Tagged: Archie Roach

Yarrabah gets the band back together

Yarrabah, an Indigenous community about an hour’s drive south of Cairns, is sometimes referred to as paradise by the sea. Although only just over 50 kilometres from far north Queensland’s tourist capital, it’s isolated, separated from the city by Trinity Inlet on one side and, on the other, dense tropical rainforest that covers the rugged Murray Prior range. The town was not connected to electricity until the 1960s.

Before that, Yarrabah was an Anglican mission, established in 1893. Over the ensuing decades, Indigenous peoples from across far north Queensland and South Sea Islanders were forcibly relocated here to live alongside the local Gunggandji people. Families were torn apart: the town’s mayor, Ross Andrews, estimates around 80 percent of the community is comprised of the Stolen Generations and their descendants.

Unsurprisingly, Yarrabah continues to struggle with the knock-on effects of profound intergenerational trauma. But in recent years there’s been something of a sea change in the outlook here, brought about by a revival of a relic of the town’s colonial and missionary past: the Yarrabah Brass Band, which was originally established in 1901 to accompany church hymns.

After the mission’s closure at the turn of the 1960s, by which time Elvis, the Beatles and the Stones had gained as much of a foothold here as anywhere else in the world, the brass bands withered. In 2012 a local, Greg Fourmile, revived the concept with the support of jazz musician James Morrison, then the artistic director of the Queensland Music Festival, who pioneered the Yarrabah Band Festival in 2013.

Fourmile says that even though the bands were imposed upon his people, along with Christianity, they became a source of pleasure and nostalgia: many townsfolk had fond memories of their uncles and grandfathers performing. Reinvigorating the concept was a form of paying tribute. “A lot of the members had family in prior brass bands leading up to today, so for them it’s like carrying that torch.”

Now, though, the brass – which is better able to weather the effects of the tropical humidity – has been augmented by woodwind instruments, and even guitars and drums in a nod to the power of rock & roll. “It’s a stage band,” Fourmile says. “It’s come full circle now, so you’re chucking in your guitars and everything else, making it more inclusive.”

The new artistic director of the Queensland Music Festival is singer Katie Noonan, and the 2016 Yarrabah Band Festival was the biggest yet staged, headlined by a genuine icon in Archie Roach and 21-year-old Jessica Cerro, better known as Montaigne. On Saturday, there were close to 3000 people here, and while the majority were locals, there were whitefellas too; visitors from the surrounding towns of Cairns, Innisfail, the Atherton Tablelands and beyond.

It’s a reflection of the community’s desire to present a new, more open face to the world: In the 1970s and ’80s, a permit was required to visit here. Andrews says the festival brings energy to the community, and that the music is a source of healing. “There’s been trauma here for many, many years, and the music and performing arts that the festival provides is a kind of a therapy.”

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Archie Roach, Yarrabah Band Festival. Photo: Andrew Watson

This is Roach’s story, too. Introducing Took The Children Away, he stops to address the crowd. “People ask me if I get sick of singing this song,” he says. “And I say, no, because every time I sing this song, I let a little bit of that pain go. And one day all that pain will be gone, and I’ll be free.” Roach’s voice has a guttural edge these days, but he still reaches for spiritual highs; when he hits the chorus of the song that made him famous, voices in the crowd shriek and cry out.

More upbeat are the Bay Boyz, a local R&B trio chosen by Noonan to support the headliners after a Battle of the Bands the night before. It featured 20 acts (“I’ve never seen a mic stand so low,” says Noonan, marvelling at the performance of a four-year-old girl). The Boyz are serious – they even have a manager, Zane, who pushes a card into my hand and speaks of bigger things.

They also have the pipes, the moves, and are beside themselves with excitement at this first career break: Michael “Mikey Boi” Yeatman says this is only their second performance. The Bay Boyz exemplify a town that’s turning its gaze outward – their music is inspired by all the big names of their chosen genre – but as brothers Benjamin (BJ) and Thaddeus (TJ) Johnson add, country music is what they grew up on.

