Australian World Music Expo Play House Theatre Arts Centre Melbourne November 14 – 2013

Solidarity doesn’t need to raise its voice. Forming an imposing line across the lip of the stage, Barefoot Divas identified themselves quietly in turn – name and heritage in proud languages from Arnhem Land to Aotearoa – and shared a hushed incantation beginning ”My feet have carried me”.

Fame rhymed with pain; red earth with giving birth. ”My ankles wobbled in times of loss/ I’ve learned to be my only boss.” The repeated refrain was ”Long way.”

Sisters who knew that road were hollering affirmations from the dark even before willowy Maori soul singer Maisey Rika hit the first long, ululating note of this year’s Australasian Worldwide Music Expo.

Common ground poetically established, the power of the six indigenous performers turned out to be more about individual radiance than harmony. Sure, their backing vocals made a fine feather bed and lapping ocean from one song to the next, but even a shoeless diva knows how to hold a spotlight. Ngaiire, from New Guinea, was in constant danger of stealing it, even from the sidelines in her magnificent, voluminous party frock and headdress. Her Two Minds was a sinuous example of song craft that skirted soul tradition en route to some place more mysterious.

Equally commanding in her own way was Merenia, who described her lineage as Maori, Welsh and Romany, but sang her first tune in Spanish and danced a dazzling accompaniment – in platform heels – to emphasise her fluency.

Whirimako Black was an earthy voice of calm in English and Te Reo, minimally accompanied by the exceptionally adaptable Barefoot Band and, during the Ipanema-styled Wahine Whakairo, by a spectacular whirl of the poi pom-poms by Rika.

The Black Arm Band’s Emma Donovan hit the most poignant note with Ngarraanga, her gospel lament for stolen children and lost identity. But it was Darwin-born actor-singer-songwriter Ursula Yovich who let loose the unspoken rage with a soliloquy about personal dispossession: a note of naked confrontation in a journey of quiet deliberation. Long way, long way. By Michael Dwyer