February 2009


Gone with the wind

By Peter Conrad
Gone with the wind
An Australian fiasco

It’s not as if we all didn’t wish, hope and even – as gossip about post-production upsets circulated – plaintively pray for the success of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia. Touted as a national epic, the film enjoyed the support of the federal government, with extra assistance from three states and the Northern Territory, so we all had a stake in it; in the weeks before it opened, last November, its prospects became a matter of anxious national debate. Would Fox earn back the $130 million lavished on the extravagant director? Would Australian tourism make collateral gains (and additionally recoup some of Tourism Australia’s $40-million investment)? Would Luhrmann, previously slighted at the Academy Awards, receive overdue recognition from his colleagues? And would the project revive the career of the drifting, disengaged Nicole Kidman?

By now all those questions have had the same dismal answer. The few grudgingly favourable reviews Australia received chose to be amused by its giddy, garbled, retrograde kitsch – the lurid sunsets and silhouetted roos that pander to fantasies about an exotic continent, the genuflection to tawdry Hollywood blockbusters of bygone decades. The worst of the critical verdicts dismissed the whole effort as a fiasco. A New York critic called the film “excruciating”, by which he presumably meant that the three hours you devote to watching it are like time spent on the cross. Having squirmed in embarrassed distress through an early screening, I can only agree. What should have been a vindication for our undiscovered country has turned out to be a calumny; instead of signalling our proud national independence, the film portrays us as timid, imitative colonials, still searching for an empire to which we can belong. The blame needs to be shared around: the failure of Luhrmann’s Australia is Australia’s failure too.

It is a failure for which the director was prepared, and which seems to have appealed to his impish, wickedly risky temperament. In an interview for the BBC’s Culture Show, taped during his final weeks of editorial tinkering in Sydney, Luhrmann adopted the brace position. “We can surely fail,” he said, “and we’re right on the razor’s edge of that. It’s a real possibility!” Such nihilistic bravado has buoyed him in the past. His personal creed, announced on a heraldic shield at the start of Australia, holds that a life lived in fear is a life half lived. In practice, this existential motto hasn’t required him to tiptoe across Niagara on a tightrope, or even to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge while wearing a safety harness. His bravery consists of being open-handed with someone else’s money, donated to finance projects that – as he told the BBC interviewer – any sensible investor would have dismissed as absurd: a film about ballroom dancing, a contemporary adaptation of a poetic tragedy by Shakespeare, and now an antipodean Western with the twinkle-toed song-and-dance man Hugh Jackman improbably relaunched as a grizzled, bow-legged cowboy. Luhrmann loves to joke about the foolhardiness of such undertakings; he is a magician who, like Orson Welles, enjoys exposing his own trickery and inviting accusations of fraudulence. The coups de théâtre in his production of Puccini’s La Bohème – first staged at the Sydney Opera House, then recreated for Broadway in 2002 – were its winking alienation effects. A stage manager gave audible countdowns and shouted “Go!” to kick-start each scene. The singers could be heard vocalising in the wings before they entered, and technicians trundled batteries of lights across the stage or swept up fallen snow. Scene changes were executed in full view: a bustling crew disassembled the furniture, a grid of extra lights descended, scenic flats were repositioned, and suddenly, to the audience’s gaping delight, a starveling attic became a Paris street, bustling with hawkers and hookers, pimps and poets, shrieking children and a brass band on jingoistic parade. Of course, the impromptu chaos was drilled, even automated; the theatre is a realm of artifice where even the stagehands are performers.

Although his Bohème dispensed with the red curtain that divides art from life, Luhrmann cannot function without its velvety protection, which muffles inconvenient truths and excludes jarring daylight. His first three films were about putting on shows, and they sensibly enclosed their revved-up revels in theatres: a Kings Cross dance hall in Strictly Ballroom, a derelict facsimile of Shakespeare’s Globe on a Mexican beach in Romeo + Juliet, a Montmartre cabaret in Moulin Rouge. It’s hardly possible to apply the same control to events in the real world, especially when the portion of the world involved is a rowdy, incomprehensibly enormous continent, fought over by contending cultures, lashed by intemperate weather, and stocked with rampant herds of livestock that don’t know how to take directions. Australia is larger than the Globe and redder than the Moulin Rouge, and its collective life is averse to the strictures that govern dance routines. A disaster was probably inevitable the moment Luhrmann stepped outside the shuttered gloom of Fox Studios.

