Variously described as the ‘Johnny Cash’ or ’Tom Waits’ of indigenous music, Frank Yamma is a featured guest at this year’s Queenscliff Music Festival. Recorded over two weeks last spring with production by Not Drowning Waving’s Tim Cole and David Bridie, Countryman is a collection of a lifetime of music for Yamma himself and a proud moment for the Wantok Musik, a new music label focusing on the unique music of the Australasian region.
The Milk Bar’s Paul Andrew spoke with David Bridie and Frank Yamma as they pack plectrums and tighten guitar strings in preparation for this year’s festival.
David – what is the philosophy behind Wantok Musik?
Wantok was established by a collective of Melanesian and indigenous Australian musicians interested in promoting recordings by cultural music artists in PNG, Vanuatu, Solomons, West Papua and Indigenous Australia.
How did it all begin?
It began with a meeting between Airi Ingram (Grrlllla Step), Lou Bennett (ex Tiddas, Sweet Cheeks) and me. We’ve already released a bunch of CD’s, toured with Sing Sing and Telek as well as run projects like the Harmoni Musik Project in PNG, recording songs written about HIV with youth from the province.
There has been so much popular interest in Aboriginal art and dance during recent years, do you think this interest is crossing over into indigenous music too?
Music is an art form that blakfellas in Australia and Melanesians are naturally drawn towards, and it’s a means by which they create and express their culture. Music works in similar ways to art – people like to listen to it, have it in their living rooms, learn from it and let it take them into a different space.
Is there a collective awakening to aboriginal heritage, spirituality, culture and wisdom?
You don’t live through 60,000 years without having many wise practitioners and beliefs. I think we are slowly realising this, the West is getting a little tired with consumerism. Some people are taking the blinkers off and looking further away, and in this case further away means right on our doorstep. PNG is fifteen kilometers from Torres Strait, Vanuatu is a ninety-minute flight from Brisbane.
Wantok’s new CD releases?
Frank Yamma and George Telek are the first two releases on the Wantok Label. Frank is an amazing singer-songwriter who – on this stripped back CD, with economy of phrasing – manages to nail the contradictions of being a traditional aboriginal man living on the streets of cities. He has a deadly voice and a sense of melody and chords that is really strong. He is like a blakfella Johnny Cash. George Telek is a legend in PNG, a much acclaimed artist who has toured the world and worked with both rock music, Tolais music and string band music from PNG.
Frank has also been described as an “Aboriginal Tom Waits”, what are your feelings about monikers like this?
Hey, all monikers are problematic. Tom Waits creates mood, writes words you want to listen to and is a fascinating artist-ain’t different- a bit like Frank in all those regards.
Frank is well known to indigenous communities, is Countryman his cross over album?
I hope it will be. By playing at festivals like Queenscliff and getting the reviews it has already received we are hoping that this will be a crossover CD for Frank.
Frank Yamma, you are a Pitjantjatjara man from the central desert, tell me something about your family, your forebears.
My father Isaac was a renowned songman and helped to start up CAAMA (Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association). My mob are from near the border of WA, SA and NT. Western Desert mob -very strong, big stories- Songs are our law. I followed in my father’s footsteps.
Tell me about your homeland?
Big skies, climbing up rocky hills, going bush. Singing ’By the Rivers of Babylon’ by Boney M on stage when I was seven.
Tell me something about storytelling from Pitjantjatjara?
It’s about country, but we write love songs too. Buna Lawrie, Bart Willoughby, they’re my countrymen too.
What is your fondest memory of song making you happy?
Listening to Dad’s songs. I wrote ‘Make More Spear’ which is on the Countryman CD when I was a late teenager. I remember playing it and thinking people will connect with this song. It was then I knew this is what I wanted to do.
Countryman- what did you love about recording this album?
Being in Taralga near Goulburn in the old farmhouse with all the microphones, good walks and good food, a couple of nights in the country pub. Just singing and playing all day and night and having to get rid of the flies buzzing in the quiet songs
“She Cried”- it’s such a magic song.
It’s about a woman in trouble, a friend of mine. Too many blakfellas living on the streets of Alice or Adelaide losing culture, drinking too much, having no money, no one looking after them.
You sing about cultural degradation and disrespect for aboriginal culture too.
You don’t have to lose the culture …whether it be language or song or beliefs to follow modern ways. It’s not either or. Ours is the oldest culture and it was here before you mob came, long time before. It is something to be valued.
What do you hope audiences sense when you sing at this year’s Queenscliff Music Festival?
Happy sad, look to the skies.