This International Women’s Day celebration is empowering female voices through music and performance
26.02.2021

This International Women’s Day celebration is empowering female voices through music and performance

Tariro Mavondo

The Resonant Heart is an evening of creative expression, cultural performance and femme celebration for International Women’s Day.

Ahead of this International Women’s Day, The Boite will host The Resonant Heart, an evening of multidisciplinary performance from distinguished Melbourne-based artists from across the world.

Conceptualized by musician and performer Nela Trifkovic, the evening will feature performances by two all-femme bands, as well as solos by acclaimed artists, Zimbabwean multi-disciplinary artist Tariro Mavondo, and Palestinian artist-activist Aseel Tayah. SARAY Illuminado Femme, a three-piece ensemble helmed by Trifkovic, specialise in the traditional music of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sevdah, creating contemporary reditions of traditional Sevdalinka songs and Sephardic Jewish romances. Queen of Hearts draw on the Mexican Mariachi tradition, covering classics as well as their own creations. 

Highlighting the power executed by the female voice through the mediums of performance, spoken word and music, the intimate gathering will meditate on universal themes of grief, love, suffering and joy.

We sat down with Nela Trifkovic to find out what and who inspired The Resonant Heart, her curation of the performers, and what we can expect from the evening.  

What exactly is The Resonant Heart, and how did you put the lineup, or concept, for the event together? 

The Resonant Heart is a multidisciplinary event celebrating the unique voices of female artists from all over the world who currently call Melbourne home. It is something that I had wanted to do for a very long time. Growing up in the pre-war ex-Yugoslavia (and later Bosnia and Herzegovina), I was raised with March 8 – International Women’s Day – being an important date in my life. A day to acknowledge and celebrate women.

Personally, I try to live this day for 365 days a year, but it is not always easy. And it is not always easy when you are a woman, when you’re foreign, when you are of colour or have an accent or a ‘way of being’ that is ‘not of your current environment’. 

As a person (and particularly a woman) from certain parts of the world, such as Latin America, Africa, the Middle East or the Balkans, you do come across many assumptions about your world – you’re sort of ‘waving a flag of existence’. I no longer engage in heavy debates and discussions about my background, heritage or life-history. I create visceral, intimate, immersive performances and take audiences into it, so that they can have an experience, rather than always just talking and staying stuck in their heads. So I am working on refining my process and allowing it to come ‘from the heart’ – hence the title. 

That was the idea behind the concept. After seven years of running my ensemble Saray Iluminado, I asked myself, “Who are the women I admire and have not shared the stage with yet?” And they happened to be from Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, so I got in touch with them and invited them into my ideas and feelings. 

Let’s talk about your ensemble, SARAY Iluminado Femme. Can you tell us a bit about who they are?

Seven years ago I formed the ensemble SARAY Iluminado, that specialises in Sevdah, the traditional music from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Sephardic Jewish music. The full band is a five-piece that includes two men – string players Ernie Gruner and Dan Witton. Since about 2018 I’ve also had the smaller trio version of the Femme, a sub-group featuring Irine Vela, Kelly Dowall and myself. We came together playing at a few women’s events. Then in 2019 we ‘cracked’ the European folk-music circuit and went to play some shows in Sicily: on the rooftops of Palermo, olive-groves of Zafferana and under Mount Etna. 

Both versions of the group work with me, cultivating a very specific approach to music making. What we do can be described as ‘contemporary re-imaginings’ of traditional Balkan and Sephardic music. I draw on a number of influences, from the Middle Ages and the times when Sufis were roaming the Balkans, through to the influences from contemporary classical music, such as minimalism. 

Irine Vela and Kelly Dowall are both multi-instrumentalists, with a penchant for Balkan, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Music. They are also like the ‘sisters I never had’ so we get together, we jam, we discuss, we support and annoy each other, we laugh, we drink – we engage in family-like processes and then an arrangement comes out of it all. We cook a lot for each other, we make cocktails. We teach each other what the other knows. We make music to make non-blood kin. They are my resonant heart-kin. Being a refugee, you have to be self-sufficient. I was a Bosnian refugee in the 90s and am an only child, so I just kind of got out there and started jamming with people and making family that way. Such is the way of a diasporic person. 

