Tagged: Archie Roach

Archie Roach: Tell Me Why

For the Gunditjmara people of south-west Victoria, the Kneeangar – what white Australians call the Wedge-tailed Eagle – is the creator of the landscape. For the Bundjalung of north-east New South Wales, it is the Gunggayay, or red-bellied black snake.

On the spine of Archie Roach’s memoir, Tell Me Why, the Gunggayay encircles the Kneeangar, a logo that encapsulates the Indigenous songwriter’s heritage: his Bundjalung father Archie Senior, and his Gunditjmara mother Nellie Austin.

But Roach, who first came to national attention in 1990 with his celebrated song Took The Children Away and accompanying debut album Charcoal Lane, is also the foster son of Alex and Dulcie Cox: Dad Alex and Mum Dulcie, as he calls them.

The Coxes were told that Archie’s birth parents had died in a house fire. In fact, he had been stolen from them in the late 1950s at Framlingham mission, near Warrnambool. “They were used,” Roach, now 63, says when we meet, as he rests in a Sydney hotel room. “They’re blameless, as far as I’m concerned.”

Alex and Dulcie cherished Archie but, he writes, “there was always a restlessness in me, like a faultline waiting to rupture”. When he was 15, he received a letter from a hitherto unknown sister, Myrtle – one of six siblings – telling him Nellie had died.

The faultline ruptured. Roach writes that before leaving to find his brothers and sisters, Dad Alex – a Glaswegian immigrant who also yearned for his homeland – told him: “Bifay ye leave me and Ma, I jes wanted tae say … Well, we hope ye fin what ye lookin for, Archie.”

He never saw them again.

The title of Tell Me Why – which is being released alongside an album of new songs and re-recorded versions of many of his classics – is both rhetorical and a plea. “It’s trying to come to terms with it happening, rather than denying that it happened or just pushing it aside and thinking, ‘Oh, something happened to me as a kid, but it doesn’t really matter.’

“It was more than that. You want to assure people, or reassure people, that this actually happened. And yourself as well.” Roach frequently slips into the second person, talking about “yourself” when he’s actually referring to himself, preserving a kind of distance.

In his concerts, Roach has taken to introducing Took The Children Away by saying that every time he sings it, he lets a little bit of pain go. One day, he says, that pain will be gone and he will be free.

Similarly, he tells the Guardian that the process of writing Tell Me Why helped heal some of his grief for his estranged, now deceased adoptive parents. “I’d never talked about them before, and I was able to do that, so I was able to let that go.”

He also wanted to acknowledge their pain. “People need to understand that as well, that some of the families, maybe a lot of the families: what they did [was] out of the goodness of their hearts, and out of love.”

Tell Me Why reveals much more of Roach than was previously known. Nearly half the book is taken up with his years of drinking in the parks and pubs and “empties” (vacant buildings) of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, as he reconnected with his surviving family members.

Roach’s street years are recalled with fondness. “There was a real sense of community with those people, and nobody [outside of it] heard that conversation, so I wanted to take people on that journey,” he says.

Naturally, those years also took a terrible toll. Roach suffered from epilepsy as a result of his alcoholism, and there’s a shockingly raw description of a suicide attempt at the end of a bender, after an attempt to dry out. There are stints in hospital, and prison too.

Roach has also survived a stroke, has had half a lung removed due to cancer, and gave up a kidney to his late brother Lawrence. The transplant wasn’t a success.These days, Roach needs a wheelchair to get around, and has a tendency to speak with his eyes closed. But when he fixes them on you, they’re full of light.

Of his attempt on his life, Roach says it’s something he “probably should have mentioned before”, with suicide rates among Aboriginal people, including children, at epidemic levels. “You can reach the darkest point in our life and come back, and come good, even better.”

But Tell Me Why is also a love story for Roach’s partner Ruby Hunter, who died in 2010. Hunter, too, had been stolen; she and Roach referred to each other as “dad” and “mum” respectively.

“It was a term of endearment,” Roach chuckles. But there was also more to it: “It’s good to use those words ‘mum’ and ‘dad’, they’re very powerful words when you’re a stolen kid. I suppose they take on deeper meaning when you’re a bit older, as well.”

It was Hunter who kicked Roach up the backside when, on the cusp of his first album and record deal, Roach nearly walked away from music entirely. It was 1990, and Paul Kelly and guitarist Steve Connolly had billed the almost unknown artist on a gig at what is now Melbourne’s Hamer Hall, to a dumbstruck audience.

