Archive for June, 2013|Monthly archive page

Navigating cross-cultural worlds in songwriting

Working creatively within a different cultural environment to your own can be many things – intriguing, inspiring, surprising, and provoking are just a few words that come to mind. As a project leader, you can’t predict all the responses, or the challenges that might arise. I think that’s why I am attracted to these kinds of projects. I like the creative immediacy of thinking on your feet, and being surprised by unexpected turns. This story is about a song that provoked such turns.

In the community school of One Arm Point, the  ‘maps of the heart’ drawn by students on the first day suggested that culture and cultural learning were important parts of the children’s lives. Their maps included particular skills (such as spearing fish, or knowing the local language of the Bardi Jaawi), as well as the lore and laws of the traditional society, which, they explained, were often taught through stories.

Songwriting moments, One Arm Point school (G. Howell)

We loved the song we wrote! It was dramatic, it had flair and punch, and it described a situation that the children spoke about with great eagerness. It felt like it had strong currency for them and therefore for the community. We completed it the day before our concert, and sang through it several times to start committing the lyrics to memory.

When we arrived at the school the next morning, the day of the concert, several concerned faces greeted us. “I sang the song to my mum yesterday, and she said it wasn’t appropriate,” said one of the girls.

“We’re not allowed to sing that song,” others confirmed, looking anxious. “I don’t want to sing it,” another stated emphatically. I got the sense that their song had caused quite a bit of discussion in their homes. “Maybe we can change some of the words,” I suggested, looking at the lyrics on the whiteboard. But the children still looked uncomfortable, so I went to seek further advice.

In remote community schools, there are Aboriginal Teaching Assistants employed as well as teachers. Some of the teachers are also Aboriginal. I asked the principal if there was a community elder among the staff who could advise us on the best thing to do. He directed me towards two women on the teaching staff who came to the music room to see the lyrics of the song. I watched as they read the words, exchanging glances with each other but not saying anything until they had read everything and had time to think.

“Yes… I can see why there are concerns,” said one of the teachers.

“It’s a good song,” said the other. “But it wouldn’t be okay for the children to sing it.”

“Is it possible just to change some words?” I asked.

“No, it would be better to find a new story,” the teacher replied. “Maybe you could use one of the stories from the ‘Our World’ book, because they are already published, so have approval.”
Our World‘Our World’ is a beautiful book, created by the children and Cultural Program teaching staff at One Arm Point. It describes community life at One Arm Point – called Ardiyooloon in the local language – and all the traditional cultural skills and knowledge that the children develop in the Culture Program. Fortunately, I’d bought myself a copy of this book in the local shop the day before. Even more fortunately, it was in the car! I ran to get it, and the teacher-elders looked through it, and suggested one of the stories that we could use as an alternative.

I decided not to get started on writing a new song straight away. This was our concert day, and we’d started it with a very unsettling problem to solve that had distracted the children and disrupted the positive, excited momentum that is an important part of working towards a performance in a short project like this. We began our workshop with one of our familiar warm-up games, aiming to shift the slightly gloomy, deflated cloud that was hanging over lots of people’s heads, then we rehearsed one of our other performance pieces and recorded it.

The elders then returned, with the one of the community’s most senior decision-makers and elders. He too read the song lyrics, then without making comment, looked at the ‘Our World’ book. He turned some pages, discussed with the two teachers, and they then turned to me and said, “This is a good story to base the song on.”

The story they suggested was a different one again, about Kangaroo and Hermit Crab having a race, which Kangaroo is confident he will win. It is very like the Aesop Fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, but with a small twist, because Hermit Crab plays a trick on Kangaroo in order to win the race.

This was clearly a safe option! We thanked the elders for their help in solving this challenge, and set about creating the new song. We split into two groups. One group went off with Tony to play guitar (writing lyrics can be a slow and painstaking process and isn’t everyone’s cup of tea), and a small group stayed with me to figure out how to retell this new story in the structure and melody of the original song.

