Adelaide Festival review: Spinifex Gum with the ASO

The 2023 Adelaide Festival hit an immediate high on opening night, with Spinifex Gum presenting spine-tingling songs that moved the soul and challenged contemporary Australia to get on with the job of reconciliation.

Mar 04, 2023, updated Mar 04, 2023
Singers from Marliya form the heart of Spinifex Gum, which was backed by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra for the Adelaide Festival's opening night event in Elder Park. Photo: Andrew Beveridge

Singers from Marliya form the heart of Spinifex Gum, which was backed by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra for the Adelaide Festival's opening night event in Elder Park. Photo: Andrew Beveridge

The weather was kind, and crowds flocked to Elder Park to hear this free event. Food stalls beckoned as people found their spots on the grass in readiness.

Few, though, could have been fully prepared for what a great entertainment was in store.

To kick off proceedings, 130 musicians crammed the stage in a remarkable communal bash called the Citizens Orchestra, which brought together amateur community musicians, participants in Tutti Arts’ Quirkestra music program and members of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. The varied standard of these musicians showed up loud and clear, but their spirited enthusiasm made up for any creaky moments in pieces that consisted of simple chanting, improvised rhythms and sculpted waves of sound.

UK conductor Tim Steiner held matters together well and made it entertaining by encouraging everyone to join in with hand claps. It was all great fun and an inclusive way of getting the 38th Adelaide Festival underway.

The Citizens Orchestra kicked off the entertainment in Elder Park. Photo: Andrew Beveridge

After the sun had sunk, a “Greeting to Spirit of Place” was led by Kaurna custodian Karl Telfer and a pair of dancers took to the stage and stilled the crowd with ritual ceremony and memorable words of wisdom about land, country and family.

Then it all happened. Spinifex Gum have been here before, with Peter Garrett and Emma Donovan at Her Maj for the 2018 Adelaide Festival. A terrific Cairns-based vocal group they are, too, consisting of an impressive team of young female Indigenous singers. This time, outdoors and backed by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, they were phenomenal. Their strong, harmonically vibrant songs just kept coming, and the orchestrations were lush, buoyant and really well crafted.

Separately, these singers go by the name of Marliya and are part of Gondwana Choirs, but under the umbrella of Spinifex Gum they sing music of Felix Riebl and Ollie McGill. Their material is about raising awareness of the ill-treatment of Indigenous peoples and exploitation of their land, and this one-hour set introduced some tough subjects: how mining has ravaged this country and placed profit before people, and how First Nations people continue to suffer appallingly high rates of incarceration.

Singer Emma Donovan joined the choir on stage for two songs. Photo: Andrew Beveridge

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Spinifex Gum drove their messages home with power. The audience was clearly hooked: even when the evening chill had set in and the time was late, almost all sat to the very end to savour these singers’ infectious close harmonies and honed choreography. Songs like “Yurala”, “Ganalili” and “Marliya” you just want to hear again and again. “Voice, Treaty, Truth, Now” hit the target in an even bigger way.

Special guest singer Emma Donovan appeared in only two songs, but both were top performances. “Make it Rain” is a honking good number, and her version of “My Island Home” is upliftingly emotional.

Led by conductor Aaron Wyatt, this was an expertly put together concert and one to remember.

More than anything, a festival opening night needs to gather and energise a city. Spinifex Gum did that. But in staging this notably successful show, the Adelaide Festival also reinforced itself as an event that is genuinely about creativity, vision and inclusivity.

Spinifex Gum was presented for one night only in Elder Park as the official free opening event of the 2023 Adelaide Festival.

Read more Adelaide Festival coverage here on InReview.

Spinifex Gum with the ASO in Elder Park. Photo: Andrew Beveridge

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