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A Bonza Sheila: Kavisha Mazzella
22 / 05 / 2013
This month, Sheilas Editor Sarah Capper traipsed to ARIA award winning musician Kavisha Mazzella’s home for May’s Bonza Sheila interview. Sarah knew she was at the right location when she arrived at a Brunswick home adorned with Tibetan flags and a car in the driveway displaying a ‘No Room for Racism’ Australia bumper sticker.
After greeting the dog Bella and having a quick tour of the Balinese styled backyard, Sarah and Kavisha sat down for a bowl of dal in a cosy backroom that smelt of incense and spices, and was adorned in colourful rugs and treasures from all corners of the globe, complete with a framed screen-print of Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi. Below is transcript of their chat about Kavisha’s life and achievements.
Kavisha leading the Women’s Anthem rehearsals, 2008
SC – I want to start off with you being the daughter of a Burmese mother and Italian father, who I understand met in England and moved to Perth when you were a little girl. I’m just wondering how this cross-cultural lived experience growing up led you to music?
KM – My mum was musical and I always wanted her guitar. It’s funny how kids think they’re entitled to their parents stuff, and I said, ‘Mum, give me your guitar!’ and she said ‘No!’ – and I thought she was being cruel. Then one day in Grade 7, I’d done really well. To my surprise, I topped the class – because I was one of those people who always came fourth, or third and my parents were so pleased, they bought me a guitar.
This was my first guitar and I was so excited. I just practised and practised and practised – such sore fingers, just burning through. I just wanted to play and I was obsessed. So my Mum taught me three chords, and the rest, they say, is ‘mystery’.
SC – Did your Mum sing?
KM – Yeah, she’s got a beautiful voice. She plays piano and has early onset alzheimer’s now, but she knows hundreds of songs and still plays piano every day, it’s brilliant.
SC – Because you play guitar, banjo, mandolin, piano accordion –
KM – And piano – I did piano studies up to Grade Six which is Year 12 level, and you know, you can’t take a piano around with you and so I instead got really into guitar. Cathie Travers was a year above me at school and is an amazing musician. She’d be in the playground, playing at lunch time, so we had a little lunch time band.
And we used to sing, ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’ –
SC – David Bowie.
KM – And Carly Simon, ‘You’re So Vain’, and all these sorts of songs. And I remember we had this nun at school and she used to say ‘Oh, I’d rather be hanging around you two than doing playground duties!’, and instead she’d be sitting with us, singing with us. It was fantastic. Cathie went on to become a really, quite famous, contemporary composer of piano, and is an amazing piano accordion player in Perth. It’s amazing she followed that musical path and that we formed a connection in the playground.
SC – Great environment.
KM – It was. And the nuns, I have to say, were very supportive of us. We were really lucky to have good supportive leaders in the arts and music and I’m pleased to say my school, Mercedes College in Perth, is now a performing arts school. After I left of course.
SC – Well I dare say you would be a heralded past student, as well as Cathie.
KM – Yeah, they’re proud of us. They did support the arts, even though it wasn’t an official performing arts college at the time. I’d like to think that we possibly may have had an effect on their thinking, because that nun I mentioned, she ended up as the school principal, and that’s when they changed the school to have a performing arts focus. She saw how happy we were playing music – she could see how much the kids loved it.
SC – Do you think that your work with different communities through your music and artistic pursuits was influenced by your parents different backgrounds and that migrant experience?
KM – My parents were living multiculturalism before it became a known word in the 1970s, when the Whitlam Government and [Immigration Minister] Al Grassby started talking about the concept. I think it’s really important that leaders name experiences for people and allow them to embrace it. People do look to leaders, that’s why it’s important what’s happening now, for example with refugees.
The way leaders behave effects everybody and their attitudes. The fear of refugees is coming directly from our leaders and if Prime Minister Julia Gillard turned around and said, ‘You know what, we got it wrong, we’ve been wasting all this money and let’s be a bigger country,’ people would follow that lead. If only leaders realised how much influence they really have.
