Two unusual musical worlds were explored in Dubbo recently, with an expert Pied Piper leading the way. Linsey Pollak, an internationally recognised Australian musician who wears many hats, brought just two of those hats to Dubbo for a week-long visit as artist-in-residence at Macquarie Conservatorium this month.
Linsey is a performing and recording musician who plays a mind-boggling number of instruments in as many music styles. He is also a musical instrument inventor, an expert in traditional Gypsy band music of the Balkans and Macedonia, and a community music leader who presents workshops in a range of musical activities for participants of all ages.
His visit to Dubbo was an opportunity for local musicians, teachers and school students to experience two types of music workshops. One set of workshops was aimed at wind, brass and percussion players who over four days learnt, played and performed music from the Macedonian Gypsy Band tradition. Another group of school students and adults explored playing one of Linsey’s unique inventions, the Humarimba.
First up were the Gypsy Band players. A group of 19 adults and teens spent three evenings learning the melodic patterns and rhythmic complexity of the music traditionally played at Macedonian weddings and parties.
“When I first travelled and lived in villages with these gypsy musicians more than 20 years ago, I fell in love with the style of music these bands play,” says Linsey Pollak.
“It is irresistible as dance music; a recent concert by the gypsy band I have in my home town in Queensland ended with every table of the restaurant moved outside by the audience to make room for dancing.”
By the fourth workshop session here in Dubbo, the local musicians were playing several tunes with convincing Gypsy gusto, and were ready to take part in the Dubbo Multicultural Festival Parade, where their new repertoire was tested by being played from memory and while on the move.
The infectious party mood of the Gypsy tunes carried everyone along, and the newly created Dubbo Gypsy Band performed again at the Multicultural Festival dinner and the next day at Macquarie Conservatorium’s Open Day.
“It’s been a great opportunity for our students, and for me as a teacher and band leader, to get to know this style of music,” says Conservatorium brass teacher Stephen Smith, who also conducts the Dubbo District Concert Band.
The Gypsy Band workshop was in contrast to Steve’s previous weekend, where he led the Dubbo District Concert Band to victory in their section at the NSW Band Championships.
“I’d like to see all my bands have a go at this music. The rhythms, the exciting sound, the improvising and the energy level are things that take you outside the normal band experience.”
While he guided would-be gypsy musicians in the evening, Linsey worked with another set of music-makers and a totally different instrument during the day. Students from two Dubbo primary schools and a group of teachers had a hands-on experience of one of Linsey’s most successful musical inventions, the Humarimba.
“I invented the Humarimba in 1988. I wanted to make a really robust and easy to transport instrument that people of all ages and skills could play. The Humarimba is based on the wooden xylophone or marimba, but the idea I had was to make the players the stands of the instrument, so it was more portable. Thus the name, combining humans with marimbas.”
With that brainwave, Linsey had created an instrument that can be packed four or five to a single folding suit-bag, able to withstand years of community use, and relatively easy for people with some woodwork skills to make themselves.
“I brought six Humarimbas with me in two suitcases on the plane to Dubbo. Three people can play each Humarimba, so I ran workshops here for 18 players at a time.”
Two players at either end of the Humarimba wear belts that the instrument hangs off, and one person stands free in the middle, with each player having two mallets. Linsey has written books of Humarimba tunes that are easily learned by ear, so people can have a go with or without any previous musical experience.
“I can see how this would work well with school kids of all ages,” says Conservatorium wind and band teacher Christine Volk, who is also a classroom music teacher.
Christine attended Linsey’s Humarimba workshop aimed at school teachers, and this group picked it up quickly, progressing from an easy tune to a complicated samba rhythm in just 90 minutes.
“It’s so energetic and fun, I think it would even engage year 7 and 8 boys,” says Christine.
Two groups of students from Buninyong and Dubbo North Public Schools certainly put that theory to the test. At the end of four one-hour sessions spread over four days, each group successfully performed as a Humarimba band to the other students at their schools. The general consensus was that it would be fun to have their own marimba orchestra at school. Teachers were keen to try it as an alternative to the standard school band of wind and brass instruments.
“It is possible for a community group like a school to make their own Humarimbas. The raw materials are not very expensive, and if you have a group that works together on the wood-working part of it, you can produce a set quite quickly and affordably,” says Linsey.
Hopefully the seeds planted by Linsey on this visit will grow some interesting musical crops in Dubbo.
>> Visit Macquarie Conservatorium’s Facebook page for videos of both workshops.