Songs my mother taught me gave us linguistic diversity perhaps not otherwise seen in Adelaide except for WOMAD in March. Only then does Adelaide usually get to witness a variety of artists performing in multiple languages at the one event. We were treated to songs in some 6 languages in addition to English: Italian, Hebrew, French, Mandarin, Nbedele, and a Torres Strait Islander language (we were unable to identify which one despite our best efforts).
Songs my mother taught me was one of the headline acts of the 2022 Adelaide Cabaret Festival, with Tina Arena at the Artistic Director helm. It was the only opportunity to see her perform during the festival (unless you were at The Pina Colada Room on opening night). And there were some very enthusiastic fans in the audience shouting “we love you Tina” every time she would appear on stage!
After opening Songs my mother taught me with all 6 singers performing “Our house” (which unfortunately now immediately makes me think of Chemist Warehouse!), Tina Arena welcomes the audience to “our house, our living room, a place to gather and share”. The stage looks inviting with lanterns and lampshades of various shapes and colours strewn across it. Light bulb garlands complete the lighting arrangements. This colourful, eclectic lighting makes the audience feel that they were in a cozy backyard, rather than in a living room.
Tina Arena is far from the only star in the 6 singer line-up. Songs my mother taught me consists of a very diverse group featuring singers who have been around for decades in Tina Arena and Wendy Matthews to the younger generation of Thando, Jess Hitchcock, Sophie Koh and Lior. This diverse line-up was also mirrored in the audience that attended with everyone from people in their 20s to people into their 80s among the crowd. Throughout the show, these 6 singers perform songs that speak to who they are.
Tina Arena showcased her Italian heritage performing songs in Italian, opening with love ballad Maledetta Primavera ‘Dammed Springtime’. (I’d hoped for one number in French given she has spent so long living in Paris and has become quite successful over there).
Jess Hitchcock performed Sorrento Moon in a duet with Tina Arena. Songs my mother taught me was not the first time that they had performed together. They performed the song as a duet in Frontier Touring’s Music From The Home Front in 2021. Hitchcock who has family origins from Saibai in the Torres Straits and Papua New Guinea performed a Torres Strait Islander lullaby Baba Waiyar, which translates to Father Send.
Wendy Matthews sang her French version of The Day you went away, her popular song from the early 90s, which still brings tears to my eyes. Matthews also gave a nod to her Scottish roots with an English language song that her grandfather used to play on the harmonica when she was a child. Matthews also had her own group of loud fans celebrating her every time she came on stage – one loudly shared her disappointment that The Day you went away was being performed in French – I think the audience were thankful because it meant this audience member wouldn’t sing along loudly!
Lior, speaking of his upbringing in Tel Aviv, sang in Hebrew including his childhood favourite song Gan Sagur meaning ‘Kindergarten is closed’. The irony that he used to rush home from kindergarten or school and request that it be played was not lost on him. His performance of Hebrew prayer Avinu Malkeinu ‘Our Father Our King’ had his voice soaring and making us feel like we had been transported from the restored Her Majesty’s Theatre to a synagogue with lofty ceilings.
The Voice finalist, Zimbabwean born, Thando performed in both Nbedele and English. She sang the traditional Zulu lullaby that she sings to her daughter every night before she goes on stage as she won’t see her until the next morning. Tula Tula ‘Hush now, hush now’ is what Thando’s own mother used to sing to her as a child. An impressive, powerful voice, I was impressed to see Thando perform.
Sophie Koh (who also performed her own show Shànghai MiMi at this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival – read our review from the Sydney Festival 2019) performed in Mandarin including a song that she wrote herself. Called Yellow Rose, Sophie Koh said it is an ode to all the anonymous women in the Chinese Book of Songs.
Not only were the artists backgrounds and their languages varied, so too were the musical styles performed in Songs my mother taught me. There was everything from lullabies and hymns/prayer songs to pop, R&B and love ballads.
Accompanying the 6 singers on stage for Songs my mother taught me were an impressive cast of musicians – Mark Ferguson on piano (who also performs regularly with singer of French chanson, Louise Blackwell), and who also arranged the music performed in the show, and his own family members mother-daughter back-up singer duo, Jasmine and Ciara Ferguson – who were wonderful singers and we’d love to see them perform up front in their own show.
To the right of the stage were 2 violinists, Emily Tulloch and Zsuzsa Leona; violist, Karen De Nardi, and a cellist, Hilary Kleinig. Behind Mark Ferguson on the piano (although he was not the only one to play the piano last night with some of the signers playing the piano while they sang) were Nick Sinclair on bass, Chris Neale on drums, and Cam Blokland on guitar.
While there was a digital programme available for Songs my mother taught me (via QR code displayed at the doors to the theatre), which gives a little more information and translations of some of the songs, it would have been useful to the audience if the singers had let the audience know not just why the song speaks who they are (which they did) but also what the song is about when it was a non-English language song. Some achieved this through having a translated verse or a brief explanation beforehand but for others we were left in the dark as to what the song was about.
Songs my mother taught me was an enchanting, moving evening of song showing the bridging together of cultures and generations. All 6 singers who made up those sharing their songs and stories in Songs my mother taught me are talented and their shows merit being seen in their own right.
Matilda Marseillaise was a guest of Adelaide Cabaret Festival
There were only two performances of Songs my mother taught me in their world premiere season at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, which has now concluded.
READ OUR ADELAIDE CABARET FESTIVAL COVERAGE
For other events with links to France and the francophonie , take a look at our What’s on in June.