When I was growing up, we lived multiculturalism. My Mother is Irish Scottish Burmese and my Dad’s Italian, so we had Asian food one night, and Italian another. And immigrants were all the friends of my family, because we had migrated. My parents friends were the families of immigrants and their house was an international household.
My parents really accepted one another. The Asian side really accepted the Italian side and they really loved the mix and the experiences they were introduced to – their world was opened up. The other day I asked my Dad, ‘What would you say is the best thing you’ve learnt from Mum?’ and he said, ‘I was so narrow-minded when I met your Mother, and she has opened me up to the world’. It was so touching to hear that.
My parents had a shop. When I say shop, we had a café and a ten pin bowling alley. We went to work there after school – every day we would be there for a couple of hours, helping Dad in the shop and we were next to the ABC in Perth.
So my Dad, being Italian, bought a coffee machine – one of the first in Perth – you know, we came to Australia “BC” – before coffee! So all the ABC presenters would come in to get the good coffee from my Dad. Consequently, when they were interviewing people, from the Harlem Globetrotters, to Jeannie Lewis, they’d come to our café.
We were exposed to all sorts of cultures and artists – and even though we were working class with a shop, we had all these artists, musicians, the symphony orchestra members, coming in to order coffee and hamburgers.
We had this weird world where everything met. My parents introduced a real social ability to us and I feel that’s helped me with my work – working side by side with any kind of member of society in community work.
SC – I read that you began singing in church choirs and then transitioned into the folk scene – and there’s a natural marriage if you like, between folk music and community. I’m wondering if this was a natural progression for you?
KM – Sure. Well folk actually means any song that tells of the condition of society. My first teacher was my Mother. And then I joined the church choir which became a folk choir. My friend Alicia, she was my guitar teacher and she was interested in all these poet songwriters – like Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Buffy Saint Marie, Joni Mitchell – and any song that could cross into a church context. We’d end up singing Simon and Garfunkel in the communion! It was pretty wild, when you think about it.
But it was also the 1970s and a really interesting time, even in the spaces you would think as being conservative, ie the church, and the nuns – they were really open to new things because it was such an open time.
SC – You’re not just a musician. Your music is steeped in working with different communities from a cross-section of cultural backgrounds (like your work with the Italian Women’s Choir, with asylum seekers, with women). Activism seems very much embedded into your artistic inclinations. How do you view this relationship with social activism and your artistic output?
KM – I feel that if art can promote dignity and compassion in society, then that’s what I want to be part of, and doing. My art is like a tool – I feel it’s a way I can contribute. I know that art heals, and art brings people together, and we can have a lot of fun doing it. And if people are connected, it just makes society better, full stop.
There was a time when I wanted to be the singer, and for want of a better word, the pop star, which is really all about ‘me’. But after awhile, it’s not meaningful, if you’re not opening it up to a broader canvas. It’s not really about ‘me’, it’s about ‘us’. I get a lot of pleasure onstage singing and people applauding, but it’s really not enough. I feel at peace doing stuff in the community.
It’s like two wings of a bird – one is the solo musician, the singer / songwriter, and the other is the community – and music brings it all together for me.
SC – I want to talk to you about the theme of story-telling that is woven through your work, and in putting pieces of history back on the public record. I’ve got three different examples from your work that I want you to consider in light of the thread of story-telling – and what the projects have meant to you.
The first example is your asylum seeker involvement. I know you’ve done a lot of work with refugees, but one piece that stuck out was the Trades Hall plays where you collaborated with Kurdish musician Dursan Acar on the play ‘Kan Yama Kan’ (Arabic for ‘Once Upon a Time’), working with refugees who’d been in the Woomera Detention Centre.
KM – We did an earlier play called ‘I came without my Mother’s hand’. I was sharing a house with Carmel Davies, who’s an English as a second language teacher, and she was teaching when all these refugees started to come. She had written a five minute role-play play. I suggested we make a bigger play and include all these issues that people come across when they move to Australia. And that became ‘I came without my Mother’s Hand’.