Here’s what we came up with (red words are verse 1, black/blue words are verse 2, and the audio of the song is on the Soundcloud player below):

New song lyrics, conert day, One Arm Point (G. Howell)

I am not going to share the lyrics of the original song. It is not my story to share. This is something that became very clear in our discussions with the children, the elders, and others in the community later on. Stories may be heard, but hearing a story does not mean you are the right person to re-tell that story. The story in our original song was one that the children knew a lot about, but it wasn’t a story for children. It wasn’t appropriate that they should sing about this story, nor was it acceptable for them to sing it in a public concert. Moreover, children are given stories. The stories are passed on to them according to traditions or decisions or community/adult choices that are underpinned by thinking that we, as outsiders to the community, are not party to, and should not make assumptions about.

We performed our new song at the concert that afternoon. It was received extremely well. The children listening recognised the story (and I introduced it as coming from the ‘Our World’ book). We taught the audience our two-part chorus and invited them to sing with us.

Walking back to school after the concert with the music group, I asked one of them if she was happy with the concert. “Yes,” she said. “I liked all of it. And I liked the new song. I think it’s better than the first one we wrote.”

That’s an ideal outcome. I think all the children felt safer with the new lyrics. No-one had seemed uncomfortable with the original song the previous day when we’d composed it. But they were happier to sing the new song. For Tony and I, it was the opposite – we liked the original song better!

We were fortunate to have people in the school who were able to help us solve the problem quickly. It was also significant that we – Tony and I – are attuned to the challenges of working in cross-cultural situations. Like the experience of the burglary in East Timor, we instinctively handed the problem over to the community leaders to solve for us. We knew that we needed their advice and endorsement, and that they had the knowledge and authority to solve this quickly and calmly. There was no anger towards us – people knew we had not tried to provoke discussion about controversial things or inappropriate topics, that these had simply emerged through the openness and trust we had engendered in the workshops. Rather, it was approached as something that needed to be solved, and people stopped what they were doing that morning in order to help us solve it.

Culture is so much more than artefacts or tangible products. It is also about the way things are done. Our original song strayed into the wrong territory, and the community leaders were the right people to guide it back and ensure a positive, welcome outcome for everyone. Had it gone the other way, had we stood our ground and cajoled the children into singing the song that we thought was musically stronger, it would have undermined all sorts of trusts and authority. Firstly, we would have been putting the children in an uncomfortable, even untenable position. They had told us with their voices and their faces that the original song was no longer okay for them. We needed to respect this. And had we gone ahead with a performance of the original song, we would have been undermining, and positioning ourselves beyond or above, the authority of the community and its elders. This could have had far bigger repercussions for ourselves and Tura New Music who run these Remote Residencies each year. We might never have been allowed back!

Intangible culture, like the ways to solve problems, or the knowledge of where a boundary has been crossed, is part of the glue that keeps communities strong. Interestingly, this was a line that came up in our original song! When the structures that support the way that things are done get weakened, many other parts of that culture will also be weakened.

So the most imperative advice for an artist working in these kinds of settings is always “Ask. Don’t assume. And accept the advice and decisions of the elders”.

Maps of the heart

Yesterday was our first day at One Arm Point Remote Community School. We met 7 of the children who are going to be our main music composers for the Tura New Music Remote Residency project here. Everyone arrived at 8am. It’s natural for people to feel a bit shy coming into a workshop for the first time, wondering if they will like it, who else will be there, and what they will be asked to do, so we started with names and ice-breaker games, getting everyone relaxed, spontaneous and playful.

Early on, we learned that everyone was keen to play djembes, so we walked over to the storeroom in another building to collect one each and bring them back to our workshop space. We played rhythms around the circle, noting the inventive approaches that students demonstrated, such as incorporating hand-claps into their patterns.

It’s important to get some of the foundations of rhythm established early on, so we spent a bit of time working with regular cycles of beats, using numbers and subdivisions to focus everyone’s attention and to build unison patterns. This generated a cool rhythm that ended with the word “No!” on the 4th beat of each cycle.

