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Review: Tunnel Number Five - Deep Within the Belly

Around 100 concert-goers gathered outside Darwin’s WWII Oil Storage Tunnels last Saturday night. Complete with BYO camping chairs, the capacity crowd was buzzing with anticipation as they made their way through the narrow entrance and into the bowels of the Darwin City cliff face towards Tunnel Number Five. Immediately hot and steamy, water could be heard dripping as exiting musicians were passed, coming up for some post-rehearsal air.

An unlikely, yet oddly welcome venue, the 170 metre long tunnels were built during world war two with the intention of storing oil and protecting supplies from Japanese bombing raids. With the war ending before the tunnels were finished, they were opened to the public in 1992 and now serve as a tourist attraction, complete with historical information and a significant photographic display. To this, we add the remarkable title of concert hall.

The guests lined one side of the unique structure, the electric fans blared a welcome breeze. Four metres away, the opposite side of the tunnel was to become a 170m long stage. Separating audience and performer, two tracks of water were thoughtfully dotted with tea light candles in pretty origami paper holders; a symbolic gesture to not only the tunnels themselves but to the intricate Japanese art form of the shakuhachi we would later experience.

As the fans were switched off and the damp heat enveloped the chamber, the haunting strains of Darwin string player Netanela Mizrahi’s violin came from afar. Answered by another at the entrance, Melbourne musician Ernie Gruner and Mizrahi dabbled back and forth, teasing and experimenting with the acoustic around them, ending in a dual in the tunnel’s centre.

Enter Australian composer and cellist Sarah Hopkins and Yolngu songmen Jason Gurruwiwi and Guyundula Burarrwanga, interspersed with musicians wielding bells and harmonic whirlies in a soundscape that was, at times, testing the acoustics of the space. Emerging from this sound world was the welcome entrance of Anne Norman on shakuhachi. Also the Artistic Director of the five-night Underground Music Festival, Norman is an experienced performer and composer, regularly touring and working as a soloist and collaborating with a diverse range of artists – as this series clearly demonstrated. One felt that Norman’s ears, eyes and pores were open to the tunnel and her colleagues whenever she appeared on stage.

Yolngu songmen Guyundula Burarrwanga and Jason Gurruwiwi gave powerful and moving performances, as did traditional West Papuan singer Henk Rumbewas. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the amalgamation of songmen and shakuhachi – the audience responding overwhelmingly to this fusion of North East Arnhem Land and Japanese traditions. 

It was an inspired series from Norman – the Top End location, unique choice of venue and cultural diversity of artists proving a significant event on the Australian music stage – who clearly worked tirelessly and passionately to bring her vision to fruition – not only recognising her own dreams, but allowing others to dream also.    

Roslyn Perry | Managing Editor and Development Manager | Off The Leash | Saturday 20 August 2016 | WWII Oil Storage Tunnels, Darwin

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