Chinese / Lunar New Year in Sydney (Year Of The Monkey)

Chinese / Lunar New Year (Year Of The Monkey)

On Saturday night, I was fortunate enough to be a +1 for the launch of the Chinese / Lunar New Year celebrations in Sydney.  Here are some photographs from the festivities.

Viktor och Samir

Melodifestivalen 2016 #1

Over the last couple of years, there’s been an inverse relationship between the quality of the songs and the quality of the program presenters/comedy interludes for Melodifestivalen, the Swedish finals which lead to the Eurovision Song Contest. In recent memory, the combination in 2012 of Sarah Dawn Finer, Helena Bergström and Gina Dirawi was probably the best, combining intelligence, talent, and humour. In contrast, the low point was definitely 2014, when the program began to resemble The Footy Show. It was great to see Gina and Petra Mede together, as I watched the show this morning (Australia time).

I concede it must be a difficult thing to decide who should host. On the one hand, you have the (hopefully) artistic vision of Christer Björkman, on the other you have the demands/requirements of Swedish TV bureaucrats. I can’t help but feel some of the recent decisions about program presenters have been the result of a “committee vote”.

And then you have the songs themselves. I have previously written about the apparent problem of having too few songwriters contributing the songs. Fredrik Kempe was back again this year, and I can only presume he’ll be back again over coming weeks. Though he has contributed some terrific material to Melodifestivalen, I can’t help but feel his apparent cookie-cutter approach to songs and artists (Popular and Manboy by Eric Saade were basically the same song) adds little to the contest and doesn’t really advance the plot much.

For me, there were no outstanding songs this year, though there were many songs I liked. Last year, for example, I really liked “Groupie” by Samir and Viktor as a “fun, topical song with a great tune”. This year, their song lacked a little of the same appeal, ultimately resulting in them taking their shirts off to, presumably, add to their appeal to voters. Yeah, well, it worked for me:) Last year, I didn’t really like Ace Wilder’s song “Busy Doin’ Nothing”, and this year I quite liked her song. “Mitt Guld” by Pernilla Andersson, “Aint No Good” by Mimi Werner and “Constellation Prize” (what a stupid name for a song” by Robin Bengtsson were all quite good, though nothing special. “Rik” by Albin and Mattias was quite dull, and I thought it could have been an entry from a decade ago. And of course, poor Anna Book’s “”Himmel för två” failed to make it, disqualified in the days leading up to the heat. As good as all the songs were, none of them really shined for me. I’m hoping the following weeks will bring forth some songs worthy of representing Sweden at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest.

Three more heats to go, and then Andra Chansen, and then the final.

 

Pie made from dried scallops and lantana flowers.

Noma Sydney

As we entered Noma (Sydney) for lunch yesterday, there was a real sense of “showbiz”. As we were shown to our table, the four of us were greeted by probably twenty or thirty staff. “Hello, hello, welcome”. Having lived all my life in Australia, I often feel cynical about such displays of hospitality. Though such displays often feel contrived, this seemed to me very genuine. Over the next two and half to three hours, as we enjoyed our meals, and chatted with the staff, it became pretty obvious the staff were, too, lovers of fine food.

Though I’ve visited Copenhagen a few times, I’ve never been to Noma. Their seasons are always sold out weeks/months in advance. But I have read about Noma, and its reputation as a world class restaurant. In particular, I’ve been interested in the work done by the chef and co-owner, René Redzepi in re-inventing Nordic cuisine, and by his innovative use of unusual/interesting ingredients. When they announced a ten week season in Sydney, I was certainly interested, though not confident I’d be lucky enough to secure a seat/table. There are still 27,000 people (or something like that) on the waiting list. Thanks to the perseverance of Damien (running a couple of computers simultaneously) we were lucky enough to secure a table. And so yesterday, after months of anticipation, four of us sat down and enjoyed a remarkable lunch.

From the opener (macadamia in a spanner crab broth) to the closer (a fresh take on bon bons), everything was a surprise and a delight. There were many highlights. For me, they included the “dumpling” of marron and magpie goose (eat it like a taco), the sea urchin with tomatoes and berries, and the marinated fresh fruit (which included teaming up watermelon with a very bitter native plum). There were thirteen courses in all, and absolutely no sense of “I’m still hungry, let’s get some Maccas on the way home”.

