Folk

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music Reviews - Stephen Fitz­patrick

The Songs Back Home Mis­sion Songs Project Mis­sion Songs Project In­dige­nous per­former and com­poser Jessie Lloyd has spent the past decade un­cov­er­ing songs from 20th-cen­tury Abo­rig­i­nal mis­sions and set­tle­ments, and in the process laid out a slice of Aus­tralia barely known out­side the trou­bled ge­og­ra­phy of those places. The mis­sions — prod­ucts of church and state — were sites of both misery and joy, and each is ex­pressed in this mu­sic.

Lloyd’s cu­rios­ity was piqued when she heard fam­ily mem­bers singing The Irex, a lament named af­ter the boat that trans­ported peo­ple to Palm Is­land, the in­dige­nous prison com­mu­nity from where her own lin­eage in part de­rives (her fa­ther is the leg­endary mu­si­cian Joe Geia, com­poser of un­of­fi­cial Abo­rig­i­nal an­them Yil Lull).

Lloyd’s in­ter­est grew once she re­alised there must be other fam­i­lies with sim­i­lar songs of life grow­ing up on the mis­sions, and that much of this mu­sic was con­nected: as peo­ple trav­elled from place to place, they took the tunes and sto­ries with them. “There’s a church in­flu­ence too,” she says. “Back in the day peo­ple didn’t have much ac­cess to mu­sic, but on Sun­days ev­ery­one was singing, so that would have been a pretty im­por­tant and ex­cit­ing time, not nec­es­sar­ily to go to church or for re­li­gious rea­sons, but be­cause they all got to sing and hear mu­sic. That’s where a lot of the kids with the mis­sion­ar­ies and the nuns, that’s where they in­tro­duced them to in­stru­ments, and learned how to play, learned how to sing.”

An­thro­pol­o­gist Mar­cia Lang­ton, who was an ad­viser on the project, writes in the liner notes that its songs “are records of our his­tory” and calls Lloyd’s re­search “a pro­foundly im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion to our na­tion and mu­sic”.

That makes it sound deadly se­ri­ous, which it is, but it’s also pro­foundly mov­ing. Each song is recorded in a sin­gle take around a sin­gle mi­cro­phone, a de­lib­er­ate de­ci­sion Lloyd says was prompted by want­ing “to cre­ate the sound of black­fel­las in the backyard hav­ing a jam, that feel­ing of how we all would’ve come to­gether, some­one would just chuck a har­mony in there, just pick up a gui­tar, so it just really cre­ated a nice warmth like peo­ple have just walked in and they’re just singing for you”.

Archie Roach is a col­lab­o­ra­tor and con­trib­utes a song, Hop­kins River, from the Fram­ling­ham mis­sion in Vic­to­ria from where he was stolen as a boy, the cir­cum­stance that led years later to his clas­sic Took the Chil­dren Away.

Al­bie Geia’s Own Na­tive Land, the ex­tra­or­di­nary Out­cast Half-Caste (“I’m just an out­cast and a half-caste in this town / there’s a tribe that doesn’t want me and the white man turns me down”) by Micko Dono­van and Mary Der­oux, Eric Craigie’s protest song of dis­pos­ses­sion, Mid­dle Camp, the Tor­res Strait Kriol-lan­guage Sur­rare, the tra­di­tional Maori farewell Now is the Hour; these also stand out, but really, the en­tire col­lec­tion is sub­lime.

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