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Author: Natasha Cantwell

Communications & Public Programming Officer

"I want to make a confession here, at first I didnt understand the importance of The History Project!” Zulya Kamalova admits. Like many people in hard-working community organisations, The Boîtes new Director was too busy with the day-to-day to take time to celebrate the past. But she was surrounded by history buffs on the team, and it wasnt long before her enthusiasm grew. Recalling a visit to the storage unit that serves as the organisations archive, she describes the posters, reel-to-reel audio tapes, super-8 film footage and photographs that tell the story of The Boîte, right back to its earliest days in the late 70s. Zulya even discovered a 2003 flyer for a show she had performed in, I don't even remember that gig! We dont realise at the time that these things are going to become more valuable.”

It was this amazing archival collection that served as the starting point for The Boîtes History Project. And with the help of funding from the Victorian Multicultural Commission, Creative Victoria and a Local History Grant from Public Record Office Victoria, they engaged historian Jen Rose to bring the story of Victorias iconic multicultural music organisation to life. I talked to Zulya and Jen, as well as longstanding members of The Boîte community, performer Arnold Zable and Programs Manager Therese Virtue about the project.


Group of four people smiling indoors
Right to left: Therese Virtue, Arnold Zable, Zulya Kamalova and Jen Rose visit The Victorian Archives Centre


Looking back at The Boîtes founding, Arnold notes,

"We are a nation of immigrants and indigenous people, and in 1979 we were just beginning to come to grips with that. We were emerging out of the years of the White Australia Policy. I think it's been an extraordinary journey for many people and I'm privileged to be one of them.”

Throughout the organisations 43 years of concerts, workshops, community radio and club nights, their goal has always been to create opportunities for culturally diverse music to contribute to a richer, more inclusive Australia. The diversity of artists The Boîte works with is evident in the line-up from their first Melbourne concert in June 1979, which featured Andean folk band Apurima, Greek musicians the Tsourdalakis Brothers and Pietro & Eleni, Indigenous performers Bwung-Gul and a New Guinean dance performance. Skip forward to November 2023, and their most recent show featured contemporary Indian women musicians celebrating heritage and experimentation.

Therese observes that The Boîtes story speaks to Melbournes history of migration, and in a larger sense, Australian history of migration, through the lens of music.” Arnold agrees, It’s a wonderful kind of reflection of who we are as an evolving nation.”


Three hand-made photocopied posters for music concerts
Flyers from Boîte Concerts in the 1970s - 1990s. Courtesy of The Boîte.


It was this relevance to the bigger picture of Australian history that convinced Therese that “this was a significant arts and cultural entity” and they needed to get a professional historian on board. In 2016 Jen began working with The Boîte to digitise the collection, weaving together the different threads into a timeline which would become The History Project website. The Boîtes archive already provided a rich resource of video, images and music, but for the first-person perspective, Jen recorded interviews with the people whod worked on stage and behind-the-scenes across the organisations 43 years. She explains how important oral history is to the project:

Initially it was about ensuring that we could capture the voices of some of the founding members who were getting older. But its also meant were capturing insights that youd never find in the official record, like people's personal reflections on what it was like to be at concerts, or why they became involved, why they gave their time. Those sorts of things are the human dimensions to a history.”

Being able to share different perspectives was essential to reflect the ethos of The Boîte, and Jen stresses that the journey along the way has been just as important for The Boîtes communities, as the outcomes. People really appreciate being asked to share their reflections. Doing a history project in such an inclusive way gives you an opportunity to connect.”


Sierra Leonean Women’s choir performing
Performance from Kankelay, Sierra Leonean Women’s Choir, 2010. Photo by R. King. Courtesy of The Boîte.


The Boîte History Project website was completed in 2020, winning that years Community Diversity Award at the Victorian Community History Awards and helping to raise the profile of Victorias multicultural music scene to the wider public. It has even led to some items from The Boîtes archive being included in the Australian Music Vaults exhibition. Jen points out the significance of being part of this display, which is traditionally focused around rock and pop:

 We have, for a long time, had a very active multicultural music scene in Melbourne that doesnt always get the attention that it deserves in our historical remembering of the city. But now were starting to reflect more of the diversity of Melbourne's music past.”

Jen encourages more community organisations to apply for a Local History Grant because,the kinds of historical materials that sit in community organisations are important for social history, and the history of our state more broadly. Funding provides the little key for unlocking that history.”

Applications are open until midnight Monday 11 December 2023 for projects that preserve, record and share the diverse histories across Victoria. Follow the link for more information:

Material in the Public Record Office Victoria archival collection contains words and descriptions that reflect attitudes and government policies at different times which may be insensitive and upsetting

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples should be aware the collection and website may contain images, voices and names of deceased persons.

PROV provides advice to researchers wishing to access, publish or re-use records about Aboriginal Peoples