Roach played just two songs, Beautiful Child and Took The Children Away. The latter song, sung in Roach’s pure, earnest voice, starts with the words, “This story’s right, this story’s true. I would not tell lies to you.”

Both songs were met with complete silence. Then, as he left the stage, the applause began: “It started slowly and then it came down hard. I turned around and held my guitar up in the air, like this” – he raises his arms – “yeah!”

He had first played Took The Children Away in Sydney in 1988, at a Bicentennial protest. On that occasion, too, the crowd had been left stunned and weeping. When he later played the song on a community radio station in Melbourne, the switchboard lit up.

The term “Stolen Generations” didn’t exist in the popular consciousness back then, and Roach, a shy man, was uncomfortable being a spokesman for them. “I was reluctant, I think, to put myself out there and have that sort of scrutiny,” he confesses. “It frightened me a bit.” He told Hunter he’d quit.

Hunter, Roach writes, drew herself up to her full height – which admittedly was not very much – put her hands on her hips and said, “It’s not all about you, Archie Roach. How many blackfellas you reckon get to record an album?”

Other Indigenous singer-songwriters followed. One, Adam Briggs, recorded a sequel to Took The Children Away, and invited Roach to guest on AB Original’s album, on which Roach spoke of bringing Melbourne to a standstill during land rights marches in the 70s and 80s.

While his songs are quiet – he writes that “empathy was my impetus” – he reserves a place for anger and direct action. “A lot of people are getting upset about young people in the street disrupting traffic, especially these climate protesters,” he says.

“I’m thinking, well, what’s a day’s disruption compared to the total annihilation of the planet? What’s wrong with you people? You need to make a racket! You need to be in their face.”

Before he left the Cox family, Roach worshipped at a Pentecostal church in Melbourne, and even spoke in tongues. He drew comfort from the hymns that informed his own songs, and from Jesus’ words: “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not.”

Roach eventually reconciled his Christian upbringing with his own heritage. “I found my own culture, which is not so much about religion but it’s about being a spiritual person, in our connection to the earth and the cosmos.”

Around his neck hangs a necklace, at the end of which flies a Wedge-tailed Eagle.

First published in The Guardian, 6 November 2019

Kev Carmody: Pillars Of Society at 30

Kev Carmody’s debut album, Pillars Of Society, recorded as a conceptual excoriation of the Australian bicentenary in 1988, is now 30 years old. On release, it was described by critic Bruce Elder as “the best album ever released by an Aboriginal musician and arguably the best protest album ever made in Australia”.

There have been many brilliant records made by Aboriginal musicians since but with the exception of AB Original, none of them has produced such a sustained polemic, and only Archie Roach rivals him for poetic eloquence.

Born in 1946, Carmody grew up on the Darling Downs, west of Brisbane, born to an Aboriginal mother and Irish-Australian father. He is a member of the Stolen Generations, taken along with his brother from his parents when he was 10. Emerging from school illiterate, he now has a PhD in history and is a member of the Aria Hall of Fame.

His first public musical exposure was on the Murri Radio program of Brisbane community broadcaster 4ZZZ. His song Thou Shalt Not Steal, which brought him to national attention, contained the following portrait of black life in Brisbane:

Well Job and me and Jesus, sittin’ underneath that Indooroopilly bridge
Watching that blazin’ sun go down beneath the tall-treed mountain ridge
The land’s our heritage and spirit here, the rightful culture’s black
And we’re sitting here just wonderin’ – when we gonna get that land back?

What follows is a series of appreciations and reflections by other artists who have drawn inspiration from Carmody’s extraordinary debut, recorded when he was 42.

David Bridie

Not Drowning, Waving, My Friend the Chocolate Cake, solo artist

“I had to be reminded that Pillars Of Society was Kev Carmody’s debut album. It wasn’t like he was young when he made it. Here was a voice with oral history leanings and a street fighter attitude. It had as much to do with the Clash as Bob Dylan, but was way better, because this was an authentic Indigenous voice.

I was a young man when I heard it, and it schooled me. The lyrics are dense, the vocals passionate, he doesn’t waste a word. You can tell he was on a roll when he was writing it. It’d be very interesting to see the reaction if it was released today – it would have been lauded in the same way Briggs is; a refreshing voice that is not to be messed with.”

Briggs

AB Original, solo artist

“There were a few records around at the same time when I was researching, in my own way, what was going on in music in Australia. Kev Carmody was one, Archie Roach was another, Yothu Yindi. Pillars Of Society was part of the tapestry for me – one of the pillars of artistry that we could look to for how to share our stories. It’s like the foundation on which all these new and upcoming artists, and established artists like myself, get to live and breathe.”

