Migrant strings in the mix

Gelareh Pour playing the traditional qeychak. Photo by Shareena Abdul Aziz
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Musicians from diverse cultures who have enriched Melbourne's music scene tell their stories of struggle and achievement. Shareena Abdul Aziz reports.

Migrant musicians drawing on their varied cultures are bolstering Melbourne’s status as Australia’s “music capital”. Each has a story to tell of struggle and achievement.

Iranian-born Gelareh Pour’s move to Australia marked a chance to be taken seriously as a professional female solo performer.

Pour was professionally trained to be a classical Persian musician since the age of six. However, she quickly realised the opportunities for her to pursue a solo career were scarce.

In Iran, there are laws that prohibit a woman to sing alone on stage. They are only allowed to perform solo as instrumentalists.

“Because I was an instrumentalist and a singer, I was able to go on stage a lot and play my instruments. But for singing, I was usually in choirs or accompaniment,” Pour said. “I usually had to be in male musicians’ shadows.”

While visiting her sister in Melbourne, Pour performed solo in small events and this opened her eyes to the bigger opportunities she could have in Australia.

In April 2012, nine months after her visit, she decided to migrate to Australia.

“It was really hard to be a professional woman performer [in Iran]. But I can easily do that here. And it feels great,” Pour said.

“I feel I can be myself … like I’m free. I feel like whatever I’ve learned all these years of my life since I was six [years old], it can be paid off the way I want to, with no laws or stops or no’s.”

The freedom in being able to both sing and play her instrument was something she discovered for the first time in Australia.

Pour continues to share her unique culture through her music, in singing and playing traditional instruments, the bowed string kamancheh and lute-like qeychak.

“The instrument I play, you can only find a few people who play it in Melbourne. So it’s a really special thing. It was really something unique to myself and I think it is unique to any audience I’ve ever played to,” Pour said.

Pour was surprised and glad to receive the overwhelming positive responses about her music from Australian audiences who “come from different cultures”.

“I like it when I see regular audiences,” Pour said. “Because they’re not here to see something they’ve never seen, they actually like the music. Some of them say ‘you made us look inside ourselves’. It’s different. It’s deep, I can say.”

Bosnian musician Nela Trifkovic came to Australia after some time in Siberia to seek refuge from the war in her home country. She was 16 when she arrived in Perth in 1996 with her mother and grandmother.

“I think for me it was a bit of a ’16 going on 36’ situation because I was the only English speaker in the family. There was a lot of pressure and a lot of weight on me,” she said.

Trifkovic and her family also struggled in familiarising themselves to their new “posh” suburb where “people didn’t want to mix with newly arrived immigrants”.

“They [the refugee support group] thought a family of three females were better off in a safer, more posh suburb,” Trifkovic said.

“We might not have worries of people breaking into our homes, but … I remember thinking ‘but the people you’re saying would break into our homes, they’re my ethnic group or they’re another group of immigrants’. Being 16 and processing all that … that was really hard for me.”

The start of Trifkovic’s music career in Australia was when she was accepted into a program at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAACA) on the basis of her piano playing.

After finishing her Master’s degree in Perth, she moved to Melbourne to get her PhD at the Victorian College of Arts.

“I needed a reason to get out of Perth and launch my artistic career somewhere else … to expand it more.”

It was during this time that she started to find pride in performing songs from her culture.

“I really wanted to sing folk music from ex-Yugoslavia and always really enjoyed singing it. But I didn’t really know what I would do with it in Australia—with something so obscure,” Trifkovic said.

Fortunately, through meetings with other musicians who shared interest in her culture, she formed Saray Illuminado—a band who play new interpretations of Sevdah from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Jewish Sephardic music.

Saray Illuminado have received warm responses and were recipients of the Graduate Mentorships Program funded by the State Government, the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.

“It feels very liberating. It’s given me an opportunity to have a fresh and positive way of interacting with my culture, and to share something about multiculturalism—about people being able to get along and being able to celebrate similarities through music,” Trifkovic said.