Tony Hillier

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Issue #25 March 2014: TANKS WORLD BEATERS


The incumbent Cairns Regional Council, led by a mayor whose interests seem focused on the sporting arena, has not exactly endeared itself to local music lovers!

Its illogical, politically motivated decision to scrap the planned waterfront entertainment precinct, despite unprecedented funding guaranteed by federal, state and local government and a prime site pledged by Ports North, has left its collective countenance covered in faecal matter, and Cairns up shit creek, with an embarrassingly out-dated, woefully inadequate and crumbling civic theatre.

Mayor Manning’s council has also succeeded in taking the gloss off the Cairns Festival. Funding cutbacks have taken the chief annual exposition of FNQ culture back to the ‘Fun In The Sun’ days — when it was run on the sniff of an oily rag, before Cairns became an international city.

The Tanks Arts Centre, Cairns’ unique and greatly admired cultural sanctuary in the northern burbs, has been handcuffed as well, confined to operating only nine months of the year because of the Council’s stubborn reluctance to grant badly needed funding for air conditioning.

Concertgoers will well recall the extreme heat that prevailed in Tank 5 last March when the crack New York afrobeat outfit Antibalas kicked off the 2013 World Music series. A pool of sweat in front of the stage at the end of the gig testified not only to the mesmerising music produced by the feature act, who went on to wow a massive crowd at Australia’s premier world music festival WOMADelaide, but also to the sauna-like conditions, which industrial fans only marginally alleviated.

Hopefully, it will be a cooler night when the similarly well-credentialed Beijing band Hanggai kick-start the 2014 World Music series on Friday, March 14, a week after they perform at WOMADelaide. The rest of the headline acts booked for this year’s program — Watussi (Friday, May 30), Monsieur Camembert (Friday, August 8), Kalàscima (Friday, October 31) — are guaranteed to uphold the high integrity of the series. And each concert comes with a quality support act, representing the crème de la crème of local roots music talent.

In a world of spiralling costs, Tanks management is to be congratulated for keeping the annual World Music Series subscription fee at $80, which in this day and age represents stupendous value for money. Subscribing ensures a place at all four concerts; as well as shaving nearly fifty bucks from what it would cost to purchase individual tickets. The series subscription is available through Ticketlink until close of business on March 14 — 1300 855 835 or

Now, let me enlighten you about the acts, all of which I’ve had the pleasure of catching in concert and indeed interviewing.



I first saw Hanggai, which will be the first bona fide Chinese band to perform in Cairns, at the 2010 WOMADelaide festival and they blew me away with their chops and charisma. Since then, they have also performed at the Woodford Folk Festival and the Sydney Festival in Australia and other major festivals around the world. Indeed, they claim to have now toured more than 60 countries.

Hanggai are at the forefront of China's steadily expanding roots music scene. Five of their seven members are of Inner Mongolian descent — the other two are Han Chinese — and they have an exciting and unconventional style based on the traditional music of their heritage, which utilises folk instruments such as the morin khuur (two-string horse-head fiddle) and the tobshuur (Mongolian banjo) and throat-singing (known as xoomi or hoomei) fused with back line of electric guitar, bass and drum kit.

Lead singer and tobshuur player Ilchi, who formed Hanggai in late 2004 after a stint in punk bands, summarises thus: “We draw on traditional music, but we also draw on rock ‘n’ roll as well.” Hanggai’s collective influences include such unlikely names as the Sex Pistols, Nirvana, Pink Floyd, Radiohead and Rage Against The Machine, although Ilchi stresses that Hanggai really does have its own inimitable style. “The music we perform is really about life, about being alive.”

Ilchi was first exposed to the songs of his homeland on his grandfather’s knee as a tot growing up in Inner Mongolia, the autonomous region that spreads across China’s far north edging Russia. He went back to his birthplace, where he lived until he was 12 (he’s now in his mid 30s), to re-study his heritage. He says it took some half-a-dozen years to master xoomi, the otherworldly overtone singing style that’s widely known in the west as throat singing. It’s an extraordinary technique that allows a performer to sing simultaneously two notes, an octave apart. “The hardest thing is learning to control your muscles so that you control the melody,” says Ilchi.

Hanggai will be brandishing a new album at the Tanks, Baifang. Here’s the official video from the CD:


Cairns-based festival band Kamerunga is honoured to be supporting Hanggai at the Tanks on March 14 (7:15-8pm), en-route to an unprecedented third appearance in five years at Canberra’s National Folk Festival at Easter and a second appearance in three years at the W.A. equivalent at Fairbridge a week later. Kamerunga recently signed on the dotted line with top UK world music label Arc Music for the release of a composite album, Terra Australis, in Europe and beyond this (northern hemisphere) summer. They also have a track coming out soon on a compilation produced by renowned New York label Putumayo.

