days of wonder and awe
Mona Foma 2020
Fresh and Uniquely Stunning
Launceston, Tasmania, Australia
11 to 20 January
Images: Jim Jacob
Words: Rob Dickens
First up, let’s do an acronym account – Mona (Museum of Old and New Art) Foma (Festival Of Music and Art) gets you Mona Foma, sometimes shorted to Mofo.
Mona Foma is an annual event held in January in Launceston, Tasmania, Australia, curated by Violent Femmes member Brian Ritchie. (Dark Mofo is the winter version also held in Tasmania, but in the State’s capital Hobart, two hours south).
Mofo 2020 gracefully delivered a wonderful diversity of art in its many forms carefully selected by Ritchie, with avant-garde music, art, design, style and replete with the unexpected (a festival trademark).
The festival actually goes over a week, lighting up much of the town with a variety of ticketed and non-ticketed showcases. The core event, though, is over the final three days. Although performances continue throughout the town, the festival hub takes pride in oozing out of every space of the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (formerly rail yards) at the inner Launceston suburb of Inveresk.
It is here that there are two outdoor main stages, the Transverser Stage and to the north the…er…Northern Stage. Between these spaces most of the larger acts do their thing.
Inside this precinct were many other performance spaces – the Object Gallery, the Community Gallery and the Touring Exhibition Gallery. You could also sidle on up to the Annexe Theatre (part of the University of Tasmania’s School of Creative Arts) and find an intimate space.
My Favourite Things – Friday
One of the pivotal works by Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics), The Sound Of Music was performed on stage in 1959 and released on screen in 1965 (with Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer starring). (If you haven’t seen it, you are missing out on this bundle of joy).
Several artists provided a short set which contained one of the musical’s more syrupy offerings “My Favourites Things”. Medhanit Barrett tackled the song with gusto with other tunes with a strong racial theme, while The Native Cats duo mixed a Nintendo gaming console with drums to give us a discordant wall of electronica. From there, Evan Carydakis changed the vibe to a modern and surreal jazz backdrop.
Amanda Palmer (ex-Dresden Dolls) upped the ante with a gloriously simple but energetic and compassionate ukulele version of the song de jour, plus a delightful tune about her ‘Map of Tasmania’ as well as an opining ditty about Sid Vicious playing the ukelele. She also had plenty to say about her distaste for politicians, the impact of climate change and the horrific bush fires that have engulfed so much of this Continent in the past weeks.
As well as a fully-ticketed show to come, she has put herself on the line with a confessional series which I am sorry to have missed. What a powerhouse performer.
A long and stylish introduction from Japanese female pop foursome Chai led to a pig-tailled, smile fest with unforgettable exuberance and harmonies (“We ARE Chhhaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiii!”).
Acclaimed Slovenian industrial covers (mainly) band Laibach closed off this session with a full set…of songs from the said musical. The performance of this, the first Western band to be invited to play in Korea, was a revelation.
Mariana Martensson‘s voice was phenomenal, weaving through the air like a serpent sounding as strong and nuanced as Kate Bush. Her graceful movements, gothic full gown, blazing red hair and regal nonchalance were spectacular.
Milan Fras was dressed in a somber, religious-style robe with a black habit/headpiece. His voice is pretty much one that I had never heard before – deep as a canyon and gravelly as a mountain devoid of any vegetation.
If those two elements alone were not enough, add two majestic keyboards, a guitarist and drummer and intricate, brilliantly conceived large-scale and engrossing back projections, all at perfect audio volume and quality.
The subject matter of just about the whole score of The Sound of Music soundtrack left me in another world – one where the scale of the incongruity was unsurpassed.
Finishing with “So Long, Farewell” was a perfect, final oddity.
Other Musings – Saturday
Philomath kept our attention with atmospheric wail-like improvisations, while Robbie Avenaim integrated his own drumming with motorised drum machines and their robotic arms in an intriguing display of multiple rumbling.
A duo based in Melbourne, Zöj through traditional strings and percussion gave us ancient Persian and Farsi poetry with improvisation at the forefront. The haunting vocals and traditional instruments were striking.
This Canadian ‘queer cowboy’ has emerged on to the Americana music scene with some panache. In a genre not known for too much extreme innovation in dress and presentation, Orville Peck dares to be different with his face completely obscured by a frilled full-face mask (me thinks The Lone Ranger?) and cowboy hat. He reportedly believes that the cover allows him to perform without pretense.