Later, a group of nervous school children, on stage for the first time, perform a song by local rap artist Dizzy Doolan. The words are trenchant and speak of ongoing problems in the community. Doolan says the kids could have chosen any song, but chose this one: “Stop the violence, make a change / Stop the violence, be on your game / Stop the fighting, stop the drugs / Put your hands up, show me some love.”

The song was workshopped by Doolan as part of the community’s artist-in-residence program, led by traditional owner and songwriter Elverina Johnson – who is also the mother of BJ and TJ – alongside the Briscoe sisters, Deline and Merindi. The workshops, Johnson says, “aim to inspire the kids to tell their own story about where they come from and who they are”.

The results are giving Yarrabah a sense of pride. Earlier in the evening, the night’s MC David Hudson opened proceedings with a cover of Paul Kelly’s Special Treatment. The song’s final verse sings of the far-reaching consequences of cultural dislocation and disempowerment: “I never spoke my mother’s tongue / I never knew my name / I never learnt the songs she sung / I was raised in shame.”

Deline Briscoe says that culture of shame is slowly being broken down. “Our parents were looked down upon and told to be ashamed of things, especially anything to do with culture, and then it just kept getting passed along,” she says. “So seeing these kids get up and dance and do songs in their language, and being proud of that, is really groundbreaking.

“You hear it less these days. When I was growing up, ‘shame’ became more like a swear word, we weren’t allowed to use that word in any context, even if we were joking. Now, everyone is just building each other up.”

First published in The Guardian, 8 November 2016

Singing in Gunggandji: the Wiggles at Yarrabah

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).

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The Wiggles and Katie Noonan with staff and students from Yarrabah State School and Nathan Schrieber (far right). Photo: Andrew Watson

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.”

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Yellow Wiggle Emma with Katie Noonan and children from Yarrabah State School. Photo: Andrew Watson

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

Paul Kelly and Charlie Owen: Death’s Dateless Night

Most of us have a song that we’d like played at our funeral. Some of us aim for the transcendent: spiritual songs that, we hope, might say something to those we leave behind about our approach to life. Others who take the exercise (and themselves) less seriously prefer a more mordant strain of philosophy: Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life, by Monty Python’s Eric Idle, is a popular choice.

It was while driving to a friend’s funeral with Charlie Owen, one of Australia’s most expressive guitarists, that Paul Kelly had the idea to record an album of such songs. Death’s Dateless Night features 12 bare-bones, intimately recorded tunes, with a cathedral-like ambience that echoes the sparseness of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

This could have been compelling, if only Kelly had a fresh set of songs to fit. He is now 61 and, while he’s not quite staring mortality in the face, he’s had enough brushes with it over the years and certainly farewelled more than his share of friends before their time. If anyone could take a hard look at a topic no one much likes talking about and have something worthwhile to say, you’d hope Kelly might.

Instead, there are re-recordings of a couple of originals (Nukkanya, from 1994’s Wanted Man, and Meet Me In The Middle Of The Air, from 2005’s Foggy Highway) and a few traditional numbers (Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor, which Welch has also recorded; The Parting Glass), with the remainder of the album padded out by covers. Some are standards; others are songs by contemporaries and peers.

This is a low bar for a singer and songwriter of Kelly’s stature to get over. The strengths of Death’s Dateless Night are his warm, empathetic singing and Owen’s always tasteful playing. Its weakness is its lack of ambition: this is an easy listening album about a difficult subject, with neither Kelly nor Owen extending themselves. It’s pleasant, but far from essential.

Should an album of songs about death be merely pleasant? Of course, Death’s Dateless Night could have been depressing and that would have been no more effective, or even interesting. But, instead of offering redemption, Kelly’s versions of Don’t Fence Me In, Bird On A Wire and Let It Be feel redundant, even trite. He’s not adding anything new to these songs. Then again, who could?

The songs that really sting are the less familiar ones, written by artists with whom Kelly shared a more personal connection. One is Good Things, by the late Maurice Frawley, who played in Kelly’s first band, the Dots. Owen’s moaning steel guitar perfectly complements Kelly’s plaintive, haunted vocal and two-chord acoustic shuffle. Singing one of the finest songs of his lost friend, here Kelly is hanging on for dear life.