You will be joined by the Mariachi-inspired Queen of Hearts as well as solo artists Tariro Mavondo and Aseel Tayah. What can we expect from these artists on the day?

To put it in the vernacular – you can expect a lot of babe on this stage in North Fitzroy! A lot of fierce babe, passionate babe, articulate babe, powerful babe… The Queen of Hearts Women will make everyone’s blood boil! They are my favourite Australianas and Latinas in town, empowered to the bone, they ooze musicality and are the best musical overload you’ll ever experience! They don’t hold back, and show their audiences how not to hold back. Their songs are about love, magic, betrayal, sex, power and passion – can somebody light me a cigarette now?

Tariro and Aseel are sisters that I always wanted to be on stage with. I would describe them both as ‘weavers’ of sorts. Aseel weaves singing, story telling, live performance and installation – she is otherworldly, her work is at once ancient and super contemporary. Growing up in war zones, growing up a woman, growing up too fast – all of this has empowered her, rather than broken her. She decimates the room with just a few lines of Arabic lullabies, because she sings from the heart, and that’s just some of it… Even though she is younger than me, whenever I see her my first thought is: “If I ever grow up I wanna be at least a bit like Aseel…” 

What will she do? You need to be there – She will sing, move, talk, draw, BE… she is amazing at JUST BEING.

Tariro and I met briefly many years ago but I also followed her poetry work for a while, and am generally a bit of a Tariro-fan. I experience her as a poetic alchemist. Her energies, poems and stories don’t fear the abyss, they actually take a swan-dive into it. She resurrects the characters and ideas of her work with dignity and grace that I actually cannot describe – she sort of just goes into the zone, and words come out, stories, poems, moves come out… I don’t know what she’s made of but I adore her ways… She’ll do some of that – she’ll go into the ‘Tariro zone’ and we’ll all go with her…

By spotlighting female music from regions such as the Balkans, East Mediterranean and South America, how do you aim to highlight women’s voices and contributions?

 I don’t plan or strategise too much (some would tell you this is a really Balkan way…), I create ‘play spaces’, possibilities, provocations, sometimes even chaos… But I knew the artists I wanted to invite and I invited them because I admire, respect and love them… I trust them with my heart and gut. By playing with each other, supporting each other all the women will illuminate themselves and each other and their own contributions.

A lot of us have strong experiences of matriarchy and various matriarchal values that are more inherently and subtly ingrained in our cultures (despite the dominance and visibility of patriarchy in everyday life), so we play with those elements in our work and let them surface. I aim to be the most supportive, intentionally present and engaged collaborator that I can be to the other women involved and let that speak, sing and dance for itself. How do I plan to highlight this? Well, something starts with having 11 women with something to stay on stage… the rest is… well, the show is on March.  

Why is it important that we celebrate International Women’s Day?

It is interesting to try. There is a part of me that actually doesn’t like those celebrations – public holidays or even relationship anniversaries – what interests me is how we are towards these subjects of celebration every day. Am I doing my best, am I being there to the fullest for my relationship, am I doing love and hard work? Do I check in and do I cook dinner often enough? Do I know what is going on in the country – do I know where things are at in terms of the ecological crisis or do I know anything about the Hotel Mantra situation? 

It is interesting to take that particular ‘celebration day’ as a positive, engaged, conscious benchmark, as an inspiration of how women can be treated. 

I remember my mum saying, “Don’t buy me flowers, I want us to bond, to have a meal together, to see and notice each other – do something that you know I need help with or you know grandma needs help with.” 

So, for me, IWD and any holiday can be taken in that spirit – as a prompt for our actions and attitudes towards and/or with someone, or something. So, I celebrate IWD because I want to practise supporting and connecting with even more women than before. Everyone else can think about why they could celebrate it, or think about why you shouldn’t. Not everyone will share my views. 

What would you like your audience to take away from The Resonant Heart?

Some beautiful songs, stories, poems and participations. Some experiences about the importance of women ‘showing up for themselves and one another’, particularly after the kind of 2020 that we’ve all had, but also beyond it.

I would like them to take away something of what we shared on stage that day and to share a piece of their heart with us – as corny and ’80s as that sounds.

The Boîte presents The Resonant Heart on Saturday March 6 at The Auditorium, 75 Reid Street, Fitzroy North. Head here for more information.