I went to the Ozconcert last night. This is an annual event held in Perth to celebrate multiculturalism. It’s been going for 25 years and takes the form of a series of performances in music and dance by a variety of individuals and groups representing many different ethnic and national bodies. This year’s concert included, for example, singers from Australian Aboriginal, PNG, Indian, Chinese, Middle Eastern backgrounds and dancers from China, Indonesia, Aboriginal Australia, Croatia, Egypt among others. There were also groups and bands, sometimes playing traditional material and at others, fascinating fusions of Western and non-Western music, several with a jazz underlay.
On a beautiful early Autumn evening in the grounds of the equally beautiful Government House, some seven thousand people spread blankets or sat on low chairs with picnic dinners and drinks of choice set before them, to share in this musical reminder of our hugely varied backgrounds.
We also had a reminder from Dr Eric Tan, the originator of Ozconcert, about his vision in setting it up, of a nation which could move away from historical resistance to others (i.e. non-British) which had often been expressed in outright racism. Ozconcert began in 1989, the year after the bicentenary of European (settlement, occupation, invasion, choose your own denominator) of Australia.
Both these reminders aimed to demonstrate the positive qualities of multiculturalism. The recognition of what each different ethnic group or nation has contributed to the overall mix that is contemporary Australia; the realisation that it’s only complexion and sometimes facial configuration that distinguishes second and third generation Australians from each other since spoken accents and lifestyle behaviours are mostly quite congruent.
Yet, as I looked around me, it was obvious that the audience was frequently composed in smaller groups which represented specific ethnicities and that there weren’t many groups made up of a haphazard mixing of people from obviously different backgrounds.
And also, although I didn’t go into the city last night after the concert, I know that had I done so, I would soon have been confronted by more examples than I cared to see (because one would be too many) of bigotry and racial intolerance. Police patrols which can too easily pick out aboriginal kids and harass them; gangs of particular ethnicities antagonising each other; taunting comments thrown at those who are deemed different and therefore less.
When I turn from the streetscape, there are immediately attitudes (such as “Turn back the boat people”; “Put foreign workers last in the job queue”) by governments and politicians, business interests and media pundits, those who like to be heard on radio talk-back programs, and a plenitude of other sources, all telling me that I must be wrong, that multiculturalism is just an idea, style without substance, like so much more in our 21st century Australia.
I enjoyed the concert last night. I went home feeling pretty good about it. I’d like to believe that the concert was a good picture of where we’ve got to in Australia in 2013. If it had that impact on me, perhaps it did also on the rest of the seven thousand who were there, and perhaps that can become the dominant view of who we are as a people.
Here’s another way to see the picture:
There was a time when…
There was a time when dragons flew in the skies,
Ice castles shone in the bright sunshine
Of fabulous tropical lands,
Birds called to each other in descants,
And animals spoke in poetry.
A time when people tall as houses
Walked the town roads, the country lanes,
And tiny ones, little men and women,
Stood easily on their giant neighbours’ palms.
All these things were quite ordinary,
Though you might be amazed to hear it.
If you had been there, you would not have wondered
For it was not something to wonder.
There was a time when people similar to us,
With skins of many different colours
Lived together in the towns,
Where people wore veils shielding their faces,
And their uncovered neighbours smiled.
A time when people worshipped their God
In church, synagogue, temple and mosque,
And everyone, children, men and women,
Were freely welcome in each other’s lands.
All these things were quite ordinary,
Though you are amazed to hear it.
If you had been there, surely you would not have wondered,
Surely it should not be something to wonder.
Ruari Jack Hughes