Radiating from the stage is raw emotion in its purest form, vibrating from the vocal cords of The Barefoot Divas and straight through the audience. You can feel their words, really feel them, as they pour their heart into every word they sing.
Brisbane’s Powerhouse was the perfect setting for their Walk ‘A Mile In My Shoes’ concert. It was small and intimate and felt as though they were simply telling a story from across from the room, a story about something or someone that had a profound impact on their lives and even their perception of the world around them. These were not light hearted stories but quite dark, recounting personal hardship or questioning society’s treatment of minorities and its vulnerable members.
The six singer/songwriters — Ursula Yovich (Serbian/ North Arnhem Land Burarra – Australian Aborigine), Emma Donovan (Gumbayngirr Northern NSW – Australian Aborigine), Ngaiire (Papua New Guinean), Maisey Rika (Maori), Whirimako Black (Maori) and Merenia (Maori/Welsh/Romany Gypsy) — have as diverse (and shared) life experience as ethnicities. As a result each had a different story to tell and a different way to tell it.
Unifying their sound and enabling them to seamlessly move between genres was their equally multicultural band of Greek Australian Adam Ventoura (bass and vocals), Chilean Steve Marin (drumset, percussion and vocals), Peruvian Giorgio Rojas (drumset and percussion), Greek Sicilian Marcello Maio (keys and accordion) and Maori Percy Robinson (guitar and vocals).
Ngaiire’s rousing delivery of her soul jazz song ‘Never Forget’ was as intense as the lyrics both vocally and theatrically. The song recounts her mother’s love and protection while being subject to domestic violence: “This is what he do to me, I’ll make sure you can never see, I gave myself so he would never lay his hands on you. I’m addicted to the blood I shed so you can have a better head, never forget I would give my life up just for you.”
The Queen of fusion, Merenia, effortlessly weaves various genres (i.e. Latin, world, reggae, funk and dance) and languages (Spanish, Maori and English) into her songs. Wearing red heels, she shimmied and shook her way through an energetic performance, complete with Latin dance moves during ‘Fortuna’. This was the only time shoes were seen on stage. She says she writes songs that are real to her and mean something and this was evident in her song ‘This One Be Killa’.
“This one for the mothers and the daughters in the front line,” she sang, “in the boat line, trying to raise their babies while they standing in the bread line. This one for the children on the streets of Palestine, occupied, dodging all the bullets they running for their lives. This one for me Maoris in all the Polynesias, we still stand strong despite indoctrination, racialisation, separation, supplantation, denigration, manipulation, victimisation.”
After such dynamic performances Emma brought a change of pace as she slowed the tempo down with acoustic guitar ballads. The Barefoot Divas are all influenced by their deep connection to Indigenous culture and land and this is especially true for Emma’s ‘Lullaby’. Half way through a male voice can be heard in the traditional Gumbayngirr language. Together they then sang ‘Miminga’ which was about the cleansing of our Mother Earth and we’re told is sung during smoking ceremonies to prepare the earth for visitors.
Whirimako, with her soft and soothing voice, continued the education in Indigenous culture through storytelling and song. The Maori believe in a supreme being called IO which has two attendants a male and a female. The female is the patron of women’s arts and childbirth; she is the tide and moon. As an Indigenous all female group it only made sense to sing a song dedicated to female goddesses as Whirimako says, “It’s time to take back to the females. It’s a man’s world and it’s taken many years to reconnect again.” Much to the delight of the audience Maisey did a traditional Poi performance during the song.
Ursula gave us much more than just a musical experience. With her background in acting her monologue on self exploration of her identity, culture and Indigeneity was nothing less than theatrical and tear jerking. “For a long time I didn’t know why I felt like that but then I realised it was because of the faces I was seeing on television, films and magazines,” she tells the crowd. “They were faces I was constantly being told were beautiful and acceptable, not my face.
“We all say this thing to ourselves, that it doesn’t matter, it’s okay. But then one day I realised I just can’t say that it’s okay anymore. I can’t keep the door closed on all this rage inside of me, all this fury that I’m living now when I’m only allowed to be this much. There’s a knocking on the door of my heart saying it’s not okay. Knocking becomes a low thumping, banging. I’m not going to lie to myself anymore… I just wanna open up and share who I am. In this time and this place, the world I live in, on the tough days, really tough days, the world says to me we don’t really accept you as equal, deep down.”
Most people can empathise with the struggles Indigenous people have faced over the years but coupled with her powerhouse vocals it was heart wrenching. Her lyrics in ‘Without You’ were just as raw and pained as her monologue: “Out of sight out of mind, out of mind out of sight. You pick me up and you push me down, you fill my head with crazy doubts.”
Maisey may have had the sweet R&B voice but her songs had strong thought provoking messages like ‘Repeat Offender’: “Repeat repeat offender, through the generations who the hell are we suppose to blame? My people are the ones who suffer. Repeat repeat offender, through the generations, like zombies we conform to foreign laws. Society’s the one to blame blame blame blame.”
Each had their moment to shine as a solo act with the other women acting as back up or joining in with the harmonies. But it was during their spoken word that they were most powerful with a very poignant, well paced and deliberate delivery, each word emphasised for maximum effect.
“My heels have walked the corridors of fame. My shoes have paced the streets of pain. My toes have stamped the dark red earth. I’ve been a woman giving birth. My feet have carried me…my feet have carried me…my feet have carried me…long way.”
“My culture calls to me…my culture calls to me…my culture calls to me…strong way. My heart bursts with the gladness of song and our language gives us a place to belong. The land is both a mother and a brother to me, a place for my spirit to dance and be free.”
These ladies are strong independent women, so naturally the sassiness on stage was in abundance. They were just the right amount of cute and funny as they had the audience giggling at their “gammin” (teasing) of each other. But they were also fiercely supportive of their “sistas” when they were recounting their life stories. Maybe at times the banter did seem a bit over rehearsed and forced and was not needed to carry the performances.
Regardless, The Barefoot Divas are all gifted singers with an incredible stage presence and are passionate about sharing their experiences of hardship, loss, pain, love, hope, self discovery and culture and above all resiliency as women, especially as Indigenous women.
For the male audience, their performance provided some insight into the female world. For the women, it was empowering, and all about the girl power.
This article is also available at http://www.scenestr.com.au/music/music-brisbane/barefoot-divas-brisbane-powerhouse-26-07-13