His defensive remark about failure haunts me because it is endearingly Australian, true to the stoical, self-belittling humour of the national character, which might have warned him against his belief that the historical epic – exemplified by films like Ben-Hur or Lawrence of Arabia, which he admired as a boy growing up in rural New South Wales – could be transplanted Down Under. The genre simply does not belong here. Other nations employ the epic to commemorate victories: Greece crushing Troy in The Iliad, Rome prevailing over Carthage in The Aeneid, Portugal colonising Africa and Asia in The Lusiads, Russia withstanding the French invasion in War and Peace. But an Australian epic cannot boast about military success; our best hope has been to turn the ignominious massacre at Gallipoli into a tale of suicidally futile gallantry. The most characteristic Australian narratives expire in defeat, as when Burke and Wills, like Patrick White’s Voss, die in the desert. A paragraph of introductory piffle in Australia defines the outback as a place where “adventure and romance were a way of life”. Nothing could be less true. Hardship, privation and dying remain a way of life on our unromantic frontier, where adventures are as scarce as trees on the Nullarbor Plain. We know that the land we only marginally occupy will always be indifferent to human incursions; we also ruefully acknowledge our lack of moral right to possess it, since earlier settlers evicted its traditional owners. The American narrative exults in the commandeering of space and the elimination of bothersome natives; we worry about the victims of colonisation, like the mixed-race children who in Australia are rounded up and forcibly assimilated into white society. These qualms of conscience mean that we have no equivalent to the conquest of terrain celebrated in the Westerns that are America’s home-grown epics: the extension of railway lines from coast to coast, dramatised by John Ford in The Iron Horse and by Cecil B DeMille in Union Pacific, or the camera’s heady flight above the Golden Gate at the end of How the West Was Won, speeding on towards the horizon as if sketching the passage to India that for Walt Whitman was the logical outcome of American expansion. The Gateway Arch bestraddling St Louis, erected to commemorate the Louisiana Purchase, mimes the insuperable will that pushed west to brace the American continent together. The engineered icon that is our diminutive equivalent merely bridges the two shores of Sydney Harbour, a rather less heroic task.

I was struck by our smilingly fatalistic national mood a while ago when watching The Sundowners, the film of Jon Cleary’s novel directed by Fred Zinnemann. Back in 1960, Hollywood denied Australians the right to portray themselves, so Cleary’s indigent itinerant drover and his discontented wife are played by Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr. They gamely trudge through the usual epic trials: there are Homeric fist fights in pubs (like the one with which Luhrmann’s Australia begins), and the inevitable bushfire. Kerr hates her rootless existence, and begs Mitchum to settle down. Towards the end they find a farm cottage in which they might have a placid connubial existence; they even raise the funds to buy it when a horse Mitchum has trained wins a race. An American story would end here, with material rewards vouching for spiritual merit and the wilderness domesticated. But this is an Australian story, so it has a disconcerting coda: the horse is belatedly disqualified, the bookmakers refuse to pay out, Kerr has to do without her dream home, and the sundowners traipse off to the next meagre, seasonal job. The happy ending founders because it depends on gambling, which reminds us that everything in Australia is a matter of chance, as random and fickle as the behaviour of the coins in a game of two-up. Yet the response of the losers is not maudlin or depressed: they greet their bad luck by laughing, and the film concludes with a fit of contagious, hopeless hilarity. That note of jaunty misery is sounded just once in Australia, when the drunken accountant played by Jack Thompson chuckles that the saga of the cattle station taken over by Kidman is “a Gibbonian tale of decline and ruin”. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was a mock epic, which sabotaged imperial Rome by examining the vices of its rulers and demonstrated the infirmity and transience of all power. It’s a pity that this perception was not developed by Luhrmann’s committee of scriptwriters: Australians have always relished the collapse of grand schemes and the chastening of exorbitant ambition. Sooner our tolerance for underachievement than the braggartry and world-beating belligerence that have sustained America’s national epics.

