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From Bellevue Hill to Bamako and back: Miriam’s extraordinary folk journey

Folk musician MIRIAM LIEBERMAN tells STEVE MEACHAM the story of her love affair with the sacred West African kora, which she will play at this weekend’s Sydney Folk Festival.

In West Africa, “the kora is a sacred instrument,” Sydney-born Miriam Lieberman explains. “It has 21 strings made of fishing line.” It’s built from a large calabash – a West African gourd cut in half and covered in cow or buffalo skin – with each string sounding a different note and played (unlike most instruments) with the strings facing the body. “Playing the kora is a bit like weaving a basket,” she says. “The melody, counter melody and solo parts all run through each other. The sound is flowing and hypnotic.” Western classical musicians say the sound is somewhere between a harp and a lute. When we speak, Lieberman is in Katherine on a solo tour of the Top End before performing at the Sydney Folk Festival this weekend with her eponymous trio. The trio usually consists of violinist/vocalist Lara Goodridge (best known for being a half of cabaret duo Baby et Lulu and a quarter of Fourplay, the “indie rock band” consisting of four classically-trained string musicians) and fellow violinist/vocalist Susie Bishop. However, Susie has a reasonable excuse to miss the trio’s two gigs at the Sydney Folk Festival on Saturday and Sunday. “She’s heavy with child,” Miriam explains, suddenly turning all Biblical. “So Lara Norman is helping us out.”

The 320km drive down from Darwin has been more exhausting than “solo mum” Miriam had anticipated, so our chat is slightly delayed. But once this interview is completed the ocean-lover (“I usually swim in the sea every day”) will be taking four-year old son Lior and nine-month-old daughter Ashira to the hot springs on the banks of the Katherine River. Lior and Ashira are everpresent during the interview. “I only get to practice the kora when I have two babies lying on top of me at the end of the day as they fall asleep,” Miriam laughs. Like most Australian-born singers and musicians, she’d never heard of the kora until she spent some time in West Africa in her early twenties. As a good Jewish girl (“I’m a cultural Jew rather than a religious Jew”), her youth at primary school in Bellevue Hill and high school in Vaucluse were spent learning the piano, clarinet and guitar. At the University of Technology Sydney, she enrolled in a law course (“I really wanted to study music but I didn’t have the courage then”) before switching to communications (“That’s come in handy writing lyrics and my own media releases!”). Miriam with musical colleagues in GambiaHow she developed from being a precocious eight-year-old playing the ten-year-old Brigitta von Trapp in a Bondi version of The Sound of Music and a study exchange in Ecuador to playing kora at the Sydney Folk Festival is an immensely long – but entertaining – story. Suffice to say (according to the Encyclopedia Britannica,) the kora consists of ten strings on one side of the bridge with eleven strings on the other. “The kora comes from the Malineke empire,” Miriam continues. “Its capital was Timbuktu, and in its prime it included what we now know as Mali, The Gambia, Guinea, Senegal and the Ivory Coast.” The Britannica also mentions two other things. Firstly, the kora’s origins may be obscure but it is “traditionally associated with royalty, the ruling classes, or religious practices”. Secondly, it is only played by men. Miriam, as you’ve probably noticed, isn’t a man. I wasn’t someone who danced before. But when I saw those African women dancing, something in my heart felt freed. “I think in the past it was considered taboo for a woman to play the kora,” she says. “Traditionally, West African women sing and dance. They don’t play instruments. It’s like surfing used to be in Australia. It has taken a generation for women to prove how good they are.” Miriam first became intoxicated with West African culture when a mentor introduced her to Sydney’s expatriate West African musical community. “I really wasn’t someone who danced before,” she confesses. “But when I saw those African women dancing, something in my heart felt freed.” Her first visit to West Africa was a self-funded dancing trip (“It’s still a hobby of mine”). She was in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, and speaking no French or Susu at that point, when “after several misadventures, I was adopted by a wonderful family who introduced me to some amazing musicians”. Initially Miriam just wanted to play the guitar, West African-style. But then she was introduced to the kora, and her teacher saw she was a natural. “After a while he could see I had a facility for music so he suggested I learn to play it. I was already in my early twenties and thought I was too old to learn a new instrument. The Miriam Lieberman trio“But he said, ‘I will teach you one song, (which in English translates as) God has made it, which is about the creation of the universe.’ “Then he said, ‘It’s not a very easy song but if you learn it you’ll never stop playing the kora’. I haven’t stopped playing the kora since, and I don’t plan to.” Another life-changing moment came when she saw the Grammy award-winning Mali musician Toumani Diabaté perform at Adelaide’s WOMAD festival around the time her father died 15 years ago. “I was just in awe of how beautifully Toumani played,” Miriam recalls. “So I joined the long queue for him to sign his CD. When I got to the front of the queue, I spoke to him in Malenki (one of the related languages spread throughout West Africa). His entire face lit up. He said it was wonderful an Australian could speak an African language and said he’d like to introduce me to his band the following day. “I was so nervous when I arrived at the hotel the next day. I can’t say he was deeply impressed with my kora playing, but he knew I’d made an effort.” When I got to the front of the WOMAD queue, I spoke to Toumani in Malenki; his entire face lit up. Thanks to a grant from the John Butler Foundation, Miriam was able to go to Mali to study the kora under Diabaté. Not that she’d see him for most of the day. Despite being a devout Muslim, Diabaté rarely rises before the midday call to prayer, spending the night-time hours expanding his repertoire on those 21 strings. “So I worked mainly with one of his disciples who taught me with a great deal of patience and even more humour. “Every night Toumani would come and say, ‘Play me what have you learned today.’ As I played, he’d say, ‘Too hard!’ or ‘Too rough!’” However, Miriam is celebrated for far more than her exotic instrument of choice. Last year The Guardian judged her sixth album, Just Transforming, one of the best Australian releases of 2021 – based mainly on her extraordinary songwriting skills and vocal talent. The opposition wasn’t up to much. Just Nick Cave, Banoffee, Crowded House, You Am I, Baker Boy. No pressure. Reviewer Janine Israel wrote: “Not since Deborah Conway crooned ‘It’s only the beginning’ has an Australian singer made optimism sound so dizzyingly effortless. “[Her] lilting folk tunes overlaid with spritely kora … and dreamy three-part harmonies [sound] as though Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon had convened in a Bamako back street.” The rejigged trio will perform twice during the Sydney Folk Festival, on Saturday and Sunday mornings (when babysitters are plentiful). Then Miriam will host a musical workshop on the Sunday afternoon. What’s the focus? “One or two African songs that are easy to learn and a Hebrew song,” she says. “I haven’t had a minute to myself to work it out yet.” Both Lior and Ashira are “half African”, Miriam explains, adding that how she became a sole parent is “an even longer story”. She’s says she’s ill-equipped to teach them the African part of their DNA and culture. “But since I’ve become a mum, I’ve felt more connected to Judaism. The deep mysticism and the wonderful philosophy are guidelines to live by. “I’m also very influenced by Buddhism, but the Jewish culture is very rich with a lot of wisdom in it. I definitely want to pass on the things I love about Judaism to my son and daughter. “Lior is already talking about his barmitzvah — and he’s only four!” CLICK HERE FOR DETAILS ABOUT THE SYDNEY FOLK FESTIVAL LISTEN TO MIRIAM LIEBERMAN

Read article at: Photo: Miriam Lieberman paying the kora in Guinea


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