On a mis­sion

The Monthly (Australia) - - THE NATION REVIEWED - ZOË MOR­RI­SON

Alma Geia used to tell a funny story that went some­thing like this: On the Palm Is­land mis­sion in Queens­land, the Abo­rig­i­nal kids were asked to do the cater­ing for a vis­it­ing dig­ni­tary and his wife. They de­cided on damper or scones, but they ac­ci­den­tally burnt them, so they threw them out the win­dow. The next batch turned out to be too hard, so they threw those out the win­dow, too. The third batch was too doughy … also out the win­dow. What they didn’t know was that stand­ing next to the win­dow was a horse, eat­ing it all. And, wow, did its guts get tight! Along with the story came a song, ‘Down in the Kitchen’. “Down in the kitchen where we all eat / Potato and pump­kins some­times some meat / Tea is so wa­tery no su­gar at all / Damper is doughy stick to my ribs / stick to my ribs / stick to my ribs.”

The singer and sto­ry­teller was the grand­mother of Jessie Lloyd, mu­si­cian and cre­ator of the Mis­sion Songs Pro­ject, an ini­tia­tive to re­vive con­tem­po­rary Indige­nous songs from 1900 to 1999. The songs orig­i­nate from the mis­sions and re­serves to which Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple were taken un­der acts of par­lia­ment. There they were re­stricted from prac­tis­ing cul­ture and talk­ing lan­guage. Lloyd, orig­i­nally from north Queens­land, was cu­ri­ous about what those on mis­sions and re­serves were singing, the mu­si­cal in­flu­ences they were ex­plor­ing, and how they were ex­press­ing them­selves.

Mu­sic was of­ten only ac­cessed at church, so one of Lloyd’s ques­tions dur­ing a three-month col­lec­tion trip around Aus­tralia was: What were peo­ple singing after church? Peo­ple usu­ally had to think about it; they weren’t used to be­ing asked. This is a genre of Aus­tralian mu­sic that has re­ceived lit­tle recog­ni­tion or ex­ter­nal value. Pro­fes­sor Marcia Lang­ton, an ad­viser to the pro­ject, said Lloyd’s work is “a pro­foundly im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion to our nation and mu­sic”. Lloyd says it proves there was a con­tin­u­a­tion of song tra­di­tions. “We sing in English, we use Western in­stru­ments, but the pur­pose and meth­ods are still the same.”

Geia com­posed ‘Down in the Kitchen’ and would sing it at Christ­mas when all the fam­ily was to­gether. The song was al­ways her item at the Christ­mas con­cert. When Lloyd grew up she started “read­ing be­tween the lines”. Her grand­mother couldn’t cook, she ex­plains, be­cause she’d been taken from her fam­ily at the age of eight, in­sti­tu­tion­alised on the mis­sion, had worked as an in­den­tured house­maid, and was given ra­tions to eat (the amount var­ied as a form of pun­ish­ment and con­trol). Story and song are the way some older peo­ple “pro­cessed things”, says Lloyd. “They’ve got to tell a funny story about it.”

In the notes ac­com­pa­ny­ing the Mis­sion Songs Pro­ject al­bum, ‘Down in the Kitchen’ is de­scribed as “in­no­cent” and “com­ing from the chil­dren’s dor­mi­to­ries”. An in­tro­duc­tion by solo gui­tar evokes the sin­gle voice of a sto­ry­teller, then sev­eral voices be­gin, some­times in uni­son, some­times in har­mony. (Lloyd har­monised all the Mis­sion Songs Pro­ject songs in a style in­flu­enced by her fam­ily; her mother worked for the church in dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try.) The song has a re­laxed waltz rhythm. Ac­com­pa­nied by ukulele, acous­tic gui­tar and dou­ble bass, a pedal steel gui­tar pro­vides a sense of its his­tor­i­cal era. The only hint of the hor­rors al­luded to in the mu­sic is the slow­ing rep­e­ti­tion of “stick to my ribs”. But that might also be a good way of spin­ning out the punch­line. In the song’s warmth, ac­ces­si­bil­ity and per­for­mance con­text (a fam­ily get-to­gether), the com­poser’s love and re­spon­si­bil­ity for her fam­ily and cul­ture are ev­i­dent. Here is truth-telling about his­tory – a nation’s as well as a fam­ily’s – that ev­ery­one can par­tic­i­pate in, in­clud­ing chil­dren.

As part of the Mis­sion Songs Pro­ject, Lloyd is work­ing on a song­book for schools and com­mu­nity choirs. She would like the songs to be sung for another 100 years. In con­certs, she “tries to make the au­di­ence feel wel­come, not do a guilt trip or any­thing. I try and be jovial. Then peo­ple will be in a com­fort­able state to hear what’s go­ing on.”