Peter Garrett

Midnight Oil, former Labor Party minister

“This was a very powerful record by someone who’s the Aboriginal poet laureate of his time, and it’s as pungent and as stirring and as evocative and as absolutely ‘on’ today as it was when it was first written. The triumph is that Carmody could get it down in songs that were accessible, and the tragedy is that not enough of us have listened so far. It’s also about the power of art, even when the things that it’s writing about are still tearing people and communities apart.”

Almost everyone Guardian Australia spoke to, like Garrett, mentioned the ongoing relevance of the material. One song, Black Deaths In Custody, anticipated a royal commission into the issue – the findings of which have been largely ignored:

I say, show me the justice, to be had here in this land
Show us blacks the justice for every black human being
Show us blacks the justice, in this white democracy
When you can execute us without a trial while we’re held in custody

Paul Kelly was an early supporter of Carmody, with whom he later co-wrote From Little Things Big Things Grow, the story of the Gurindji uprising.

Paul Kelly

“Kev Carmody’s songs combine anger, humour, oral history, polemic, poetry and prayer. His body of work, spanning over 40 years, is one of Australia’s great cultural treasures. Cannot Buy My Soul [from Carmody’s second album, Eulogy (For A Black Person)] is a hymn that breathes with steely rage.”

Pillars Of Society has also inspired newer female artists, both white and Indigenous.

Missy Higgins

“Kev is one of the sweetest, most humble geniuses I know. Paul [Kelly] introduced me to his music years ago, and the first thing I thought when I listened to Pillars Of Society was “Whoa, how come I haven’t heard of this guy?” He’s one of the hidden treasures of the Australian music scene. Being a part of his tribute tour was a real career highlight for me.”

Caiti Baker

Sietta, solo artist, collaborator with AB Original

“I didn’t grow up on any Australian music, because my dad’s a hardcore blues fanatic, but I feel like if we were going to listen to any Australian music that album would have slotted in quite nicely, because it is really quite bluesy, and that genre really lends itself to the content that he’s talking about, which is sadly still on the forefront of this nation’s circumstances. It’s a great album that should be used in our school systems.”

Malcolm’s got a razor
And a jack-knife up his leg
He’s a friend of crooked Louis
Who can’t lay straight in bed
Life can be hard trackin’
When you’re runnin’ out on a twisted rail
I keep hoping that the mornin’ wind
Come blow my blues away
 – Twisted Rail

Emily Wurramara

“When I was in primary school [in Brisbane], I went to Zillmere state school, and our main theme song was From Little Things Big Things Grow. We sang that every Friday at assembly, which was awesome. Uncle Kev wrote a letter to the school, asking if we wanted to join him at Parliament House to sing it. And so the school choir went to the Parliament House and sang it. It was beautiful.

Then, when I was in grade nine, we were doing a project on Indigenous music, and we had to listen to that album because of the lyrics, [which were] gentle but confronting and powerful. To be able to capture that much authenticity in a song is so rare. It was beautiful to see an Aboriginal man capture that – it’s so inspiring as a young Indigenous woman to hear those songs and to be influenced in some way by the songwriter. His music is healing.”

First published in The Guardian, 15 September 2018

A mic drop on the nation

Archie Roach is normally the gentlest of our Indigenous protest singers. He writes songs of great moral force and clarity but his voice, even after the ravages of age and illness, is quiet and hymnal, giving his work a bittersweet quality that allows him to connect easily with a broad audience.

The song that introduced him to most Australians, Took The Children Away, remains the one for which he is most famous. Its opening lines are:

This story’s right, this story’s true
I would not tell lies to you.”

The song was released in 1990, when few of us knew about the stolen generations of Aboriginal children. Its impact was profound, on both Indigenous people, who finally heard their intergenerational trauma being articulated with such grace on a national stage, and on white Australia. By itself, it may not have precipitated the royal commission that produced the Bringing Them Home report, or then prime minister Kevin Rudd’s national apology in February 2008. But its resonance was crucial. Like Yothu Yindi’s Treaty, released the following year, it did what great protest songs do: it started a conversation.

Uncle Archie is an elder now and, on AB Original’s album from last year, Reclaim Australia – which won two Arias on Tuesday night – he brought his considerable gravitas to the album’s opening monologue. It is arresting because Roach recognises that being quiet doesn’t always cut through: not now and not when he marched with his people for land rights in the 1970s and 1980s.

