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Local blues legend headlines Sydney jazz festival

Long-time Redfern resident Marlene Cummins, considered Australia’s foremost Indigenous female blues writer and performer, is a headline act at this year’s Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival.

Cummins is a jazz blues singer, saxophonist, artist, activist, broadcaster and proud Guguyelandji and Woppaburra woman.

While influenced by Ray Charles and legendary blues women Big Mama Thornton, Bessie Smith and Etta James, Cummins knows the blues, which she says is born of prejudice, from an Aboriginal woman’s perspective.

Her performance at the Seymour Centre on October 28 will tell her story of vulnerability, strength and survival, while celebrating pioneering First Nations female jazz and blues artists.

Born in Cunnamulla, south-west Queensland, Cummins grew up amid the Aboriginal Protection Act of the 1950s and had a political “grassroots” upbringing.

By the time she became a founding member of the Australian Black Panther Party, campaigning for medical, educational and legal services, and land rights, Cummins, still a teenager, already bore the scars of institutionalised racism.

She continued to endure hardship, discrimination and abuse, even from within her own community, leading to a cycle of addiction that left her on the streets.

Cummins has since maintained an outspoken stance on political and other abuses committed against Aboriginal people, but prefers to continue the struggle through her artistic expression in music and art.

She said she wanted to sing about Black people, how they thought and how they contributed to the betterment of the country.

“I feel like I have some kind of responsibility because I have lived it,” she said.

One of her paintings is of her favourite Aboriginal blues artist, Syvanna Doolan, a blues and jazz singer-songwriter in the 1960s whose mainstream exclusion is for Cummins an example of how institutional racism filtered into the music industry.

A Doolan song will be included in Cummins’ performance for the jazz festival, as will her song about Aboriginal warrior Pemulwuy, who resisted the incursion of white settlers onto his people’s traditional lands.

She said she would confront the audience with the song but balance it out with music people could dance to.

Now in its 11th year, the Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival continues to showcase some of the most talented, inspiring and creative musicians from home and abroad.

Performing with Cummins (sax and vocals) in “Marloo’s Blues” at The York Theatre, Seymour Centre, October 28, 7.30-10pm, will be Clayton Doley (organ, accordion and piano), Zoe Hauptmann (bass) and Calvin Welch (drums).

The festival, which also includes such famed performers as Chilean saxophonist Melissa Aldana, Finnish ECM recording artist Iro Haarla, and Melbourne’s Andrea Keller Trio, runs from Thursday October 27 to Saturday November 5.

Tickets are available at


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