Wanting to do everything at once, Luhrmann seems unaware that a stark moral choice confronts him. Is the frontier an empty, ownerless realm where male settlers grab land for profit while their womenfolk, like Kidman, plant flower gardens in the sandy soil? Or do you retreat in deference to a culture that is older and wiser, that venerates and protects the earth rather than exploiting it? Luhrmann ignores the disparity between America and Australia, or – in his anxiety to please Californian moguls and Midwestern teenagers in multiplexes – decides to overlook it. The film’s cattle drive to Darwin mimics Westerns like Howard Hawks’ Red River, even though the flat, scorching local landscape contains none of the wild rivers and bristling mountains that could turn such a journey into an obstacle course for an epic hero. This topographical hindrance trips Luhrmann up when the imported genre obliges him to choreograph a stampede. To make the episode interesting, he has to concoct a section of the outback that exists only in the addled heads of the geeks glued to the computers in Fox’s digital-imaging lab. The numbingly level terrain suddenly lunges into a crevasse, so the herd races towards a precipice. You can see this kind of geological calamity all over Utah or Arizona, but there are no such enormous gulfs in the Kimberley or the Northern Territory, and the computer graphics aren’t good enough to make the illusion plausible. As if the violation of nature were not enough, Luhrmann, the magus who can’t help revealing that his spells are fake, goes on to do something that is deliberately disastrous. He stalls the stampede by using magic – not, admittedly, the optical deceit of the digital landscape, but the mental sorcery of a half-Aboriginal boy who steps out in front of the panicked steers and eyeballs them, which compels them to change their course. Since the Aboriginal people didn’t raise cattle, it’s unlikely that their traditional lore taught such occult ways of controlling them; since Luhrmann’s own wizardry depends on the technical trickery of blue screens and 3D animators, it’s hard to see what credence he can give to the elemental conjuring of witch doctors like the shaman King George (played by David Gulpilil) and his young apprentice (Brandon Walters). The rules of genre are once more flippantly flouted. An epic is about physical combat, which tests courage and endurance. To invoke supernatural powers that can alter the outcome is cheating.

After skirting the abyss, the bovine trek continues until Luhrmann makes another bathetic miscalculation. The failure of the drive is averted by a dangerous but timesaving detour across a baking saline waste called the Kuraman Desert. I could find no such place on any map, though Kuraman is the name of a tropical island off Borneo. It’s symptomatic of Luhrmann’s befuddlement that he should have placed a desert in the vicinity of Darwin, which is actually surrounded by monsoon forests, flood plains and teetering escarpments like those of Kakadu. Nevertheless, let’s allow him the fanciful setting. If only he had followed the cattle and their wranglers across the Kuraman, he might have supplied his flimsy characters with the heroic credentials they lack; as it is, he chooses to skip the heat, the dust and the discomfort. After teasing us with some newspaper headlines reporting that Kidman, Jackman and their entire herd have died in the desert, Luhrmann forgets about this catastrophe and has the herd safely reach Darwin. Was there no continuity person on the set to point out the illogic to the dizzy, sunstruck director? The arrival in town is also treated with evasive obliquity. We are not shown the cattle trotting down the main street; instead their hooves rattle the teacups of some gossiping matrons who are having their hair permed. Luhrmann, I suppose, is the kind of fellow who would rather hang around a beauty parlour than attend a rodeo.

One last chance of achieving gravity and grandeur remains. When the Japanese air force bombs a tackily matte-painted Darwin, the bungled Western suddenly mutates into a war film. This epilogue might have shown that personal stories no longer matter now Australia has been thrust into a conflict that convulses the entire world. Given this newly widened perspective, who cares about Kidman, Jackman and their screwball courtship? As Bogart tells Bergman in Casablanca, private happiness hardly amounts to a hill of beans. Luhrmann, whose instincts here were the right ones, initially responded by killing off his main characters. He then repented, preferring the fuzzy consolations of romance to the harsher world view of the epic, which sees events from a lofty distance and doesn’t grieve over individuals who are the random casualties of history. Kidman’s reported death is therefore explained away as a case of mistaken identity, while Jackman’s had to be revoked in a last flustered spasm of re-editing when studio bosses and preview audiences protested about the vindictive sniper’s bullet that felled him. Imagine Weir’s Gallipoli with history rewritten and Mel Gibson miraculously spared!

Of course, the bewildered executives and bereft fans who demanded Jackman’s resurrection had a point. A performer who is such a charming, untragic lightweight has not earned the right to die. Efforts are made to give the generic character he plays an ennobling back-story: the Drover is supposed to be a disillusioned veteran of Britain’s previous war, and has also resolved Australia’s racial problem by marrying an Aboriginal woman (who happens to be conveniently dead). Shrugging off this sorrowful pedigree, Jackman still looks like Errol Flynn pretending to be John Wayne. Russell Crowe might have found some density in the role, but he sensibly stomped out at an early stage, leaving Luhrmann with an actor who is a slightly older and more cosmetically lissom version of Paul Mercurio from Strictly Ballroom. Jackman is more at ease on the dance floor than on horseback, and his finest moment comes when he shaves off his whiskers, exchanges his moleskins and akubra for a white tuxedo, and guides Kidman round the room in a pre-coital foxtrot.