Another particular highlight for me was the deep sea snow crab served in a sauce of egg yolk and fermented kangaroo. Though I’ve eaten crab all my life, I’ve never had crab like this before. The particular crab we were served lives in such deep waters that they’re actually white. There’s little/no lite where they live in waters off the continental shelf. We learned an awful lot about crab, actually, as we got chatting with a lovely family from Western Australia, who actually supplied the crab for the restaurant. “René came for dinner one night”, we were told, as we began to better understand how the team from Noma had spent several months/weeks/days travelling around Australia sourcing ingredients, and then developing the uniquely Australian meals. “A world class chef comes to your place for dinner. Pressure much?, I joked.

That was one of the great things about the afternoon: the shared experience. After the meal, the opportunity to meet the family from WA made it all the more enjoyable, as they too share a love of food. Around the rest of the room, I noticed other people were similarly making friends.

I’ve been a little sick over the last week, and so chose not to have the matched wines (shock! horror!) but Damien, Kristen and Glenn did, and they all said they were all very well-matched. They were also, I think, natural wines, meaning there were without preservatives. Though I do love wine, I equally enjoyed the meal, I think, without drinking.

As each meal was served the staff explained in detail (without too much detail) the meal, and seemed really happy to answer our many, many questions :) They definitely earned their keep :)

“I’ve tried to explain this to people at work, spending so much money on lunch but they just didn’t understand”, one of us said, “Noma”. For the last few months I’ve been feeling lots of “Catholic Guilt” about this also. The “guilt” comes from the fact that I’m a working class boy from a small country town in Australia. The money I spent on LUNCH would feed whole families in some parts of the world for weeks, if not months. In my own mind, I balanced it out because I do contribute a fair bit of money to a couple of charities which help people around the world.

But how do you explain spending so much money on a lunch to your colleagues/ friends/ family who live equally “first world lifestyles”? According to my friend, you ask them how much money they’ve recently spent on a rock concert. Many people in Australia (and other “first world nations”) will routinely spend several hundred dollars on a ticket to a rock concert. Personally, I spent three or four hundred dollars to see Bette Midler and Liza Minelli. I know a few people who spent over seven hundred dollars to see Barbra Streisand. So my perspective on this is simple: it was like the greatest rock concert of all time (for food), and we got to meet and chat (at length) with the star.

DSC_2567

Dinner at Aria

A few months ago I was lucky enough to be on a table that won the “Lucky Door Prize” for a dinner at Sydney’s Aria Restaurant. Along with ten others, I enjoyed a wonderful night this evening of great company, great conversations, delicious food and wine, and great views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. Though the servings look small, they were very filling and very, very enjoyable. We were treated to matched wines chosen by the son of one of our hosts. We also had a visit to our table by the restaurant’s owner, Matt Moran. Feeling very, very fortunate/privileged tonight, so I thought I’d share a few of the lovely photographs I took. Very grateful.

Wide Brown Land sculpture by Marcus Tatton, Chris Viney and Futago

Wide Brown Land

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror –
The wide brown land for me!

– Dorothea Mackellar

Here are some photographs I took today of the sculpture “Wide Brown Land” by Marcus Tatton, Chris Viney and Futago at the National Arboretum in Canberra.

What a wonderful piece of public art.

Maudeville at Lismore Regional Art Gallery

Maudeville at Lismore Regional Art Gallery

Not long after arriving in Sydney in the mid 1990s, I remember being blown away by the elaborate wigs of drag queen, Maude Boate. In contrast to the permed and blow dried wigs of so many drag queens, Maude had cartoon-like headgear made of plastic.

Maude was a regular performer at the legendary, sadly missed Albury Hotel. Working alongside Maude at The Albury, was barman, Tim Chappell, one of the Academy Award winning costume designers for “Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert”. Apparently that’s how some of the Maude Boate designed headgear and dresses ended up in the movie. The other connection between Maude and Tim was that both came from my hometown, Lismore. I remember discovering that about Tim about the time he won the Academy Award. But it wasn’t until a few years later I discovered Maude Boate was in fact, Michael Gates, also from my hometown.

“When I was growing up in Lismore, drag was completely unacceptable”, Michael says on a short video that’s playing as part of “Maudeville” an exhibition currently at the Lismore Regional Art Gallery. Being of a similar age, I knew exactly what he meant. And yet, at the same time as Jim Brigginshaw, the editor of the local newspaper, The Northern Star was writing inflammatory anti-gay editorials, people like Mike Bray and Vera Bourne (the mother of a schoolmate) were hosting Gaywaves on the local community radio station, 2NCR-FM, Mike ran a gay restaurant called “Double Dutch” and the local social group, Tropical Fruits was just starting out.

