October 2017

The Nation Reviewed

On a mission

By Zoë Morrison
Reviving a century of Indigenous music through the Mission Songs Project

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 lock-up, 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.

Zoë Morrison

Zoë Morrison is the author of the novel Music and Freedom.

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