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Ziggy Ramo’s live show brings spectacle and ritual to his acclaimed Black Thoughts

ABC Radio National’s Daniel Browning on how Ziggy Ramo has adapted his inspiring debut album into an elaborate digital performance.

Daniel Browning

Both spectacle and ritual, the bunggul ceremonies of north-east Arnhem Land inspire this specially commissioned live streamed performance of Ziggy Ramo’s Black Thoughts, a work which reckons with the personal and the political. Depending on the nature of the ceremony or occasion, bunggul can be joyous or mournful, durational or momentary, incorporating dance, music and vocal performance. During his childhood at Gapuwiyak, Ziggy observed the tradition closely. Naturally enough it informs this multimedia performance, where many artists have a stake in the work, fluidly creating and collaborating live.

A collection of voices on Gadigal land, Black Thoughts is sometimes led and sometimes followed by Ziggy’s powerful rap in what he describes as a breathing musicality, a push and pull between lyrics and music. What is being attempted on stage is a collective experience decentring any one individual and never to be repeated in quite the same way, much like bunggul. Across the emotional narrative arc of Black Thoughts, originally produced by JCAL, Ziggy is accompanied by a 10-piece band featuring strings, brass, drums and keys with new arrangements by guitarist and musical director Milan Ring and composer Harri Harding. A visual storyboard featuring the work of Perth-based artist and illustrator Kambarni (otherwise known as Kamsani bin Salleh) deepens the impact of Ziggy’s lyrics.

Black Thoughts is also a journey across dual heritage and the contradictions that implies for First Nations people. Each song is a moment, a reckoning with a national story in which we are all personally and politically implicated. For the artist, the first half of Black Thoughts (‘Beginning of the End’ through to the rhetorical bridge ‘Stand For Something’) grapples with the maternal side of his heritage, and the legacy of the tall ships – the invasion force of British colonialism – and the myth of white Australian exceptionalism.

The emotional high point of the performance, ‘April 25th’ genuinely poses a question – if you value the heritage of the Anzac tradition, how can you ignore the sacrifice and bloodshed of our ancestors? There is no insult in the lines of this urgent clarion call but a demand for racial justice, equality and compassion.

    “We pick and choose our history
    We rearrange the facts
    So if you hold your heart for the ANZACs
    You accept the history both white and black.”

The latter half of the album is a statement of Ziggy’s cultural identity, his survival and the inheritance of his Aboriginal and Solomon Islander father: “We survived a genocide/We legendary”. Quite simply, history is a burden and to pretend you are not implicated in it is a luxury. 30 years after the abolition of slavery, an industrialised system of forced indentured labour brought thousands of South Sea Islanders to our shores to work the canefields, and among them was Ziggy’s paternal ancestor from Malaita. His Aboriginal great grandmother was stolen and grew up alienated from her Wik country. Culturally and artistically, Ziggy embodies the contradictions and the burden of Australian history.

    “Why lie? White lies kill minds
    Blacked out, white facts got you blind
    It's time, it's time
    For black truths to replace white lies.”

Black Thoughts – album and performance – has been a long time in gestation. It may have languished forever, unreleased, but it remains as potent, as vulnerable and as driven as the day it was written. In fact, the tide has turned so much in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd that the matters articulated in Black Thoughts can no longer be denied – the systemic racism and inherent anti-Blackness of our institutions has been laid bare, from Minneapolis to Melbourne. Galvanised, a rising tide of black voices echo in the emptied streets, so urgent that not even a global pandemic can silence them.

There is no insult in the lines of this urgent clarion call but a demand for racial justice, equality and compassion

Ziggy says of Black Thoughts: “I have held onto it over the years because I felt that as a country we weren't ready to listen. But I can sense a shift and I am over waiting”. He is quick to point out that his black thoughts, as provocative as they may be, are not laid down to get a rise out of people. There is no incitement to hate. These songs were written in the shadow of personal emotional crisis that is echoed in the enforced social distance, loneliness and darkening mood of the pandemic; but hope resonates throughout. The challenge is in having the conversation, and Black Thoughts is a starter.

    “To hold all my thoughts in a single spot
    Demanding the answers that ain't been handed
    What's been laid down for me will never be taken for granted
    Granted, we have have to play by their antics
    But look and learn your history, try to understand it
    The seeds for this change has already been planted
     It's not accident, our people planned it…"

Ziggy Ramo

Black Thoughts challenges and provokes, and constructively unsettles. But eventually the lyrical journey reimagines the kind of country I want to live in; one that confronts its past, one that disposes of white lies and amplifies black truths. So, turn it up.

Enjoy the rhyme and reason of Ziggy Ramo with a 10-piece band, from our house to yours, as they bring the world premiere of Ziggy Ramo's Black Thoughts' A Collection of Voices on Gadigal Land, a new commissioned performance, to the Joan Sutherland Theatre stage as part of the Digital Season.

Each song is a moment, a reckoning with a national story in which we are all personally and politically implicated

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