We got a $1000 grant from the City of Yarra. We got people to bring in photos of home and projected them onto the background and people came on stage carrying an object, and one of the first lines was, ‘We used to sit on the balcony in Sarejevo, drinking wine and listening to music,’ highlighting just normal things people did back home, and ‘I come from Kurdistan where the mountain flowers smell so sweet’. They would make a sentence about something they lived. And then everyone came out and said, ‘And then war came’. So the idea was to teach them English through simple language in telling their stories, and it was so successful.
We got a bigger grant, over $50,000 –
SC – From the Australia Council.
KM – Yes, and we got Arnold Zable on board, as well as Robin Laurie, Carmel of course, Trish Parker, a set-designer who has now sadly passed away, she created a beautiful set, and Alice Garner who went on to start Actors for Refugees. I was there for the music with Dursan. It really was a remarkable performance. I’ve got a slide show of it.
It was a group of friends with similar concerns and we put our creative talents together, and that’s where I wrote, ‘All God’s Beggars’, with Arnold. And that was sold out for ten days at Trades Hall and it was just incredible!
People who came through the journey of the play healed. One woman, Ohan, who’s a primary school teacher, wore the traditional hijab and couldn’t be seen in public talking, so we had to put her behind a screen, as a shadow, talking.
After this play she decided she couldn’t stand the repression anymore, and the next time I saw her she was without a scarf. I didn’t recognise her, she looked ten years younger. Just doing that play, the fact she couldn’t be seen with an audience every night – it made her really question everything. It was really powerful for her to go through that. She’s come out and she’s doing great work now.
It was phenomenal. It was life changing for everyone. It was very well supported by the Melbourne public; people like [Lawyer and Refugee advocate] Julian Burnside came along.
SC – I read that Julian Burnside described you as “one of our country’s best songwriters”.
KM – I got a lot of support from Julian. I made a CD, Silver Hook Tango, and he was one of the major patrons.
SC – The second example of that story-telling tradition at play in your work that I want to ask about, is Tunc Justice, which the Victorian Government commissioned you and other musicians to contribute to in 2004.
KM – They commissioned me to write a piece for the Italian Women’s Choir to sing at the Eureka 150th celebrations at Ballarat. So I decided to write from the point of view of the women, exhorting the men to go out and fight. The thing that is often overlooked with the Goldfields is the international scene – they spoke many languages, and if you could speak many languages, it was like gold.
And Raffaello Carboni was a linguist and he was Peter Lalor’s left, err, right hand man. Although we’re talking left here, left hand man! He was his translator talking to the miners.
SC – And you used his poem?
KM – Yes. It is the poem that opens his eye witness account of the Eureka Stockade, which I initially found hard to read because of the 19th century, formal style language. We’re much more casual and conversational in our language today. But after awhile I got used to the music of that language. So I wrote a piece based on his writing – I wanted his voice to live again.
And the Italian Women’s Choir, bless their hearts, they went down to Ballarat and took the place by storm! In the last scene, they’re banging pots and pans with wooden spoons and the crowd went nuts! It was so great they could participate – that there were people of all cultures who should be sharing in the Eureka experience.
Kavisha and husband Andy on their honeymoon
SC – And the 3rd story telling example that I have to bring up with you is ‘Love and Justice’, a women’s anthem commissioned by the Victorian Women’s Trust, publisher of Sheilas, to commemorate the Centenary of women’s suffrage in Victoria in 2008, performed at Federation Square with a 400 plus women’s choir.
I’m particularly interested in the process in trying to capture the voices of those feminist pioneers who campaigned for the vote, in what is such an important, often untold history.
KM – Well it was hard!!!
After I said yes, I then thought, ‘How am I going to do that!’. And then I went to India on a honeymoon with my husband. I was watching television in India and an ad came on for microfinance – an extraordinary ad where women were walking over this hill with their children, and they looked into the camera and said, ‘Women have the power!’. I was thinking how I would never see this in the West. And the ad talked about all the world’s resources running out, and then said, ‘There is one resource that remains untapped,’ and then the word comes on the screen, ‘WOMEN!’.
