A stage snaps into view. There’s two figures. One is Afrofuturist Rasheeda Phillips. Spitting fire and conviction, she opens my festival with a moment of intensity. Philips reads a cutting dialogue atop of a low-slung industrial pulse controlled by Camae Ayewa (Moor Mother). Next to Rashida, she’s deeply focused. Transfixed upon an elaborate tangle of sonic machinery. It’s a junkyard amalgam of sound, poetry, and noise.
Philips exits. Ayewa takes lead, delivering her own fragmented vocals. Her face scrunches. Eyes turned inward, the Philadelphian artist conjures narratives of horror, oppression and discomforting trauma. She sings, screams and aches.
Camae’s stage persona is a nightmare of truth. A visceral flood of conviction and warped sonics. Her set begins with Fetish Bones’ ‘Creation Myth’ and continues to draw heavily from the ‘17 LP.
Her music and message are challenging, but mind-expanding. In a sense, they’re no different to your typical murder ballads, yet these aren’t invented. They’re real – things which would pass untold were they not laid before the audience here and now. Camae shudders and convulses while attempting the impossible task of staying these internal traumas no sooner they’re excised.
A cold breeze flows by, Tasman summer is brisk, at least by Queensland standards. “It’s time to push out these babies I’ve been breeding since 1886!” Moor Mother hisses. Ayewa’s truth is monolithic, complicated and stitched with grief. She’s taking back agency while delivering a faint modicum of justice for the unremembered, the victims of systemic racism and sexism, prejudice. She gives them life in song.
But it’s not all drone and moan. As the set slowly builds in momentum Camae’s poetics come accompanied by slowly uncoiling hip hop rhythms and floating R&B vocals. Moor Mother entices her audience to dance, her vocals are alluring –when she wants them to be. Ayewa can break free from the oppression of her stories but she’s always carrying a political charge.
“This is a hymn!” she declares. “I ain’t rhyming!” Cheers erupt. Powerful words slip through my head.
The conceptual offspring of LA performer Anna Homler, The Breadwoman is fantasy come to life. Since debuting the project in 1985, Homler has long since moved to other projects. Yet due to the character’s odd resonance, she’s indulged sporadic manifestations ever since. Described as ‘the first and last of an ancient race’ the matronly Breadwoman speaks in her own earthly dialect. It’s a language forgotten to time but buried deep within our collective mind.
The impression I receive live is ritualistic and surreal. The Breadwoman is a shaman. Whether you can buy into her fantasy or not it’s a potent performance. A lot goes into making the perfect loaf of bread.
I enter Godspeed You! Black Emperor with expectations fixed. Critically acclaimed post-rock band, right? Seen it all before.
But as this set unfolds I’m quickly finding expectations exceeded. A sprawling mass of apocalyptic noise and hardcore punk idealism, Godspeed arrived in the musical world caught in the eddies of post rock. They’re no fresh-faced idealists, but before me now they’re vital as ever. As they strike an opening chord music reverberates to the core of my body. This isn’t metaphor, these guys are loud!
The sun sets. Darkness consumes. Onstage the eight-piece crafts a bleak and beautiful soundscape. It expands and contracts, an ever-shifting collection of instrumental elements seamlessly falling into place. They trace their sonic contours across a pitched black sky. Walls of sound cascade into what feels like an endless jam but in truth, it’s tightly controlled. Wave after wave of crushing riffs. You can feel it rattling your molars.
The set propels itself forward, a gigantic sheet of menacing sound punctured by eqaully gargantuan builds. They climax. As if in slow motion, thousands of arms are thrashing around the air. Suddenly it doesn’t feel so cold.
For a glimmering few seconds, band and audience are communing in a state of harmony. But like all good things it has to end. And it does, slowly ebbing to sweet oblivion. Lights flash on. The crowd thins out. Eccentric mastermind himself David Walsh, standing a few metres away all the while, obliges patrons in a selfie and brief chat.
I should have gotten tickets to Faux Mo, at least one it’s three nights I reflect. It’s the decadent heart of the festival. A visually amazing rave succumbing to art installation. It’s populated with a few thousand ravenous souls to boot. It would have been, it will be, spectacular – at the time of reading I’m sure you can see the images elsewhere.
Where am I instead? I’m watching a pair of drunks struggling to focus while fumbling over a game of pool. The dim confines are those of The Grand Poohbah. A murky all-hours den where most of the city’s art-damaged flotsam and jetsam inevitably washes up. This is the rub about Mofo. It’s not just an event, it’s an energy which leaks out from Mona and into the entire city.