Indeed, he boasts of bringing Melbourne to a standstill. “Because you had to be in their face,” he says. There’s a silence, then he repeats the words with greater emphasis: “You had to be in their face.”

AB Original’s song January 26, featuring Dan Sultan, has similar moral force to Took the Children Away but it is no hymn. Instead, Sultan’s soul vocal is offset by a caustic tirade from rappers Adam Briggs and his production partner, Trials (Daniel Rankine).

Hip-hop is the perfect modern vehicle for Aboriginal Australia’s tradition of oral history and, as Briggs pointed out to Guardian Australia yesterday, the only reason they could make this album now was because it still didn’t exist: “Australia didn’t have its Public Enemy … Australia didn’t get its NWA moment.”

The release of January 26 was that moment. The song is totally uncompromising in its directness – an Indigenous equivalent to Public Enemy’s anthem Fight The Power:

Fuck celebrating days made on misery
White Aus still got the black history
And that shirt’ll get you banned from the parliament
If you ain’t having the conversation, well then we’re starting it”

I’d call that more of a mic drop on the nation than the start of a conversation. You can try to argue with it if you want but good luck when Trials tells you that, to him, celebrating Australia Day on the anniversary of the First Fleet’s arrival is like pissing on his nan’s grave.

At any rate, when Triple J put the track on rotation last year, it connected, hitting #16 on the Hottest 100 – a music poll that is “traditionally” broadcast on 26 January.

It’s important to remember that it wasn’t always so. The original Hot 100 (a concept and name which had been used by Brisbane community radio station 4ZZZ since 1976) was first broadcast on Triple J on 5 March 1989 and didn’t settle on 26 January as the semi-official broadcast date until 1998 – only four years after the gazetting of that date as a national public holiday.

As former Triple J host Lindsay McDougall pointed out to Guardian Australia, “I’ve been coming to the Arias longer than the Hottest 100 has been on January 26.”

Triple J has been very careful with its language surrounding their decision to change the date of next year’s poll to 27 January. It acknowledges the national debate around changing the date of Australia Day itself, then says (quite reasonably, in my view) that the Hottest 100 shouldn’t be a part of that debate.

After putting it to an online survey, in which 60 percent of respondents opted to move the broadcast, it concluded simply that it should be held on a day “when everyone can celebrate together”.

It’s clear that Triple J is mindful of the difficult political climate in which it is operating and doesn’t want to be drawn into culture wars around the issue. But it needs to hold firm in ignoring the views of the communications minister, Mitch Fifield, who in one breath accused the ABC of responding to the controversy surrounding Australia Day and in the next said there was nothing controversial about Australia Day. We all know Canberra is a bit of a bubble but surely Fifield has bigger problems to attend to.

What can’t be denied though – even if Triple J wasn’t mentioning it – was the impact of AB Original’s song.

The debate around moving the date of the Hottest 100 was well under way by the time of January 26’s release but the station would have known that playlisting the track would be like lobbing a grenade into the discussion. “People always ask us whether we dropped it [January 26] on purpose because we felt it coming or something,” Trials said on Tuesday. “But these are all very old issues, it’s all old hat.”

Still, it’s impossible not to see the track as a crucial intervention. It certainly was a hit with announcers: last week at the J awards, Reclaim Australia was named the station’s album of the year.

More importantly, the song reached a huge proportion of the station’s young audience, giving them a history lesson they mostly won’t have been taught in schools, in a language that they understood and wouldn’t quickly forget. Other than to those who seek to rewrite white Australia’s black history, its story is right and true. And it’s in your face. Because it has to be.

First published in The Guardian, 29 November 2017

Jen Cloher: Jen Cloher review

There’s an old, inconclusively attributed aphorism that talent borrows and genius steals. Genius is a word used far too loosely, particularly in the arts, but there’s no doubting this: Melbourne singer–songwriter Jen Cloher is a thief of the highest order. Or this: that her fourth, self-titled album is a work of real brilliance, a brave, ambitious and moving follow-up to 2013’s outstanding In Blood Memory.

Cloher is, as anyone paying attention to these things knows, Courtney Barnett’s partner. We can’t ignore the elephant in the room, because Barnett’s guitar playing is a key component of Cloher’s band, and the pair have already written extensively both with and about each other. They are, however, completely different stylists. Where Barnett will use 300 words per song, Cloher might use 30 and be equally profound.