She doesn’t per­form ‘The Irex’ un­til the sec­ond half. The song is named after a boat that took Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­ders to Palm Is­land after they were forcibly re­moved from main­land set­tle­ments.

Geia didn’t tell her story about be­ing taken there un­til she was an old lady. She was orig­i­nally from the bush near Cook­town and knew that, when the po­lice came, she and her four sib­lings had to hide. The day she was taken, Geia hid with her six-year-old sis­ter, but their lit­tle brother, a tod­dler, didn’t know what to do and the po­lice got him. The sis­ters came out and said, “Take us in­stead.” They were taken on horse­back, put on a train to Cairns, then Townsville where they were held in a lockup, and then sent to Palm Is­land on the Irex. The first time Geia saw her mother again was at her wed­ding to mu­si­cian Al­bert (Al­bie) Edward Geia. He led the 1957 strike on Palm Is­land, protest­ing against the in­hu­mane liv­ing con­di­tions. When the strik­ers were ar­rested, hand­cuffed, put on a boat back to Townsville at gun­point and tied to the mast, they were singing the whole time, “be­ing re­ally happy and singing with big voices”.

“When the Irex sails away / Across the sea / Leav­ing me / So far away / And all my thoughts / Will be of you / So farewell / Till we meet again.” The song’s dip­ping, soar­ing melody is light­ened by the strum of a ukulele. South Pa­cific in­flu­ences shine through its in­stru­men­ta­tion. The com­poser is un­known; the song has trav­elled; fam­i­lies change the name of the boat. But Lloyd says the sense and pur­pose of the song re­mains: “how to deal with be­ing re­moved”, “en­abling peo­ple to process through song what was hap­pen­ing”. You wished your loved ones well; you wished to see them again.

When Lloyd per­forms ‘The Irex’, peo­ple cry, both Abo­rig­i­nal and non-Abo­rig­i­nal. “It’s a very im­por­tant mo­ment that I try to cre­ate with my­self and the au­di­ence … I try not to make it an us-and-them. This is our shared his­tory. We are brave enough to ac­cept our his­tory and take part in own­ing this his­tory to­gether.”

In another per­for­mance pro­ject, The Three Song­women, Lloyd moves on, partly, from songs of the last cen­tury. With De­line Briscoe and Emma Dono­van, she

sings con­tem­po­rary songs with soul, R’n’B, coun­try, reg­gae and gospel in­flu­ences, many of which the women have com­posed them­selves.

Lloyd, Briscoe and Dono­van are all from well-known Abo­rig­i­nal mu­si­cal fam­i­lies. They have been per­form­ing and com­pos­ing since they were teenagers, and are each renowned in their own right. Their pres­ence on­stage is re­laxed, un­pre­ten­tious and joy­ful, and the sig­nif­i­cance of what they’re do­ing is clear. Dur­ing a song that Dono­van wrote about hear­ing her de­ceased grand­fa­ther walk­ing out­side at night, the au­di­ence doesn’t move, it al­most doesn’t breathe. Be­tween songs, the women yarn about things such as what it’s like as an Abo­rig­i­nal singer be­ing asked to per­form the Aus­tralian na­tional an­them (and re­fus­ing), what it’s like to be an Abo­rig­i­nal mu­si­cian and told your mu­sic “isn’t black enough”, and what it means to be a “song­woman”. Lloyd is mas­ter­ful on stage: wel­com­ing, funny and ex­ud­ing in­tel­li­gent lead­er­ship.

It is to­wards the end of the show that they per­form ‘Down in the Kitchen’. The au­di­ence sways in time (it’s dif­fi­cult not to, the way Lloyd strums a gui­tar). When they get to “stick to my ribs”, Briscoe points to hers slowly. Now ev­ery­one’s laugh­ing. Then the mu­si­cians segue into one of Lloyd’s orig­i­nal com­po­si­tions, ‘Gub­berdee’ (as in a cup of tea: “I’ll have a gub­berdee”). The strum­ming gets re­ally fast, the women rip into the song, which is punchy, bluesy, funny. “I like my man like I like my tea / Strong, black and tall / I like my tea like I like my man / white and sweet [or white and weak; the riffs vary] … Gub­berdee!” By the end, ev­ery­one’s in stitches.

“Indige­nous cul­ture,” Lloyd says at one point, “is not an arte­fact on a shelf. It’s a liv­ing cul­ture.” An un­ac­com­pa­nied ver­sion of ‘The Irex’ in three-part har­mony fin­ishes the show. For the first time that night the women stand to sing; they stand close to one another. The au­di­ence is still, lis­ten­ing.

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