Thirty five years later, Tropical Fruits is now a multi-day festival (with a pool party and street parade) that attracts a lot of visitors from elsewhere (the actor Alan Cumming was the star celebrity guest this year), and there’s an exhibition at the local art gallery paying tribute to the work of a man who achieved a great deal through his drag persona. Design-wise, Maude Boate continues to influence how many of Sydney’s drag queens dress. In the short video, Michael also describes how he makes wigs for the stage production of “Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert”.

It’s a lovely exhibition. Well worth a look. But be quick, noting it closes January 30, 2016.

ABBA

ABBA Photographic Reunion

There’s a fair bit in the papers today about ABBA’s “photographic reunion” when they appeared together overnight in Stockholm. Being ABC Local Radio’s resident “ABBA Expert”, I was asked to come on the radio in NSW and chat about this. You can listen to the audio below, or read my interview preparation notes below.

What’s the significance of this appearance?

It’s the first time they’ve appeared in public (all four of them) since the premiere in Stockholm of “Mamma Mia” in 2008. For the last thirty five years, all four members of ABBA have appeared in public together, but very rarely all four of them together. I was at the opening of Stockholm’s ABBA Museum in 2013, when Bjorn, Benny and Frida attended the opening. Agnetha wasn’t there, and the reason given was that she had already made plans to be in the UK to promote her latest album. Benny and Frida appeared together when ABBA were inducted in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame.  Frida and Agnetha appeared together when they received a Swedish music award.  There’s a video clip on Youtube of them on stage together, and it’s quite lovely to see Frida holding tightly to Agnetha (given all of the newspaper reports about Agnetha’s anxiety appearing in public).  My favourite moment from that appearance was when the presenter asked Agnetha and Frida what they talk about when they come together after such a long time. Agnetha replies, “mostly tonight it was about money!!”. And the reaction from Frida is hilarious – she can’t quite believe Agnetha was so honest.

So it’s not a sign the feud between them is over?

Was there ever a feud? I don’t know there’s any evidence of a feud. I think they just moved on with their lives. After a decade or so together, including as married couples, and then with divorces, they simply moved on. Agnetha is the one mostly commonly described as being reclusive. Her ex-husband Bjorn has reflected on that, saying he thought she would have been happy raising a family. He said she liked to sing and record, but touring wasn’t something she enjoyed. I think there’s probably evidence the Australian tour, in particular, freaked her out a little bit. There was also a particularly scary flight in 1979 in America, and after that I think she didn’t think it was worth it any more. I also think the idea of a feud comes from the fact there were divorces, and I also think this might be evidence of a bit of deep sexism. The idea there can’t be room for two fairly strong women in the same pop group without “cats fights” and so on. I think a key thing to remember is all four members of the group are now in their mid 60s to early 70s. For them, this whole thing was such a long-time ago.

So what is this new Mamma Mia franchise?

After the musical and the movie, comes a new incarnation of Mamma Mia. Basically, it’s theatre restaurant. It’s currently in Swedish, but they’ll be performing it in English during Eurovision this year, which is being held in Stockholm. By the way, last year’s winner, Mans Zelmerlow actually appeared this week at the Australian Open in Melbourne.

What are they all doing now?

Frida has been living in Zermatt, Switzerland for about thirty-five years. Occasionally she records duets, mostly for charity. She’s a Princess (she married a Swedish/German prince, who later passed away). And now she’s in a relationship with Henry Smith, one of the heirs of W.H. Smith. She has both a son and a grandson who are musicians. 

Agnetha has been living on the outskirts of Stockholm for the last forty years. Her daughter, son in law, and grandchildren live with her. She’s had a few relationships, including one rather disastrous relationship with a fan who became a bit of a stalker. She recorded and released a new album a couple of years ago, appeared on television a bit, as well as stage events like Stockholm Pride.

Bjorn continues to live in Stockholm. He’s become a fairly outspoken figure on atheism in Sweden, as well as the move for a cashless society.

Benny continues to perform music regularly. You see him on Swedish TV two or three times a year. His children and grandchildren have mostly followed a musical career also.