I got such a shock! And then the line came to me: Gold. Untapped treasure. Women’. Yeah! Which became the line in the anthem, ‘Women are the real gold, for all of us to treasure,’ and that was my line in.
I was thinking about Vida Goldstein. There’s that word ‘Gold’ again! But when you write anthems, you’ve got to tap into historic memory.
SC – And [Trust Executive Director] Mary Crooks took you up to see the ‘Monster Petition’?
KM – Yes. Mary took me to see the petition and it was amazing! Just to see the signatures on this massive role of calico. It was very moving to hear the story. And I heard all these amazing stories, of people travelling on horseback, of going door to door, to get all these signatures.
SC – 30,000 signatures.
KM – Yeah, in six weeks.
SC – At a time with virtually no communications.
KM – To get 30,000 signatures now would be amazing. And the fact that it took 19 private members bills in parliament. It has such a long history. The first attempt was in 1889.
SC – And it was passed in 1908. Almost 20 years.
KM – Yeah, unbelievable. People just persisted, which is a great example for us now where we want immediacy, things done, now, now, now [clicks fingers]. So we shouldn’t get discouraged about refugees and issues like that because things take time. We have to just keep persisting.
Mary was my sub-editor if you like. The song was about healing as well, there was a link to violence and healing that violence against women. I didn’t realise one of the big issues of the day was alcohol fuelled violence – and how women with no social supports protested about the violence through the temperance movement.
I’m so used to being independent. But what was great was Mary challenging the words, asking why I’d put stuff where I had. At first it was difficult, but after I got over my artistic ego I began to question things as well. And then I got excited about it because she was my devil’s advocate. We were playing this game with the words and she was just nudging me in the right direction. I realised I wished I had someone who was such a tough sounding board on all my projects!
What I love about the anthem is that every International Women’s Day, I’m still getting feedback from women all over the country. Someone will write and say my choir is singing this song and everytime I sing it, it just brings shivers to me. Great feedback.
SC – And the whole idea with the anthem, was gifting it to women everywhere to sing.
KM – Yes, and that’s been a great thing.
SC – Another question I need to ask you, I know you founded the Joy of Women (also the name of your first album) Italian women’s choir in Fremantle in 1989, and then founded La Dolce Della Luna, the Italian Women’s choir in Melbourne in 1996.
KM – and I’m about to leave them. I’m leaving them in the next month.
SC – Setting them free?
KM – Yeah, I’ve got another wonderful woman, Vera, who is passionate about Italian folk music, and to do this job you have to be passionate about people, and passionate about the form – and then you can learn to be a choir director. She’s crazy about the music and crazy about the people, so I thought, ‘She’ll work!’.
SC – I’m sure you’ve got a lot of inspiration and hope through your work with the Italian women’s choir, I’m just wondering if you can share a highlight from the long association you’ve had?
KM – If I could start briefly with the first way I met them. I had done a play in Fremantle called ‘Emma Celebrazione’, by Graham Pitts, about the life of Italian woman Emma Ciccatosto migrating to Australia. That was a great success in Fremantle.
I left Perth in 1993, came here. And the Playbox called me up in 1995 and said they wanted me to do the play again and form another choir. So we put an ad in Il Globo, and fifty women turned up and I was thinking ‘Oh my God, I have to audition them,’ and I said, ‘You know what? You’re all in!’.
They became two choirs that we alternated on different nights to do the show. It was so successful we got a return season, and it was like the project that kept giving. So we started meeting every Monday night.
I’d say the last big performance I was involved in was a big highlight. We got invited to Womadelaide. Womad said to us, ‘We want a choir of 22’, and with a choir of 47, I said ‘Are you joking? Are you trying to split up my choir?’. They said they only had money for 22, so I said we’d fundraise for the rest. Which was just fabulous. Forty-seven of us got on the train – forty seven women and forty seven picnics! And they were sharing food with the people on the train –
SC – And Womad is such a spectacular experience too – for an audience member, let alone a performer, I imagine –
KM – It was really good, and the choir just blew people away because they are just so warm hearted. If you’ve never seen it before you can possibly compare it to last year’s Russian entrants in Eurovision with the six grandmas! That really reminded me of the way the women sing – that really heartfelt open way, full of joy. They don’t really have an ‘off’ button, it’s just on! And it just seduces people. People can’t help but smile and sway. We had a sea of people dancing waltzes at Womad – we got them all dancing – it was so brilliant.