Kamerunga perform ‘Fannie Bay’ at the launch of their second album Worlds Kaleid in 2012:



Two of Sydney’s best-performed and loved world music bands comprise the middle concerts of this year’s World Music series. For my money, Watussi is Australia’s finest and most exciting Latin ensemble. Led by charismatic Colombian singer Oscar Jimenez, who founded the band back in 2005, their career has been a steady upward trajectory in recent years encompassing support spots behind that behemoth of Latin rock bands, Santana, and appearances at virtually every festival in the land, including WOMADelaide, and tours of the US and Latin America. They are on this year’s gargantuan 25th anniversary Bluesfest bill.

Featuring screaming guitars in tandem with a percolating percussion battery and a seriously funky brass section, Watussi’s sound vacillates somewhere between classic Santana and Ozomatli’s more modern streetwise mix of Latino and hip-hop. El Olvido, the band’s eagerly awaited follow-up to their 2008 debut album, Tequila, Sangre y Fuego, also has a distinctly Aussie feel. “Working with Australian musicians gives it a different feel,” explains Jimenez. He says the experience of touring Latin America helped the band bond. The trip, inevitably, included a couple of gigs in Jimenez’s native city Barranquilla, the industrial port on the country’s Caribbean coast where indigenous rhythms such as cumbia, porro and vallenato flourish. “Going back to Colombia was amazing for me. It was very emotional … I was there in front of 5000 people, really going for it and getting a great response from the audience.”

Watussi performing ‘Echale Fuego’ from El Ovideo:


Monsieur CamembertMonsieur Camembert

Monsieur Camembert, doyens of the Sydney and national world music scene, will be making a long overdue return to the Tanks, where they performed during Festival MusiCairns a decade or so ago. While their line-up has changed considerably over the years, they have remained a favourite on the live music scene and have an unprecedented three ARIA awards to their credit. “Gyprock” is a term they have adopted to describe their sound. They play a driving mix of Balkan gypsy tracks, mixed in with Hungarian and Russian-inflected styles and other idioms.

More recently Monsieur Camembert have attracted plaudits by applying reggae, tango, klezmer, Latin and other global colouring to the incomparable songs of the iconoclastic Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen in themed shows and on their lauded album Famous Blue Cheese.  “Head Cheese” Yaron Hallis believes that Cohen’s ability as a melody-maker is much underrated. “Naturally because of the poetic nature of his lyrics that tends to be the focus, but his is a truly glorious marriage of music and words,” he told me during an interview for Rhythms magazine.

Two of Cohen’s best-known songs, ‘Closing Time’ and ‘Dance Me To The End Of Love’, get a convincing Italian tarantella-esque makeover from Monsieur Camembert, which brings me neatly to the final act in this year’s World Music series.

Monsieur Camembert performing live:



Salento (Southern Italy) band Kalàscima play what they assert is a unique blend of Italian music, but they happily concede the influence of tarantella, and other exciting up-tempo dance styles that are a folkloric staple in their region. Riccardo Laganà, one of two percussion-playing brothers fronting the band, says: “Salento has a special form called Pizzica Pizzica (pinch pinch) that is an incredible music. It’s visceral; it takes you and makes you move, even if you never expect it to. Its strength goes straight to the heart. We had the good fortune to study with the masters of the tradition.”

Kalàscima perform ‘Meridionale’ on their official video:

Kalàscima’s sound also incorporates elements from other cultures such as Balkan, klezmer and Irish music.
Riccardo Laganà explains: “Along with traditional Salento tambourine, we feature ethnic instruments from different parts of the world — riq, darbouka, and tar from the Middle East, kanjira from India, djembe from Africa.” Besides guitar and mandolin, Kalàscima’s strings line-up also includes bouzouki. The diatonic accordion, an harmonic and melodic instrument present in all Italian traditional music, is augmented by Calabrian double flutes, the ciaramella, and the zampogna, the Italian sister of the bagpipe, made with goat skin.

Kalàscima’s blend of traditional and original songs has been a hit wherever they’ve played — and they have been performing around Europe and the world for the best part of a decade now, including festivals in North and South America and China. They have been particularly well received on two tours of Australia including a showcase concert at last year’s Australasian World Music Expo in Melbourne.


Tracks by all the acts mentioned and much more can be heard during ‘Tony Hillier’s World of Music’, a weekly segment on ABC Radio Far North (Friday 4:45-5pm; occasionally Thursday). The segment is also available as a podcast via iTunes and can be accessed on:

Tony Hillier