The other triumph is Pretty Bird Tree, by the Indigenous singer/songwriter LJ (Lawrence) Hill. It’s as powerful as anything by Archie Roach or Kev Carmody and it’s to be hoped Kelly’s version draws more attention to Hill’s exquisite talent. The original finger-picked melody and arrangement is preserved, and Kelly’s voice is at its most yearning as he retells Hill’s heart-stopping narrative.

It might say something about the strength of these two songs that they easily outshine the better-known material that dominates the rest of the album. Alternatively, perhaps the other songs simply suffer for their overfamiliarity. Either way, it’s hard not to wish for more from someone who, at his best, has written so fearlessly about life, death and everything in between.

First published in The Guardian, 6 October 2016

Dying by degrees

Songs don’t have trigger warnings; if they did, they wouldn’t hit us so damn hard. News stories might warn viewers or readers in advance that the content they are about to consume may be graphic but, in art, an R rating or parental advisory sticker shouldn’t protect us from the shock and awe of emotional impact.

Some of the great songs in history cover intensely difficult terrain. Some of them even become fluke hits: Suzanne Vega’s late-’80s classic Luka, a study of child abuse, is one. Archie Roach’s Took The Children Away endures, too, because you didn’t have to be a member of the Stolen Generations to be moved by Roach’s suffering.

About a year ago, I heard a song by Melbourne songwriter Jen Cloher, Hold My Hand, the last song on her most recent album In Blood Memory. It hit me like a truck. The song is a conversation between two old lovers. One asks the other to tell the story of how they first met. He responds:

Well my dear, it was cold,

Shivering, nearly snow

You wore my favourite coat.

But his answer is instantly forgotten, and the conversation, like the song, becomes circular:

Did I dear? I forget,

Did our love begin there?

How did we meet again?

Cloher’s mother, Dorothy Urlich Cloher, died on Christmas Day of 2011. She had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease four years earlier. A distinguished New Zealand academic, her last creative act had been an acclaimed book on the famous Maori warrior chief Hongi Hika.

She had written the book quickly, aware her memory was failing, from her desk overlooking the Hauraki Gulf. Jen would write the bulk of her second album, Hidden Hands, at the same desk while her mother remained “upstairs, staring out to sea, losing herself slowly to the disease”.

In a blog post from 2012, she described the scene confronting her: “Her study, once a hub of academic achievement, was now a mess of scrawled notes to self and handwritten instructions furiously underlined with red pen: ‘1. Turn power on at the wall. 2. Push ON button below desk 3. Wait for computer to load 4. Type in username Dorothy password Nunky.’”

Seeing our own stories reflected through the eyes of others can make our own travails both more real and more bearable, because they take us outside the situation and allow us to view them from a distance. They also allow us to feel.

My mother, Sue, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in November 2011, aged 64. The symptoms had been there since at least 2002. That was when she first took leave from her job in the upper levels of the Queensland Health bureaucracy where, in a hideous irony, she worked on devising and implementing aged care policy.

So mum knows more about Alzheimer’s disease than I’ve forgotten. Except that now she’s forgotten she has it, we have to keep explaining to her why she can’t go home. In February, we placed her in long-term care, when her needs became too acute for us to cope with; her house was sold last week to fund her placement.

In the same blog post, Cloher tells the story of a disastrous journey she undertook with her mother to visit her childhood home in the far north of New Zealand, only to see her become disoriented and distressed when she failed to recognise either her relatives or her surroundings. By the middle of their first night away, Cloher felt she had no choice but to take her home.

“The drive back to Auckland was five hours of winding coastal road in the rain and I had moments of feeling insane,” Cloher writes. “Mum stayed awake for the whole journey home, asking every five minutes where we were going and then, upon receiving the explanation, apologising for not being able to remember where we were. ‘What’s wrong with me Jennifer?’ she asked at one point.”

A couple of years ago, aware that opportunities for mum to visit those closest to her were diminishing rapidly, I accompanied her from her home in Brisbane to her old home town, Melbourne, before driving her to visit my father – her ex-husband, with whom she has remained friends – in Wangaratta.

On the plane, unable to comprehend distance or time, she had quickly become confused and frightened. “I didn’t realise how far it was,” she kept saying. “Wouldn’t it have been quicker to drive?”