And also because of their age. They defy the stereotype of the Italian woman at home, basically being the servant of her husband and children. So these women have defied that – they’ve done that, but they’ve also had this other life on stage, and it’s been so exciting to them.
They’ve also played at Woodford Folk Festival, for the Folk Festival Fire Event, for 2000, for the Millennium, where they just blew everyone away. In fact, Neil Cameron, who directed that, said that’s one of his favourite moments – when the Italian women, sang at the Fireworks event – and that ancient quality of voice rang out over the valley, and it was just wild.
SC – So lots of highlights –
KM – Too many to mention!
SC – You got an Order of Australia in 2011 for services to singing and songwriting and reflecting the experiences of women, refugee, multicultural and indigenous communities. What did this mean to you?
KM – It’s funny. When you’re a migrant, and you get something like that, you think, ‘Oh, I’m finally accepted!’ [laughs]. It was very moving, and I was really pleased – more for my parents. Of course I felt pleased for myself, especially when sitting in a room with all these people who’ve done amazing, inspirational things – it’s very exciting. I still sort of felt overwhelmed, but it was really beautiful and humbling and great – in particular from the view from my parents who’d been through so much, they sacrificed a lot for us. My Dad and Mum were always working. We had holidays, but not like our Aussie mates. So it was just a great honour and I felt really pleased for them, like it was something I could give back to them.
SC – One silly question. If you could have a dinner party with any women over history, who would they be?
KM – Mmmm! I thought Mary the Mother of Jesus, would be a really good one. ‘What really happened, Mary?!’. I figure that anyone who is the mother of Jesus must be some heavy duty chick!
SC – Yeah, immaculate conception..
KM – Yeah. Having said that, I’d really like to meet Mary Magdelene and have a good chat. ‘So, what was he like?’. [Laughs]
SC – Two Marys.
KM – Oh and Frida Kahlo, Edith Piaf, and I dunno, Joni Mitchell.
Tracy Bartram! [who we had mentioned in conversation prior to our interview, who sang on Love and Justice]. There’s so many great women!
Oh. Garibaldi’s wife – Anita. She sounds bloody amazing!
Wow, can you imagine what sort of food we’d have! Bit of Middle Eastern, bit of South American, bit of French. Very multi-cultural meal there.
SC – Basically traditional Australian cuisine, really ….
KM – Yeah, absolutely! And very Melbourne!
SC – Final question, what’s next for you – I know you’re working on an album.
KM – I’m doing on album of traditional Italian folk, a solo album, with just me on a nylon string guitar. I want it to sound like a 60s folk album. I’ve recorded 13 songs, and I now need to go into fundraising mode to print and produce the album. I’ve got to raise about $7000 to finish it off.
SC – So any generous Sheilas readers could help contribute to that?
KM – You can go to my website and pre-order a copy. That’s my main project I’m working on, and I’m about to go to China to study Tai Chi. I’ve been doing Tai Chi for seven years – it just mentally balances all my creative stuff, to have a more meditative side of life. Especially with the body, you know we’re not getting any younger!
SC – Well on that note, thank you, and your musically-gifted body, very, very much, and for being our Bonza Sheila.
KM – Thank you very much.
To pre-order a copy of Kavisha’s new album, click onto her website www.kavisha.com.
**NB: there has currently been an issue loading Kavisha’s website. This should be rectified soon – if you are still having trouble, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kavisha Mazzella is a Melbourne-based singer-songwriter. Her 1998 album, Fisherman’s Daughter, won an ARIA award for ‘best folk/world music album’. In 2011 Kavisha was made a Member of the Order of Australia for her work as a singer-songwriter and for her performance work with Refugee, Indigenous and Multicultural Communities. She has just finished recording a new solo album – further information can be found on her website.