Culture

Music

Mona Foma: Dark Mofo’s sunnier sister

By Jenny Valentish
A particularly genteel and suitably confusing festival

As one strolls around the lawns of Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) – weaving through arty types beached on beanbags and refreshing oneself with a “Sauvignon Trump” icy pole (fashioned in the leader’s image) – one will eventually stumble upon a sign for The Peacock Pool Bar. “Stop slumming it,” it suggests.

Slumming it? Hardly. I mean, can there be a posher bird than the guineafowl? These are most commonly found keeping snakes at bay in vineyards, such as in the Moorilla Winery, the boundaries of which blur into the festival site. Mofo has always been the sunny sister to the black sheep that is June’s Dark Mofo, but this year, it seems particularly genteel. On the stage itself, Brian Jackson and the Southern Gospel Choir are cruising amicably through the protest songs of Nina Simone and Gil Scott-Heron. There’s nary a cigarette butt nor fast-food receptacle littering the lawns, since even the food trucks here use linen napkins, proper cutlery and tin cups. And when one tires of the day’s festivities and browsing of craft stalls, the Mona Roma ferry has a VIP section (“to escape the riff-raff”) with platters of local cheese and pâté.

January 19–21 marks the final Mofo in Hobart before the festival makes its new home in Launceston. Curated, as ever, by musician Brian Ritchie (whose band, Milwaukee’s Violent Femmes, closes the festival in a performance with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra), its emphasis is on enlightening the audience through what’s lazily thought of as “world music”. More accurately, that’s music with non-Western instruments, scales and rhythms. In fact, as the organisers gleefully point out, many acts are “from countries on the USA’s immigration ban list”.

As such, many of the artists take the opportunity to talk us through the meaning of their music. Iraqi oud player Rahim AlHaj and cellist Karim Wasfi (who famously walked into the wreckage of a car bomb and began to play) effortlessly engage the audience into keeping the beat. Ajak Kwai, who combines Sudanese gospel with afro beats, has a packed audience over at the Turrell Stage (so named because it sits beneath one of the newly commissioned James Turrell installations) on their feet and dancing. There’s a distinct feeling of being nurtured when Patagonians Fémina perform. Sofia and Clara Trucco’s joyful harmonising induces some sisterly hair-stroking between them.

The highlight for me is Tunisian Emel Mathlouthi, who plays two very different sets over two days – one raw and exhilarating, the other enveloping in its intimacy. Her 2007 song “Kelmti Horra” became the anthem of the Arab Spring, and she performed it at the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo, to a sea of mobile phone torches held aloft. Since then her music has moved towards dark, avant-garde electronica (her latest album, Ensen, counted Valgeir Sigurðsson of Sigur Rós among its producers) and on Mofo’s Main Stage she’s a whirlwind in black over these urgent rhythms.

There are also some glorious oddities to unearth. Vocal Womb is a performance by mezzo-soprano Eve Klein, whose operatic gymnastics are even better appreciated via the laryngoscope in her throat. Anna Homler performs as “Breadwoman”, wearing a loaf with slits for her eyes, and waving baguettes. The deficit of Dark Mofo-style nooks and crannies on this site means you might stroll past the tennis court and see Military Position – a woman in a PVC bodysuit and gimp mask strutting to some evil industrial beats – in the blazing sunlight. In the museum itself – aside from the star attraction of new wing Pharos, there’s the procession of TSO Chorus Extreme, and The Green Brain Cycle, in which Michael Kieran Harvey leaps between grand piano and multiple keyboards beneath a giant green orb, imagining a soundtrack for Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel, The Green Brain.

The weekend is capped with a main-stage performance by Norwegian black metallers Mayhem. At dusk on the Sunday night, people in black T-shirts scuttle out of nowhere to witness this glorious spectacle. Bathed in blue light, and between flashing images of gravestones, Necrobutcher & co. play at near-impossible speeds, summoning up some immortal kind of energy. It’s an odd conclusion to a bill that, overall, had a gentle, feminine energy, but then, if there’s one thing all the Mona team excel at, it’s sending us off with the not-unpleasant feeling that this has not made sense.

And so, the ship sails for Launceston. Actually, that city got an early taster of the Mofo experience this year, with Mini Mofo held over January 12–14. It featured concerts from Gotye (in a tribute to electronic composer Jean-Jacques Perrey) and Godspeed You! Black Emperor with contemporary dance company The Holy Body Tattoo, culminating in a free block party. Despite the fact that Tasmania teems with mainlanders whenever a Mona festival takes place, local approval is all-important. Anyone who attended Launceston’s block party – and who received one of the thousand free hot-pink onesies to wear – could get into Hobart’s Mofo for nothing if they turned up in that Adele Varcoe-designed attire. And it should be noted that, for all my talk of poshness, Tasmanian locals are offered discounted three-day passes to Mofo.

Severing the festival from the museum site will alter the arts landscape of Launnie, but it will also vacate the space for the construction of the five-star Hotel Mona (known, naturally, as HoMo). This ambitious build will take design inspiration from the Golden Gate Bridge and will include a public library, high-roller casino and theatre. For now, Launceston’s gain is Hobart’s loss, but as Hobart Mayor Sue Hickey rather hopefully told the ABC: “If it doesn’t work out, they are always welcome back.”

Jenny Valentish

Jenny Valentish is a journalist and novelist. Her first nonfiction book, Woman of Substances, was recently published by Black Inc.

Mofo 2018. Photo Credit: MONA/Jesse Hunniford. Image courtesy of the artist and MONA Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.

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