Later, as we drove the three hours up the Hume Highway, she became more animated as she thought she recognised various landmarks. It felt like being trapped in a scene from Mother And Son. “It all looks exactly as I remembered,” she would exclaim. Seconds later, the fog would descend again: “I have absolutely no idea where we are,” she said crossly.

Love, Cloher concludes in Hold My Hand, is “more than a reward, or a balm we use to soothe.” It’s an ongoing act of supreme patience and loyalty. Alzheimer’s is demanding; grief is a luxury carers can’t often afford as they lurch from one daily crisis to another. It’s only now we know she’s safe that we can begin to let go.

Shortly before the house settled, I took her on a final tour of what had been her home. She lingered in the garden. She’d known the names of everything that she’d once nurtured; now she bent to touch a tiny purple flower, blooming brilliantly, and tearfully asked me what it was. I couldn’t tell her.

Once, she told me she was dying by degrees, as everything that connected her to the world was slowly erased. Sometimes, I think that it’s not until she’s actually gone that we will get our own memories of her back. But, to quote another of Cloher’s songs, she is going, she is not gone. All we can do is remind her we’re still here.

First published in The Age, 15 August 2015

The Great Australian Songbook IV (20-11)

Now it starts to get hard! This is where I start to become ultra-conscious of who and what’s getting left out. The songs get harder to put in any kind of order. And I haven’t made it any easier for myself – I found I’d written Nick Cave’s The Mercy Seat down twice in my initial list of 40 (hmm – should that make it higher?), meaning I now have to find an entirely new song that’s magically going to vault straight into my top 20! Choices, choices…

20. BILLY THORPE & THE AZTECS – Most People I Know Think That I’m Crazy (1972)

This wasn’t the song, by the way. I always had this one in here. (I won’t cheapen which one it actually is by revealing it.) But, in short: what a wonderful chord progression this is, and what a great lyric, that anyone who’s ever got shitfaced in a bar with their friends should be able to relate to. Don’t we all, deep down, feel a little crazy as we try to navigate our way through a world we never asked to be born into? To be honest, I struggle to understand the fuss about much of Thorpie’s catalogue, but props to him for this brilliant common touch.

19. HOODOO GURUS – Like Wow Wipeout! (1985)

This one is all about the beat, hammered home by a human metronome called Mark Kingsmill (Richard’s older brother). Two chords and a chorus that rhymes “walk” and “talk” do the rest. But that beat! It’s a stomp made for football stadiums, and though the Hoodoo Gurus didn’t quite reach that level of success, it’s true that for a while, cricket fans would hold up placards reading “Like Wow Wipeout!”, usually after a six was struck in a one-day game. As a humbled Dave Faulkner noted, the real stars in Australia are our sports heroes anyway.

18. HUNTERS & COLLECTORS – Throw Your Arms Around Me (1984; re-recorded 1986)

A lot of folks would have this higher, and I can understand why. Crowded House recognised its potential by making it a staple of their live shows for years, but had too much respect for the song to even attempt recording it. (Of course, the Crowdies may have been biased; their bass player Nick Seymour was the brother of the song’s author Mark.) Eddie Vedder and Ben Harper have also covered it. So why wasn’t this now beloved tune a hit? It’s true that both the 1984 single and 1986 album recordings, by radio standards of the day, are rough and ready, and that probably cruelled Throw Your Arms Around Me’s chances at the time. But that surely says more about the tin ears of the fools that made such dumb decisions. Really, how could anyone not like this song?

17. SUNNYBOYS – Alone With You (1981)

Like Throw Your Arms Around Me, this song touches with its directness. But whereas the former track is a timeless soul ballad that wouldn’t have sounded out of place if recorded by Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett in the 1960s, the Sunnyboys were fans of the Kinks, the Remains and Radio Birdman, and the urgency of Alone With You is a reflection of that. Jeremy Oxley was a prodigy until tragically cut down by illness: his lyrics are straight to the point, he wore his heart on his sleeve, and his voice is effortlessly warm and natural. And just when you think this magical song can’t get any better – having already somehow found room for not one but two solos, with not a note wasted – he uncorks a third, pealing effort to take the song out. Wow.

