Sydney is less a city than many separate cities lying next to each other. If you live, work or have family in one part of it, that part will be familiar. The parts of Sydney where you don’t work, live or have family in will likely remain as foreign to you as a country you have never been to. You might never have had cause to visit Ermington. West Pymble. Emerton. Riverwood. Sefton. Colyton. Schofields. Blackett. Wahroonga. Chester Hill. Woronora. And Bankstown. If you’ve never spent time in Bankstown, the name Northam Avenue won’t mean much to you. It won’t conjure up the sunshine, the palatial new houses juxtaposed with the older fibro cottages, the people walking by with their stories unseen in their chests, stories of desperation, of triumph, of the everyday and of the almost unbelievable. It won’t conjure up other street and place names, smells and tastes. Chertsey Avenue. Stacey Street. Claribel Street. North Terrace. Chapel Street. Restwell Street. Central City Plaza. For Toby Martin, Bankstown conjured up a lot. Several years spent in situ, collaborating with local musicians from Vietnamese and Arabic-speaking backgrounds, speaking with locals of many backgrounds; he has captured something. We all have Urban Theatre Projects to thank for the ensuing Songs from Northam Avenue.
A reviewer should always declare their interests, so I should be clear at this point that I am predisposed to love any work that Toby Martin comes up with. The sound of his voice alone comforts me immensely and has done since the fateful day I stumbled across his band, Youth Group, at a Sydney music festival in 2004. To me, he is a profoundly gifted songwriter for whom my usually measured countenance gives way to the most embarrassing kind of fan-girl raving. Add to that a further declaration of interest; the moment in time when I stumbled across Toby Martin belting out one of Youth Group’s anthems at that festival was during my own Bankstown residency. I worked there for several years, not just in Bankstown proper, but in all the surrounding suburbs from Picnic Point to Villawood. I would often wish that the place could be captured in art, that people’s stories could be captured. They should be captured, I would think. We would all be richer if they were.
So to see Toby Martin at Carriageworks last night, singing and playing with a band of such diverse musicians and instruments, brought a particular sense of rightness for me. Someone has done it. And what a someone! Behind the band was an old, white-ish brick wall of what used to be the Eveleigh Train sheds. Onto it were projected photographs of the streets and people of Bankstown, and short filmed pieces where the musicians told stories about themselves and their instruments. How the Dan Bao (a Vietnamese stringed instrument like a sitar) could be played by an angst-ridden young man and lure many a young girl to fall in love with him from the sound alone. Just like that! Those strings could cause the heart-strings themselves to stretch to exquisite tautness. The music itself was as rich and sternum-stroking as one expects from Toby Martin’s songs. The stories therein were sad and joyful. The challenge of having 187 different strings on stage at the same time was just ludicrous enough to work beautifully. Songs from Northam Avenue is a gift to all of us.