience, and hopes that living out her dreams will quell the painful memories. Finally, on the title track, Mara Kiek’s lyric presents a robust dialogue between a migrant and a xenophobe.

Woven around these stories are instrumentals including Tony Gorman’s What a Life!, an autobiographical piece encapsulating this Scottish migrant’s wildly varied experiences via consecutive time signatures of 13/4, 12/18 and 11/8, with James Greening’s crying pocket trumpet a highlight. The album’s stellar cast is completed by Paul Cutlan (reeds), Sam Golding (flute, trumpet, tuba), Llew Kiek (assorted stringed instruments), Jess Ciampa (drums, percussion) and Jenny Dornan (vocals).

A long cherished-dream of Mara and Llew Kiek, the project is wildly ambitious, but meets its own challenges with flair and conviction. Its release is a gentle reminder that racism has no place in debates about immigration.


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