16. RUSSELL MORRIS – The Real Thing (1969)

If you were under the misapprehension that Johnny Young was just that prat from Young Talent Time and that Molly Meldrum’s contribution to Australian music began and ended with Countdown, you need to hear this amazing song. Written by Young, produced by Meldrum, and sung/spoken in tongues by Russell Morris with unusual fervour, is this a hippy anthem or proto-punk madness? I’m not sure, but Little Richard would be proud of this inspired nonsense: “Come and see the real thing, come and see the real thing. Oo-mow-ma-mow-mow, oo-mow-ma-mow-mow.” Confused? Don’t worry, Morris can explain: “There’s meaning there, but the meaning there doesn’t really mean a thing.” (And get well, Molly.)

15. THE CHURCH – Under The Milky Way (1988)

Like the Only Ones’ Another Girl, Another Planet, or the Stranglers’ Golden Brown, or Johnny Thunders’ more direct Chinese Rocks, this could be an ode to heroin, which singer/bassist/writer Steve Kilbey has admitted to having a passionate relationship with. Or maybe that’s just a thought implanted by this song’s opaque, narcotic haze. It drifts blissfully by in a wash of 12-string acoustic splendour, with Kilbey murmuring gently in your ear like a slightly more stoned Lou Reed, with not even an e-bow solo destroying the effect (that’s the one that makes Peter Koppes’ guitar sound like bagpipes). After that unexpectedly noisy interlude, you’re back in a stoned stupor, Kilbey’s whispering again, and a more conventional but even more psychedelic guitar solo – with just a hint of wah-wah this time – drops you gently back to earth.

14. ARCHIE ROACH – Took The Children Away (1990)

“This story’s right, this story’s true. I would not tell lies to you.” And with that declaration, Archie Roach tells you his story, and the story of his people, with such quiet, understated hurt that the challenge for the listener is to get to the end of the song without weeping. It succeeds for two reasons: Roach’s words forced white people to imagine – as Paul Keating noted we failed to do, in his famous Redfern Speech two years later – these things being done to us. But songs don’t work as essays or speeches, even when they’re this well written. The real power comes from Roach’s beautiful singing: full of humility, grace, and unspeakable pain, it never forces itself on the listener. But it compelled a nation to listen and – eventually – say sorry.

13. THE REELS – Quasimodo’s Dream (1981)

A mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a riddle, Quasimodo’s Dream – which writer Dave Mason has disparaged as “just complete rubbish when you listen to it” – doesn’t seem to add up to anything. That hasn’t kept other singers and songwriters including Jimmy Little (who gave it several new dimensions) and Kate Ceberano (who missed the mark with an upbeat dance pop/big band approach) from going back to it, trying to tease something fresh from its haunting, otherworldly beauty. The key to its effectiveness is the tender conviction which Mason invests in those spooked, baffling lyrics, making this slow, sparse song sound clammy and claustrophobic. Whatever you end up making of it, once heard, it never leaves you.

12. THE GO-BETWEENS – Cattle And Cane (1983)

Written on a battered acoustic guitar belonging to Nick Cave while the Go-Betweens were squatting with the Birthday Party in dank London, Cattle And Cane is nonetheless the ultimate expression of their “striped sunlight sound”. Its acoustic/electric texture and tension – thanks largely to Lindy Morrison’s quirky, shifting time signatures – created, as bass player Robert Vickers noted, a song that was “complex but also memorable, which is an almost impossible thing in music”. Every part works, even the perfectly weighted bass solo that underpins the guitar break, with the late, great Grant McLennan’s gorgeous, heartfelt vignettes of growing up in north Queensland front and centre. Has a singer ever had more sincere eyebrows than this man?

11. THE BEE GEES – Spicks And Specks (1966)

What do you say about this? Younger generations have the introductory piano theme tattooed on their brains, thanks to the ABC’s long-running and much loved music trivia show; older Australians will never have forgotten it. The military march of the drums and punchy arrangement, topped off by a trumpet finale, never swamps the best harmony pop/boy band Australia ever produced. It’s too bad that their lack of success in Australia at the time forced the Brothers Gibb to return to their native England in late 1966 – while still at sea, they found out Spicks And Specks had become their first number one hit.