DOWN TO THE SEA
A new book and CD chart the life and work of a singular Torres Strait troubadour, writes Nicolas Rothwell
IT was midmorning in mid-January 1999 when the phone rang in Seaman Dan’s home on Horn Island, close by the waters of the Torres Strait. A friend was on the line, a local musician, with strange news. There was an academic researcher in town on nearby Thursday Island, looking for indigenous performers to interview.
And Seaman was still playing his music and singing, from time to time, at family house parties and in the old TI hotels: would he come over for a talk? ‘‘ Well,’’ said Seaman, who was doing his laundry that morning and prefers to take life at an even pace, ‘‘ I’m a bit tied up, I’ll come over tomorrow’’, and so he did, and met that most unusual musical impresario, Central Queensland University’s Karl Neuenfeldt. The two men spoke and took each other’s measure. Seaman borrowed Neuenfeldt’s guitar, tuned it, and sang a handful of his songs.
At lunchtime they repaired to the Grand Hotel, where almost every story of importance in the Torres Strait begins. ‘‘ You know,’’ said Neuenfeldt in his downbeat mid-Canadian way, ‘‘ you have a nice voice. Would you like to make a recording?’’ Seaman remembers: ‘‘ I put my knife and fork down, took my hanky out, wiped my brow. And I thought to myself, this is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for, for a long time. I grabbed it with both hands and I said, yes please.’’
At the outset of this all-transforming friendship, Henry ‘‘ Seaman’’ Dan was closing in on his 70th birthday and had already packed a fair bit into his life. He was born on Thursday Island into a large, enfolding family and a fast-changing frontier society. He spent his happy childhood years there, went to the convent school, saw movies from the stalls in the open-air cinema and watched his uncles coming back from their hard spells out at sea. But by the age of 11, he and his family had moved on to Cape York, to little, tranquil Coen, and he was already attached to the local station, working, droving cattle down the peninsula’s long, dusty tracks.
At 18 he was back on TI, and on the water, crewing for his uncle’s pearling lugger. Soon the day came for him to make his first dive to