The Boite: Supporting Artists from Diverse Communities

by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 19 Issue 1 (November 2012

The Boite started in 1979, a time when cold war politics cast its shadow across the world. ‘Boat people’ from Vietnam and refugees from Timor-Leste were being welcomed and looked after by generous Australians. Boite pioneers were influenced by the Regime of the Colonels in Greece in the late 1960s, by the conflict in Cyprus between Turkey and Greece and by the destabilisation and military overthrow of Chile’s socialist government in 1973. They were acutely aware that we are living on land acquired through deception, disease and violence. Music’s link with politics, its potential to communicate across bitter divides, to provide hope for those in desperate need, and to inspire those challenging tyranny, remain important to the Boite. 

The artist list at the first Boite concert on 1st June 1979 included Apurima, a Chilean group playing Andean music, the Tsourdelakis Brothers performing traditional Cretan music, Bwung-Gul Cultural Group performing Australian Indigenous music and dance, Anatolian Minstrels performing traditional and contemporary music and dance, a group of performers from New Guinea and Petro and Eleni, Greek performers from Sydney.

A subtle shift in focus occurred in 1989. What the Boite had always done was present and explain the art, mainly the music, of multicultural Melbourne. The stated aim of the Boite became ‘to support artists from diverse communities’. Art is of paramount importance to national identity, to community vitality and to individual wellbeing. Here we were living in Melbourne, an extraordinarily successful experiment in urban multiculturalism, yet the abundance of artists from diverse communities amongst us was largely unknown and unsupported. 

This focus has informed decisions regarding programming ever since.

The Boite World Music Cafe is a series of concerts presented at intimate venues with low overhead costs staffed by people knowledgable and passionate about music. These feature local and touring artists at ticket prices similar to movie tickets. It operates regularly from three venues and we are keen to find more. Small venues with prolific concert programs can provide invaluable support to artists.

The Boite Singers’ Festival at Daylesford is a workshop based festival pitched at keen singers. Importantly, it gives musicians from diverse communities the chance to develop skills as workshop presenters, a key step for many who intend making a career out of music.

The Melbourne Millennium Chorus (MMC) is a mass choir event drawing singers from across Victoria into a grand mid-winter concert at a prestigious venue. It supports musicians, dancers and storytellers from culturally diverse Australian communities. In its first eight years it introduced hundreds of artists from many communities to the main stage of Hamer Hall, performing to huge audiences, with 350 in the choir behind and over 2,000 in the audience before them. This included indigenous artists at the seminal Winter Dreaming concert in 2001 directed by indigenous musician and film maker, Richard Frankland, featuring Kev Carmody, Lou Bennett and many other celebrated Australian indigenous artists. Alas, the organisation that pioneered the work of introducing communities to Hamer Hall and that argued the case for community rates for community organisations, had to withdraw from Hamer Hall in 2007 when the hire charge approached $25,000 for a Sunday afternoon concert. Single Hamer Hall concerts were replaced with concert series at Fed Square and, for the past two years, single concerts at Melbourne Town Hall.

The MMC spawned the Boite Schools Chorus (BSC) which this year involved 1,000 students from 54 schools. In 2001 it brought to Australia a band from Timor-Leste led by Ego Lemos in his first overseas performance. Now their most famous musician with the award winning song, Balibo to his credit, Ego this year was the Boite’s artistic director of Mai Fali Eh!, a month long series of concerts, broadcasts, song swaps, school and community visits and recording sessions featuring the MMC and the BSC held in August. Timor-Leste’s newest choir, Koro Loriko, created especially for the project, performed brilliantly. Ego plans to build regional, national and possibly international singing events around this choir.

People, places and projects intersect in unpredictable ways at the Boite. As I write this I can hear a young Chinese student on a work experience placement from RMIT Uni beavering away at the desk behind me. Over the past three months she has been entering computer data, answering phones, filling envelopes and helping out at concerts. When Therese Virtue, our World Music Cafe director, discovered Xuanxuan was a skilled erhu player, she invited her to be the support act at a World Music Cafe night. Xuanxuan contacted her friend Nick of the very musical Xylouris family, to collaborate, then contacted her lecturer, Barry Hill, who will fly down from northern NSW to accompany her on bass. Unfortunately, Therese and I won’t be able to attend this exciting event. We will be on leave in Georgia in the Caucasus with twenty other Australians attending and performing in the 6th International Symposium on Traditional Polyphony. We will be there because of Dr Joseph Jordania and Dr Nino Tsitsishvili, internationally renowned ethnomusicologists, whom we met through the Boite in 1995. 

The world we find ourselves in today is vastly different from that of 1979 – another 3.6 billion mouths to feed, the cold war a distant memory, though soon replaced by the war against terror. Energy and environmental issues have moved to the political mainstream, and the internet and mobile phones connect us in ways beyond our wildest imaginings. ‘Boat people’ are arriving in Australia in ever increasing numbers fleeing wars, oppression and disasters in various parts of the world. Disturbingly, Australia is no longer the safe refuge it once was.

In a climate where the exciting challenges and the tangible benefits of multiculturalism over the last 60 years are veiled by a xenophobia which is one more pawn in a political game, organisations like the Boite, embracing and celebrating cultural diversity and the critical role of artists, are more significant than ever. They help us all maintain social perspectives and inform the debate.

Roger King OAM is Director of the Boite. He first became involved in 1984 and has worked there full time since 1993. Born in Australia, he attended school in South Africa, and graduated as a civil engineer from Melbourne University in 1969. His first job was with the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Authority famous for its multicultural workforce. He sings with Gorani which specialises in the traditional songs of Georgia and Bulgaria and has sung in all but one of the 15 Melbourne Millennium Choruses.