In some parts of the country, it’s called Moorambilla Magic. It’s the kind of description that is instantly understandable to those children and parents who have gone through the Moorambilla experience – and felt the power and connection that comes from learning, singing, and performing together. Others will perhaps remember it as the subject of a documentary simply called Outback Choir.
The spark for the ‘Magic’ dates to 2006, in western NSW, where a couple of old friends hatched a plan to create a unique program that identifies primary school and high school voices and then helps transform them into performers at an annual concert that celebrates local First Nation’s stories. Even describing it in such prosaic terms doesn’t quite capture how and why it all works.
Michelle Leonard OAM, Artistic Director of Moorambilla Voices, was born and raised in Coonamble, in the central-western plains of NSW, a town known to many for its rodeo. Michelle had a talent for music and left town to study at the Conservatorium in Sydney. She travelled widely, performing, and during a visit back to Coonamble, struck up a conversation with old friend Liz Markey.
“And Liz said: “What are you really doing? And it was the way she said it,’’ Michelle explained. “My parents fostered an attitude in us kids that ‘You don’t just walk away and never look back,’ and that was always in my world view, and it really resonated with me when Liz said that.’’
Since then, initially with Liz’s help (she passed away almost 10 years ago) – and the assistance and guidance of many others - Michelle established what has become Moorambilla Voices, a unique performance vehicle for kids across the central west of NSW to tap into the deep culture of the region through song, dance, drums and art.
Central to Michelle and Liz’s original vision was a realisation that the education opportunities that they had when they were younger were diminishing over time, not growing, for many kids in regional NSW. Michelle had, by this stage, worked with what was then known as the Sydney Children’s Choir (now the Gondwana Choirs) but the initial grant she received was from Festivals Australia, so she had to create a festival. The result was a festival held in Coonamble each year for nine years.
Early days, Michelle worked with regional arts officers to identify 20 boy sopranos from local primary schools. “We started the first camp and commissioned the first music and then we ran workshops in all the empty shops in the main street Coonamble. And it was a roaring success,’’ Michelle recalled.
They were off and running.
The model has evolved but the intent and direction have remained true to the original goal. In pre-COVID times, there are more than 300 kids from more than 70 schools who come together in a residential camp to work with professional musicians, performers, composers, choreographers, and visuals artists to create a unique performance. A few weeks later they reconvene to work through the devised work before presenting the result at the annual Moorambilla Gala Concert, which is now held at Dubbo’s theatre.
“I’ve looked back at those first few grant applications I wrote, and that vision and that understanding - the shape and the capacity of choirs to connect and transcend social difference and its capacity to add a cohesiveness - that I think people have always known throughout history, was there from the start,’’ Michelle said.
“And we know in First Nations’ communities all round the world, they sing and dance intergenerationally…it’s this little well of happiness…’’
But there were hurdles. There were no choirs and not too many music teachers in that part of the world. Physiologically, a boy goes from an angelic soprano one year to a growling bear the next. (And their voices change too!) But there were ways around all of those issues.
“We thought, why don’t we write music that these boys can sing with their fathers and their uncles, so that we’ve got a way of helping these families to work together and be applauded for that on stage,’’ Michelle said. “A bit of a social fabric strengthener.’’
And what about when those boys get to high school, and have those bursts of wild adolescent energy? How do you channel that in a creative environment? The solution was percussive – the introduction of Japanese Taiko drumming, which added another thread to the colourful texture of the Moorambilla experience.
The overall effect is affirmative for those kids who become part of the Moorambilla Voices. “They know they’ve been chosen (to attend the program) because they know they have a unique gift to bring to the program,’’ Michelle said. “They know they’ve been chosen on merit, not just because they can pay. And they know it’s an opportunity and they’ll be given all the scaffolding and love and support to bring their best selves in to that space.’’
“We enable the children to connect to each other, to connect to country, linguistically, connect to the stories but do that in a way that showcases their innate capacity as it moves year-on-year,’’ she said. “It became something they wanted to be part of - we weren’t setting them up to fail.’’
The ‘magic’ at the heart of the experience is partly about the energy that runs so deeply through the shared creativity, but also about the connection it fosters – many of the children become advocates for singing and their families literally vocal supporters of the program.
“The two-year (COVID) hiatus has meant the program alumni are really keen to come back and mentor the primary children to ensure the legacy of what they created, stays.’’ Michelle said. “That is the most tremendous accolade – and they will fundraise, they will cut hair, whatever, to make sure, and they’ll say: ‘We didn’t necessarily understand, and now we do’.’’
Some of those alumni have gone on to tertiary education, others have found a way to change their difficult circumstances and turn their lives around.
And after all this time, there is still no shortage of inspiration for each year’s group: the Indigenous stories of the vast hinterland of western NSW are forever there.
“I could live 10 lifetimes and I still wouldn’t cover it [on country stories] all,’’ Michelle said. “Those kids live each year that connection to place. It’s the audiences and the parents and the communities who go through the program, saying: ‘Wow, we’ve got something to be proud of. We never looked at it that way.’’
“Now, parents are saying how important it is for their kids to be part of the program to learn about their part of the world and their connection to country and how all these communities along the river are all connected.’’
In Kamilaroy, ‘billa’ means ‘water’ and ‘mooram’ means ‘place of’.
So ‘Moorambilla’ means ‘place of deep fresh water’.