In a classroom of excitable primary school children in Yarrabah – an Indigenous community that lies across Trinity Inlet, an hour’s drive south-east of Cairns – language and culture teacher Nathan Schrieber makes a grand entrance in traditional garb, using biraba, or clapsticks, to call the kids to attention.
“Are youse ready?” he asks. “Are you set? Then we’d better get some Wiggle action in here!”
And from a side entrance, in they come – Anthony (in blue), Lachy (purple), Emma (yellow) and Simon (red). Schrieber asks the children to make them welcome. With that, the Wiggles bursts into Rockabye Your Bear, a song the children have been learning for weeks in the local Gunggandji dialect.
Most of them already seem to know all the songs in English, as the band runs through a short set of hits. Emma leads the Whirlybird. Simon, of course, does Simon Says. Captain Feathersword charges in, and falls over. For the finale, everyone stands to Do The Propeller.
A short time later, the band returns and sings Rockabye Your Bear again, this time in Gunggandji, accompanied by Schrieber, his sister Elverina Johnson, elder Uncle Daniel Murgha and the children. It’s being filmed for the upcoming TV series Wiggle Wiggle Wiggle, which will stream in more than 190 countries. One of the kids cheekily asks Anthony if he likes fruit salad.
The Wiggles are here in Yarrabah at the behest of singer and the Queensland Music Festival artistic director, Katie Noonan, as an adjunct to the fourth annual Yarrabah Band Festival, which will be headlined on Saturday by Archie Roach and Jessica Cerro, better known as Montaigne.
There’s also the Yarrabah Brass Band, a crucial part of the Yarrabah story: a revived relic of its history as an Anglican mission. The brass band was first established in 1901 to accompany hymns (brass, unlike other instruments, being better able to withstand the sauna-like humidity of the tropics).
The music stopped when the mission folded in the 1960s, but in 2013, QMF got the band back together and, despite its colonial heritage, it’s proven a popular initiative. Meanwhile, the Yarrabah Band Festival has become a platform for local artists, with nearly 20 bands – drawn from a community of roughly 2,500 people – competing on Friday night for the chance to join the headliners. One act will be selected by Noonan.
But even though the Wiggles aren’t performing at the main event on Saturday, they are, by some distance, the biggest stars to ever appear in Yarrabah. “From the day that we found out, the kids, you couldn’t contain them,” Schrieber says, adding that the children were sceptical. “They were jumping out of their skin. We told them, ‘The Wiggles are coming’, and they were like, ‘The real Wiggles? They’re coming here?’”
Mostly, he says, they knew more about them than he did. “They wanted to know about Emma and Lachy. Actually, they beat me, they were like, ‘Yeah, they’re married’. I didn’t know that.”
Then Johnson came to him with the idea of translating Rockabye Your Bear for the kids to sing back to the band. “We just sat down one afternoon and translated it,” Schrieber says. “The funny thing is, in our language, we didn’t mean it to match, but it almost fits rhythmically, exactly the same. It’s amazing how these two separate languages and cultures have come together.”
It’s part of the Wiggles’ job to smile, but today the smiles are perhaps wider than usual. Like rock stars – one of the band’s sound technicians wears a T-shirt mocked up to mimic the Ramones’ famous logo, another depicts the band crossing “Wiggly Road” – the band don’t often get the chance to get this close to those they entertain. “I reckon we’ll remember this more than any entertainment centre gig,” Lachy says.
Simon adds: “Intimacy with the children is something you can’t recreate. It’s incredible being up on stage in front of 10,000 people, but just having a couple of hundred children there, singing and joining in with us is pretty wonderful.”
First published in The Guardian, 4 November 2016