Australia professes a sanctimonious reverence for story-telling. “Tellum story,” says Walters at the beginning; Jackman opines that all you ever own is your story, which will live on after your death. But whose story is Luhrmann telling? He helps himself to an Indigenous version of Genesis, casting Kidman as a personification of the Rainbow Serpent and granting her the power to heal a stricken land. Whatever else she might be, this fussily artful actress is hardly an earth mother. She also happens to be playing an English aristocrat, which is probably a disqualification for her appointed task of cosmic nurturing. Jackman smirkingly proposes an equine merger, offering to mate her imported thoroughbred with his bush brumby. The smutty dialogue is trite but also lamely antique: these are no longer the bloodlines of multicultural Australia, and the innuendo again reveals Luhrmann’s incomprehension of the country he is extolling. Wanting his characters to be mythical embodiments of the land, he organises a continental orgasm when Kidman and Jackman make love. Hot monsoonal rains drench them. The sky splits open, the earth heaves, and the camera giddily skims across Australia as rivers overflow and waterfalls froth. Back at the desert station it is suddenly Christmas, with wild flowers blooming from the fertilised earth. I wouldn’t dream of impugning Jackman’s virility, but I can’t quite imagine that one man has the capacity to irrigate and inseminate the whole drought-parched nation. Luhrmann, however, apparently believes in his own sappy fable, and in a travel article for the London Sunday Times – his contribution to a synergistic marketing campaign for the film in Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers – he recommended a dip in the waters of Emma Gorge in the Kimberley, near where he filmed the cattle drive: “Nicole got pregnant there and there were five other girls who got pregnant. It’s either the water – or one of the local guides showing them around was a saucy chap.” We can do without the pantheistic mumbo jumbo; recreational sex must be one of the few pastimes available on such a remote film set, and the unit’s suppliers most likely underestimated the demand for condoms among the itchy cast and crew. Although Kidman has a tribal identity wished upon her, at the end of the film Luhrmann chooses to solemnise her reconciliation with Australia by employing a snatch of music that evokes pastoral England. She surrenders Walters to Gulpilil, who takes the boy off on an initiatic walkabout; their parting is accompanied by the ‘Nimrod’ movement from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, a wistfully homesick elegy that could not be less appropriate to the setting or the situation.

The stories Luhrmann tells about Australia are all second-hand, an ill-fitting and incoherent anthology of American movies. Jabbering at cross-purposes, Jackman and Kidman are Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen. Reunited in burning Darwin, they are Gable and Leigh escaping from besieged Atlanta in Gone With the Wind. The Japanese aerial bombardment is a footnote to Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, eagerly vouching for Australia’s membership, even then, of the Coalition of the Willing. (Before the attack, Jackman notices troops mobilising, and takes them for diggers. A mate corrects him: “They’re Yanks!” If Luhrmann expected audiences to cheer at this news, he got it wrong, since the world no longer greets the American army as its saviour.) The most inauthentic of these purloined plots comes from The Wizard of Oz. Kidman consoles Walters after his mother’s death by giving him a synopsis of Dorothy’s adventures, with a squeaky rendition of ‘Over the Rainbow’ thrown in; the boy sees the film in Darwin and, when Jackman rescues the colony of stolen children from the Japanese, broadcasts his return by playing Judy Garland’s hit tune on a mouth organ. While the music of Elgar tethers Kidman to the Malvern Hills, the songlines traced by Walters have their roots in Kansas. I have always resented this use of a hoary old Hollywood film to rebrand our continent, because the habit cravenly identifies us as an adjunct of American culture. I remember shrinking in my seat as Jackman, in his musical about Peter Allen, told Broadway audiences, “I’m from Australia, better known to you as Oz.” Why should we be so eager to pave our land with yellow bricks and stock it with men made of rusty tin, lily-livered lions, obnoxious marauding Munchkins and a nondescript dog? The identification does us no favours. In the novel by L Frank Baum on which the MGM musical was based, the little woman who reorients Dorothy after the tornado tells a sobering truth that is only too relevant for Australians: “the Land of Oz has never been civilized, for we are cut off from all the rest of the world.” There is, she adds, a compensation. Civilised countries have outgrown sorcery, but “we still have witches and wizards amongst us”. Although Gulpilil and Walters are allowed to perform some conjuring tricks when the plot of Australia needs disentangling, Luhrmann asserts his own prerogative as a practitioner of white magic. He may have forgotten that the actual wizard in the Emerald City is a sad pretender who skulks out of sight behind a curtain that may or may not have been red.