Cloher has stated the lyrics are crucial to understanding this record, and the melodies and song structures are secondary. On one hand, this is true – but it also sells the music, and her incredible band, somewhat short.

But let’s get back to Cloher’s light-fingered tendencies. On the opening track here, Forgot Myself – a song about what happens when you lose sight of your own needs in service of your lover’s – she quotes one of rock’s totemic songs, Satisfaction: “You’re riding around the world / You’re doing this and signing that … I’m driving in my car / Your song comes on the radio / And I remember what I always forget – loneliness.”

In between, Barnett – clearly the subject of the song’s helpless devotion – bends a repeated two-note refrain that bottles up both the song and Cloher’s frustration, creating an explosive push–pull tension. Throughout the album, Cloher’s combination of envy and admiration at seeing her younger partner shoot past her to global fame is expressed with extraordinary emotional candour.

The thieving doesn’t stop there. “I don’t wanna / I don’t think so,” she murmurs on Kinda Biblical, a lift from Sonic Youth’s Kool Thing. It’s a songwriting trick Cloher frequently played on In Blood Memory, too. Both albums are stuffed with instantly recognisable references to rock history that have shaped this otherwise idiosyncratic talent’s worldview. But Cloher has developed a style that’s entirely her own.

The themes of the album are physical and emotional distance. Cloher takes direct inspiration from the Triffids, specifically their 1986 album Born Sandy Devotional, to paint her own vast landscape of Australia circa 2017 through the fish-eye lens of her relationship. The brushstrokes are broad, but Cloher has a poet’s eye for telling, tiny details and the musical ear of a life spent wallowing in the finest rock & roll.

The Triffids’ connection is made explicit on Great Australian Bite, a nod to Australian artists who had to leave home to find an audience: the tyranny of distance is what proves our own existence to ourselves. But, as the late David McComb once observed, we’re on stolen property: “Let’s hope Uncle Archie [Roach] can pay the rent,” Cloher says.

Like McComb, Cloher has developed a facility for lyrics so evocative that they could only have come from here. Regional Echo ghosts in on a shimmering Bones Sloane bassline and slowly expands into a sound grand enough to fill a cathedral, with an unsettling Christ-like metaphor to match: “Bat swaying on the power lines / Wings open in surrender, this is how you die.”

It’s followed by Sensory Memory, an almost unbearably intimate portrait of domestic discord following a lengthy separation. A breakfast of tea for two and soldier toast masks the tension “Of the things we never say / Distance has a funny way of slowly making you someone that I don’t know.” Barnett’s guitar elaborates on an exquisite vocal melody, spiralling over and around drummer Jen Sholakis’s martial rhythm.

On Analysis Paralysis, Sholakis is superbly nuanced as she and Sloane lock into cruise control for seven minutes. Here, the motorik groove and Barnett’s deceptively aimless noodling captures our national stasis over same-sex marriage: “I pay my fines, taxes on time / But the feral right get to decide / If I can have a wife. If I can have a wife?” The question is repeated and left hanging, shot through with disbelief.

Then there’s Shoegazing, which sounds like Patti Smith fronting the Rolling Stones – a sexy mid-paced swagger with a venomous bite: “Most critics are pussies who wanna look cool / Those who can they do, those who can’t review / What’s hot today is forgotten tomorrow / All that you’ve got is your joy and your sorrow.” (Hey, it’s a fair cop.)

Strong Woman, meanwhile, is the kind of song PJ Harvey hasn’t written since Rid of Me: all knotted guitars and bolts of feedback, driven at a tearaway tempo by Sholakis. Cloher touches on her childhood – of gender indeterminacy and discovering her sexuality – and finishes by paying tribute to her late mother, casting her as a Maori warrior: “Kia kaha, be proud, stay strong, go on.”

This is a more challenging album than In Blood Memory, which was brief at 33 minutes and seven songs. At 50 minutes, more is demanded of the listener this time around, and the songs take longer to stick. The rewards, though, are deeper. It’s a less visceral, more subtly hued record: the band can billow big clouds of noise, or hold back as the song demands. Nothing is wasted; everything is played for effect.

It finishes with just Cloher and a few plucked acoustic guitar notes on Dark Art. It is the simplest and saddest of love songs, and beautiful in its selflessness. “The other side of love’s joy is shadow / Jealousy, fear, loss, anger, sorrow / If you never stay to sit in love’s shadow / A part of you will always be hollow.” Cloher, though, has surely sat in her love’s shadow long enough. This album is a masterpiece.

First published in The Guardian, 11 August 2017

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