Posts Tagged ‘Middle East’

Since forming in 2010, the Sirens Big Band have been a blast of Persian-scented fresh air into Sydney’s jazz scene, a scene where the rare female musician (who is not a vocalist) can stand out like a sapphire in the gravel. The Sirens are all-female, all-funky and all-embracing in their influences.

Sirens - pic Quirijn Mees

Band co-leaders Jessica Dunn and Harriet Harding have guided the Sirens from the beginning into a unique style heavy on the world-music grooves – oh, how I hate that word (as John McLaughlin, himself a great cross-pollinator, said “we ALL live in the World, don’t we?”) – there are Ethiopian, African, Latin, Balkan, Indian sounds there as well as New York funk, Chicago swing and Newtown boogie.

The Sirens’ debut album, Kali and The Time of Change reinforces these pan-continental grooves just as it reinforces the good time the band has when making music. Opener ‘Balkanator’ – penned by trumpeter Ellen Kirkwood (definitely a composer to watch) – jumps out like a joyful and slightly tipsy village wedding dance, the players throwing the solos around over drummer Lauren Benson’s grinning groove.

Sirens mentor (“our jazz mamma”) Sandy Evans’ Indian-spiced nine-minute-plus piece, the title track ‘Kali and The Time of Change’ opens with Harding’s sopranino talking back to the Band’s unison riffs. The piece settles down into a floating groove over which Harding raps “something majestic/ something lyrical/ female Aladdin representing future changes yo…” – a bright rap that evokes scenes in the mind and a call for peace in the heart. Quite beautiful.

Harriet Harding and tenor saxophonist Ruth Wells travelled to the Middle East last year and came back with more than they took away. These inspirations fuelled Harding’s ‘Kali’ rap and also Wells’ gorgeous ‘Hawassa to Addis’. This piece has guitarist Milan Ring singing over the entire band singing as a choir. I don’t know why it affects so deeply but it does – is it the lovely pentatonic Ethiopian folk tune the piece is based on? or is it that the choir of female voices sounds like children? or is it the low blues moan of Jessica Dunn’s bass during her solo? Who knows – best not to dwell on these things, best to just dig beauty as she should be dug, unquestioningly.Sirens Kali

The Sirens have, since their inception, played charts by some wonderful local composers and it is gratifying to see they have included several pieces here that they have had in their setlists from Day One. Paul Murchison’s hip-shaking 7/8 (if there can be such a thing, this is it) ‘I Still Remember’ gets the whole band cooking before a coolly soulful piano solo from Monique Lysiak. Nadia Burgess’s evocative, watercolour-washed ‘The Music in My Dreams’ is a masterclass in jazz big band tone-colour and restraint.

Jenna Cave’s sprightly African-limbed 9/8 jaunt ‘Odd Time In Mali’ has long been a Sirens’ favourite – by the time it smoothes out to 4/4 for Emma Riley’s sinuous trombone solo and Milan Ring’s chicken-picked guitar solo, if your foot ain’t tapping you are either made of machine-parts or dead.

Closing track Mulatu Astatke’s ‘Yekatit’ has all the elements that we love about the Siren’s Big Band – Ethio funk that swings, killer solos (Sophie Unsen’s baritone sax burning here) over a blasting band, and a joyful vibe presiding over all. It is a combination you won’t get anywhere else and they are one of Sydney’s – if not Australia’s – treasures.

The Siren’s Big Band – long may they sing us over the edge.

The Siren’s website is

Published February 2103 on 


People seem amazed when I tell them that I saw Led Zeppelin at Sydney Showground in 1972, when the four rock deities descended from the sky to perform for us and then returned to Asgard (or maybe London) – could it ever have truly happened? The Led Zeppelin hagiography has enlarged to almost mythic proportions as the years have gone by, but in 1972 they were another hard rock band – albeit one of the globe’s biggest and most innovative.

Upon the death of their astonishing drummer, John Bonham in September 1980, Led Zeppelin split and went their separate ways. It seemed the only thing to do: without Bonham’s thunder and lightning, it was not and never would be the same. The remaining members – the leonine Robert Plant, the savant John Paul Jones and the truly visionary Jimmy Page – individually produced music over the years, much of it very very good but none of it matching the vast scope – from Middle America hoe-downs to Middle Earth musings to towering Middle East anthems, all with lashings of the Blues – that Led Zeppelin could conjure.

And despite their prolific and unmatched recorded output – each new album pushed the boundaries of rock into new lands – it was live that Led Zeppelin could work magic. The improvisational jazz/blues ethos behind their music, coupled with an almost preternatural chemistry, produced hours of astonishing musical trip-outs, pulling audiences along in their sparkling wake.

On 10 December 2007, the band came together for a one-off show at London’s O2 Arena as part of a tribute concert to Ahmet Ertegun, founder with his brother Neshui of Atlantic Records and the man who signed Led Zeppelin to the label in 1968. It was the first time the band – now with, touchingly, John Bonham’s son Jason in the drum seat – had played together for 27 years, bar brief appearances at 1985’s Live Aid and Atlantic Record’s 40th Anniversary in 1988.

Worldwide, 20 million fans bid for the reunion tickets with around 20,000 witnessing the show. The rest of us had to make do with YouTube clips and bootlegs. On October 17 this year, the film of the concert – named ‘Celebration Day’ after the Led Zeppelin III track – was released worldwide with cinemas screening it across Australia for one day only.

And from the opening two-beat salvo of ‘Good Times, Bad Times’ – cleverly the first song of the concert and the first song of their 1969 debut album – it was plain fans of rock were in for a treat. Virtually devoid of special effects, sweeping audience shots or heavy production, the film put us front and centre, Dick Carruthers‘ direction never diverting from the sheer power and animal grace of the band.

The sound was loud and clear and pretty much at chest-thumping gig volume level. As it should be – listening to led Zep at polite volume would be as wrong as listening to Erik Satie’s French piano miniatures through a Marshall stack. The enormous dynamism of modern cinema sound systems, having to replicate shattering glass, tinkling rain or a train wreck, is perfect for the huge wall of sound that rock puts out. These cinema concert experiences are quite something.

All the Zep classics were there – ‘Dazed and Confused’, ‘Black Dog’, a never previously played live ‘For Your Life’, a shimmeringly beautiful ‘No Quarter’. Jason Bonham seemed a little in awe and restrained for the first few pieces, but by the heavily funky ‘Trampled Underfoot’ he seemed to attack the drumkit with the same joyously unbridled ferocity of his late father.

Joy was all around – that same ferocious joy went through every tune. Jimmy Page says “Our DNA is in these songs” and the enjoyment and love leapt from the screen. Indeed, the versions of ‘The Song Remains The Same’, ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ and ‘Kashmir’ were the best live recordings I have ever heard – ‘Kashmir’ especially was entirely transporting, with Robert Plant conjuring minarets and desert winds before a swirling Arabic sun, one of many astounding, yet never distracting, visuals that played behind the band.

A double encore of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ – showing that intense improvisational aspect of the band – and ‘Rock and Roll’ (“Been a long time since I rock and rolled…”) and it was over. There was sadness that it was over for ever now, but the joy at the magic we had witnessed outshone that by far.

There will never be another band like this. I am thankful that there ever was.

Published November 2012 on