I said that the film is our shared failure because it betrays a lack of confidence in our autonomy, an incomprehension of our uniqueness, a stooped deference to the larger, louder, richer worlds far away whose attention we seek. That ingratiation is coupled, in a way that is inimitably Australian, with a touchy, aggressive xenophobia. Its official backers hoped that Australia would promote tourism, which is why it begins with Kidman’s trip in a flying boat from London to Darwin. But the kind of salesmanship it exhibits is unlikely to allure foreign guests. Jackman lands a knockout blow in a pub brawl, then snarls, “Welcome to Australia!” as if he were aiming his fist at Kidman. His cronies ransack her luggage and trample her silken scanties in the dust: is this what disembarking tourists can expect from our prurient customs inspectors? Of course, Luhrmann is inviting Americans and Europeans to visit a crass, rambunctious Australia that no longer exists; a slicker and more contemporary itinerary emerges in his contribution to the Sunday Times, which describes the “whitefella walkabout” he undertook to reacquaint himself with the country before he began filming. He glides through a cushioned outback, recommending a “great boutique hotel” in Broome and a “luxury tented camp” that costs $1000 a night at Uluru. This sounds to me like a whitefella expense-account junket, a non-pedestrian walkabout in an air-conditioned SUV. When Luhrmann’s tour reaches Tasmania, his fondly patronising tone suggests that he may be on the kind of walkabout that the Queen is accustomed to take, accepting floral tributes from subjects corralled behind police barricades. He claims to enjoy the “funny overnight ferry” from Melbourne to Devonport, and suggests overnight stays in “funny little bedsits”; the best he can say about the Tasmanian landscape is that it looks “like something out of Wuthering Heights”, which is both inaccurate and colonially demeaning. Why must everything Australian be a citation of some original that belongs elsewhere, a derivative replica cordoned off inside quote marks?

Like Luhrmann on his plush pilgrimage, Kidman and Jackman also insist that their roles marked a symbolic homecoming. “It’s a wonderful way to give back to my country,” she purrs in Fox’s press kit. “I hadn’t done an Australian movie in eight years,” adds he, “so to come back and make a film of this magnitude, scale and ambition – using my own accent! – was a dream come true.” Their antics on a German talk show in December, after the Berlin opening of Australia, belied this re-engagement with their native land. Jackman, coaxed to adopt the posture Gulpilil assumes throughout the film, erected himself on one leg, with the other crooked against his calf. The stance allows a hunter-gatherer to stay poised, ready to launch himself through space; it also implies respect for the ground, balancing in order to tread on it lightly. For Jackman, who grinned with his usual disarming silliness as he swayed to and fro, it was just a goofily contorted ballet position. Kidman took part in another parodic initiation ceremony when the host – a bleached Aryan, no doubt amused by the uncouth music of more primitive races – persuaded her to play a didgeridoo. She writhed uncomfortably and pleaded that she didn’t know how, but eventually she obliged, sweeping aside her cascade of honeyed hair and puffing into the wooden tube. What came out the other end was tuneless flatulence. Aboriginal leaders claimed she had violated a taboo that prohibits women from touching the instrument, and hinted that her crime might be punished by sterility. I’m not sure I’d accuse her of sacrilege, but at the very least she and Jackman were scandalously tactless, behaving like tipsy tourists who feel they can get away with deriding the quaint locals. So much for the solemn rites of repatriation.

At the end of the film, Kidman says, “Let’s go home.” “No place like it,” agrees Jackman. But where exactly is the home they refer to? The exchange sounds like a private joke: I bet they were thinking about the private jets that would soon speed them back to Los Angeles. The disappointment of Australia won’t break my heart, though I regret Luhrmann’s misapplication of his zany talent; it’s Australia I worry about – still desperate to please and swaggering to conceal a lack of confidence, still with no assured place in the world, and still unable or unwilling to tell its own story.

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

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