Day two. This is going to sound tacky - chintzy – but Hobart is a beautiful place. There’s something about catching a sudden sheet of artic breeze square in the lungs. It feels good. Dissolving even the most miserable of conditions it shakes you into the present.
Emel Mathlouthi is a powerful a voice of protest. Her growth as an artist occurred in suffocation. As with many of the creatively minded women of Tunisia, she’s faced a myriad of challenges. Chief amongst them is plying her art within an environment where intelligence, independence, and creativity are suppressed. In women they are, after all, qualities which threaten the powers that be.
Emel’s art has continually butted heads with those in control. Many of her songs are been banned from airplay across the Arabic world. While she’s since more recently relocated to New York, her conviction remains unfettered.
As with many of this festival’s acts she not of or from the mainstream. To Western ears her music is not that of a well-known genre, movement or country. While she’s fluent in English she sings in Arabic. Lettings herself go, she delivers her music as she wishes it to be heard by all peoples: direct and from the soul.
Mathlouthi wants her music to speak for itself and it does. Live her performance is sweepingly melodic. While inspired by figurehead of the ‘60s folk movement Joan Baez, her music could be likened to Björk circa Homogenic. Not too much of stretch given she’s worked with Guðmundsdóttir recordist Valgier Sigurosson.
Heavy-edged beats and red projections convey an ominous tone. Emel creates tension, it feels like things are about to explode. As these sonics build towards the peak of an ear-shattering climb she breaks into a massive melismatic release.
She belts emotion from the pit of her stomach. As incisive and moving as it is, it’s also music which makes you want to move your body. Music with a message and rhythm you can dance to, I don’t think there’s a more powerful weapon.
‘Vocal Womb’ is a performance, opera, and installation artwork. It’s an intimate exploration of voice and certainly not for the faint-hearted. At the center of the performance space sits is Eve Klein. A resplendently pale visage within a darkened basement, Klein casually feeds a laryngoscope into her throat, by way of her – yes please look away now if you’re squeamish – nostril.
Her face a painted picture of focus, Klein’s voice reverberates throughout the grim confines. As she does so her mezzo soprano curls around lyrics drawn from the writings of Quinn Eades and Virginia Barratt. Audience members are ushered toward a console where they can liberally alter the sonic parameters of not only the performance but the background sounds of her internal organs. An exercise in the structure and limitation of body and voice, it’s a challenging sight to behold.
Within the world of music, we heap riches, praise, historicity, and import upon those gifted with remarkable voice. But when it all boils down, it’s not some divine or otherworldly force. Recontextualised it’s a simple contraction of muscle. A bodily function no more mundane than any other. Yet perhaps it’s misdirection to marginalise it so. If anything, ‘Vocal Womb’ elevates the sum of all bodily functions to a work of captivating unity and complexity.
As a painter would render an image with paint and brush, composer Rob Davidson has sketches musical portraits of voice. Set against vocal samples and performed by the dextrous hand of pianist Sonya Lifschitz, ‘Stalin’s Piano’ translates the voices of prominent historical figures to song. This music unveils that it isn’t just the ideas that these icons convey, but melodious deliveries and alluring intonations that give them power. Charisma is, after all, more than the persuasion of logic or simple common sense.
It struck me a little funny that many of Mofo’s attendees seemed oblivious to the fact that Mayhem were headlining its final day. While a provocative performance piece by Hermann Nitsch at sister festival Dark Mofo in 2017 had the media in frenzy, Mofo’s election to place one most controversial musical acts of the last thirty years at the head of the bill passed without comment. With the narrative of murder, a suicide, burning churches, white supremacy, necklaces fashioned of fragmented human woven around the extreme metal outfit and death metal pioneers it just struck me kinda funny.
These are the thoughts crossing my mind on the Mona ferry as I share conversation with a cheery local artist. Walking up the ninety or so stair climb leading into the festival I reach my conclusion. Rather than join the echo chamber of outrage, lionisation or blind enjoyment, I’ll exercise my own agency. Today I will choose my own path. If Mayhem are part of it so be it, otherwise I go where the music draws me.
Black Rock Band open. How rock ‘n’ roll, one of America’s few original artforms, became intermingled with these traditional owners of West Arnhem Land is a long and complicated story. But in short, like any other oppressed people, their adoption of Western culture has been a survival tactic. As a collection of communities so scattered and decimated Aboriginal artists have appropriated whatever means necessary from Colonial hands. Black Rock Band makes the straight-ahead rebelliousness of rock ‘n’ roll their own, beating it into a powerful medium for social change. And yes, they rock.
