Dust of Uruzgan

Fred Smith at The Street Theatre. 4 Feb 2012

With every war fought comes a million stories that don’t make it to the evening news. We’ve seen it with World Wars I and II, Vietnam, and now we’re seeing waves of personal tales come out of the Middle East – ready to become the next generation of military legends.

Dust of Uruzgan is just such a collection of these stories, coming straight from the diary of musician-cum-diplomat to Afghanistan (and Canberra local), Fred Smith.

Self-described as an ethnomusicologist, Smith’s songs capture his time working predominately in Uruzgan province with quirk, heart and a country twang. With the show accentuated by the powerful imagery of a photo journal, the audience was treated to a refreshingly candid narrative of life in a war zone - without fear or favour.

Accompanied by Liz Frencham (of the Frencham Smith folk duo) on back up vocals and double bass, Jonathan Jones on percussion, and Lachlan Coventry on electric and slide guitar, Smith introduces us to the “Acronym Rich Environment” of military life in Afghanistan before launching into the title track.

What follows is an incredibly articulate and witty commentary of Smith’s experiences in the troubled country, punctuated with some of the most meaningful song writing you’re ever likely to encounter in Australian music. And while the songs are unique, the larrikin spirit traditional to so many Australian songs of the past is well and truly alive in Smith’s work.

From the sombre tone of ‘Sapper’s Lullaby’ exploring the way soldiers grieve and farewell their mates after a casualty, to the zany antics embodied in songs such as ‘Niet Swaffelen Op De Dixi’ – inspired by a rather unusual past time of the Dutch in the base’s portaloos – each song brought much needed humanity to the people and places with a distinctly dry humour and deep insight.

‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ and the hauntingly beautiful finale ‘The Trembling Sky’ were both glorious vocal contributions from Frencham, bringing a poetic exploration of Afghani culture and history to the fore.

Unsurprisingly, the crowd had a thirst for an encore, and were happily obliged with the banjo number ‘Taliban Fighting Man’ and the high impact ‘Century Girl’ – an epic visual and lyrical montage of war and peace over the past 100 years.

The evening seemed to permeate deep into the audiences’ psyche, with the hushed crowd lingering a little longer than usual at the conclusion of the show. In the unlikely event that Dust of Uruzgan didn’t leave an imprint, then radio news reports of 3000 Afghani civilian deaths in the last year playing on the drive home certainly did.

This is an unforgettable night out with a relaxed vibe overall, and highly recommended for those who want a glimpse of Afghanistan beyond the headlines.

Deborah Hawke