DOWN TO THE SEA

A new book and CD chart the life and work of a sin­gu­lar Tor­res Strait trou­ba­dour, writes Ni­co­las Roth­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - By Henry Sea­man’ Dan and Karl Neuen­feldt Bound with CD, Still on Deck Abo­rig­i­nal Stud­ies Press, 170pp, $40

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

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