Many such North American artists are not able to tour Australia with a full outfit because of the adverse economics of so doing. But, thanks to Mofo, we got the real deal today, performing country and honky tonk material from his three-album catalogue including 2019’s Pony. Songs included “Big Sky”, “Roses Are Falling”, “Queen Of The Rodeo”, the memorable “Nothing Fades Like The Light”, a killer-diller version of Gram Parson’s “Las Vegas” and a new, impressive song to date unrecorded.
Even More Musings – Sunday
We commenced the day by spending some time in the Object Gallery where four musicians faced each other as one began sliding various objects around an up-turned base drum, evincing many shades and tones of electronic sounds.
After this sublime episode, we moved to the Northern Stage for a mystery gig which turned out to be a new Brian Ritchie project quizzically labelled The Toilet Brushes.
A riotously playful concoction of cheap instruments (sea shell, plastic trombone), horns, a harp and percussion which moved through a variety of instrumentals of many hues. A pair of French-speaking conversationalists reading from their smart phones added to the cacophony of fun, with tunes (?) unrehearsed and re-interpreted as the set traversed.
Ann O’Aro hails from Reunion Island, previously a French colony off the African coast and her subject matter, accompanied by trombone and percussion, was the music of slaves in her native land working the sugar cane fields.
Zeolite are a local tech metal outfit with plenty of social commentary. In what was the firiest of all appearance over the weekend, the four-piece were donned in black, the volume was massaging my ribs, the demonic energy and disfigured vocals combined well with the dark images projected on to the stage’s back drop. The guitarists were throbbing in unison and the lead singer Fraser Mainwaring prowled the stage with menace.
Renowned didgeridooists Aunty Delmae and William Barton who address issues of Australian indigenous spirituality teamed up with Veronique Serret, an experimental electric violinist to provide an excellent counterpoint to the previous set.
While a classically trained tenor, Jeremy Dutcher devotes himself as a supporter of Canada’s First Nations culture and his performance was a joyous highlight of the day. Dutcher won the prestigious Polaris prize for his album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (luckily I don’t have to pronounce it!) recording only in the native language of his indigenous people. A language of which, sadly, there are only 100 speakers left.
His passion for restoring his heritage and recapturing the beauty of that culture and tongue from the domination of early colonisation was infectious. Sweet vocals were interspersed seamlessly with field recordings of his ancestors and the combination of keyboard, cello and drums was emotionally uplifting.
The festival’s big name and closer was LA beat-maker Flying Lotus 3D. Through the channels of funk, jazz and hip-hop, via a giant audio visual display, standing like a dimly-lit, grooving Overlord submerged behind his glass wall, he weaved some secretive magic made all the more impressive through the 3D glasses handed out by festival organisers.
A green-framed, dark, spectacular and fitting climax.
More of my favourite things
The Interweave Arts Studio provided footage of a GoPro camera attach to a cute black spaniel – a canine’s view of the festival!
Crowds flocked to King Ubu, a massive free performance combining music from two bands, dance, cheer-leading and gigantic puppetry, based on Alfred Jarry’s absurdist play set amid the majestic, natural surrounds of the Cataract Gorge.
Can compost be art? YES!! If you drop your food scraps onto one of the many mirrored circular table tops around the festival and let the planet-saving volunteers do their stuff. Other peoples’ crappy left-overs never looked so good. Art you say?? Hell yeah! Plus… if the planet is happy…
Mona Foma labelling was brilliantly conceived throughout the Festival Hub and in every other location around the town – placed strategically and colourfully in great quantities, even down to the stylish water stations, lounge chairs and stools.
Around 46,000 attended last year’s event with about a third being interstate visitors. In 2020 this number was surpassed before Sunday dawned. We met so many interstate visitors but plenty of locals as well, maybe an indication that Tasmanians are warming to up the startling occurrence taking place in their own back (rail) yards.
Tasmania’s arts festivals continue a tradition of having the highest quality of food and drink and I have not sampled any better than the offerings at Mona Foma. Local brewers Saint John and Launnie’s Longneck Lager quenched many a thirst. Moores Hill Estate and Marion’s Vineyard had some fetching wines, including the finest Tasmanian syrah I have sampled.
Finally, a gallery of Jim’s images from the punters – let’s call them Valerie, Barry, Harry, Sally, Carrie, Kerry, Terry, Perry and… Boris. All photos: LTTL
days of wonder and awe