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.”
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