Hobart + Music = Yeah’ comes next. It’s a sequence of performances sampling from Hobart’s underground scene. Drunk Elk are first off of the rank. They’re a little The Velvets, a little Galaxie 500, and maybe even touched by the minimalism of Daniel Jonston. Then again, this jangly outfit could be completely of their own devising.
Elk never feel too far from falling into disarray. Their set starts on an off beat. Instantaneously an amp is malfunctioning. No sooner is the problem solved the bassist’s Simon Krause’s strap breaks. There’s a real sense of danger, as frontman Dave Elk continues to eject his words.
Flanking him are guitarist Ben Mason and Krause. There’s no percussion or for that matter extravagant posturing, just a lulling existential moan. A whisper white-hot emotion embracing frailty as opposed to brunt aggression. Their music is badly damaged, irrevocable and hopeless – and that’s why it speaks through.
Lyrics of innocence and isolation play over a beating bass and rhythmic builds of guitar. Dave’s lyrics are litanies of whispered pain. He can barely stand to look his crowd in the face. Instead, he gazes at his feet. It’s shambolic. My kind of thing.
Elk continues to ebb in and out of cohesion, muttering something about vampires. I can’t make it out, but I connect to the raw vein of emotion. This group is never going to make it and never will, but they couldn’t care less. They value a deeper truth within music, a connection with all those who’ll listen.
I connect. It’s a feeling, a movement, some kind of recurring lucid dream. It’s like a hundred others –I’m stuck in an infinity loop of an experience I’m destined to reencounter every two to three weeks for the rest of my life. It’s the feeling that in this very moment of untutored mess, I’m bearing witness to the greatest band I have ever seen. No hyperbole.
Ragged strum and jilted rhythms. Elk closes something singing something about the sun. It’s as if Bono lost his confidence. He mumbles, slipping around the mic and sloopily shuffling side to side, mostly with his back turned to the audience a baseball cap. Pulled heavily downward and over his face. Communion at the church of DIY.
The Soda Creamers follow on. They pummel out an electric set in the tradition of The Cramps. Pulsating, primal and laced with swampy aggression. Explosively delivered, ‘Too Many Babies’ come packed with wit and wry lyrical observation.
Ajak Kwai is a survivor. She’s escaped the bloody civil war of South Sudan to make a new home for herself in Australia. Her family -a fiancé, father and two brothers -, her village and so many others close to her heart were not as lucky. Despite a life littered with losses or perhaps in spite of it, her music is euphoric. African pop laced with traditional elements of her Sudanese heritage. Clean guitar lines sparkle amidst a pulling polyrhythmic drive.
This music is about healing in the wake of loss. The spirit of the performance takes over and many amongst the crowd began to dance. A few more vocal swoops and they’re joined by everybody else. It’s a beautiful music and a beautiful moment. This is where my journey has brought me and that’s where I’m closing off.
With the rise of the market researched ‘omni festival’, curated festivals are sinking into obscurity across the board. In bright contrast Mofo burns as a shining example of an event that’s making fearless decisions. It’s more than providing an expensive set dressing for a photo opportunity. It’s affording artists equal platform and opportunity to be heard. But for those enticed with these words, take it with a grain of scepticism. As with anything Mona, it’s seldom delivered without a subversive twist.
Banging against the side of my head since the beginning of this the year has been a question. It’s a vague and lingering idea. Hear me out.
Our faith in music waxes and wanes. Periods of intensely political and topical music of protest tends to be quickly followed epochs of decadence and excess. The utopian ideals of the ‘60s gave paved the way for the commerciality of the ‘70s. Punk’s idealism was pushed underground by the onset of the materialistic ‘80s.
We’re at the onset of another cycle now. 2018 seems like a complete reversal of the sentiments of 2008, a year where anything remotely topical or earnest was met with eye-rolling indifference. We’re again striking a chord of defiance.
It begs the question whether music really can change the world. But, can modern music be more than a simple aesthetic reaction against bourgeois boredom? Can its sentiments of rebellion divert our culture rather simply hold up a mirror? Mofo nudges me to the affirmative. If a festival like Mofo can draw so many to the southernmost extremities to the civilised world to listen to some of same said ‘civilised’ world’s absurdly idealistic, dissident, iconoclastic, oblique and outright weird creatives, perhaps there’s a little hope.
Review by Riley Fitzgerald