Next we introduced some of the instruments we’d brought with us to share – chime bars (adding to two sets they already have in the school), and wah-wah tubes. People took turns to play these, and we built up another rhythmic pattern, this one anchored with a simple melody on the chime bars and accompanied by guitars. I am pretty sure that this music will end up being in our final concert – it all came together very quickly and smoothly.

Our main task was to decide what kind of themes we wanted to explore in our group compositions. To do this, I asked everyone to create a “map of the heart”. This is a drawing task in which each person draws a detailed ‘map’ (it can be in a heart-shape, or any shape they choose) that depicts all of the things that are most important to them in their life. The most important things take up the most space in the heart-map.

It’s a task that requires gentle facilitation and patience, because often, people aren’t sure how to start drawing their map. But with Tony and I offering questions and suggestions as prompts (“What do you love to do most?”; “Who do you like spending time with?”; “Is there anyone you miss, or think about a lot?”), the maps started to emerge.

I never make anyone share their map with others, or talk about the detail they have included if they don’t want to. Maps of the heart are personal, I reassure the students, and you can choose who you want to share them with. I want them to feel safe to include whatever they want in their maps. I encourage them to draw and use symbols, as well as words. Metaphor can be a powerful way to express something that is important to you that you don’t want to put into words.

As the maps reached completion, common themes across the group were revealed. I wrote some of the main themes on the whiteboard. We then voted for our favourite ideas. People could vote more than once – why not? The aim was to find the main points of resonance for the group, and then build our compositions on these.

What this process revealed was two broad themes – Future Dreams, and Culture, Language, & Country – into which all of the main Map Themes could be incorporated. If you look at the red and green arrows in the image below, you can see how this started to happen.

Theme brainstorm, One Arm Point

Our morning workshop included one further creative task. The tubs of instruments brought over to the workshop space by the teacher in charge included several recorders – a treble and 4 descants. We also had a set of 4 guitars. In the last part of the workshop, we divided into 2 groups – a guitar-learning group and a recorder-learning group. Tony took the guitarists outside to learn a couple of good ‘beginner’ chords (we like E minor), while I stayed inside to give a beginner recorder lesson. The students chose which instrument they wanted to play.

We spent about 40 minutes developing some initial skills and knowledge in the group, then got together to see what we had. And what do you know? The descant recorder notes fitted well with the first of the guitar chords, and the treble recorder notes (a fifth below, using the same fingerings) worked beautifully with the second of the guitar chords. So we jammed together awhile, getting used to the pattern of playing four repetitions, then stopping for four while the other group played, then playing again for four, then stopping for four. And so on.

Again, we have the foundations of a group composition here already.

It was a very productive and organically-flowing morning workshop. We talked to the students about the goal of presenting our music in a community concert on Wednesday afternoon. “But Gillian, what will happen if we’re not ready by Wednesday?” asked one of the younger girls as she left. “We’ll be ready,” I reassured her. “It seems a lot – and it is – but we’ll be ready. Don’t worry about that!”

The 2013 Tura New Music Remote Residency program will be at One Arm Point Remote Community School until Wednesday 26 June, thanks to sponsorship from Healthway SmokeFree WA, and Horizon Power.

Musicians in the community

We have been made very welcome here in Djarindjin-Lombadina, a small and remote Aboriginal community on the Dampier Peninsula in Western Australia. It’s a beautiful part of the world, quite remote as it is only connected to Broome by 200km of unsealed, sandy road. There are two little shops, selling a small range of groceries and fishing gear. There is lots of green grass and many handsome trees.

On Saturday evening we took part in a community jam in the school hall with a couple of musicians from the Aboriginal community, three of the teachers (a pianist, a percussionist, and a singer-guitarist), and a crowd of kids. We jammed on various popular hits (Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison, Michael Jackson – those universal classics). We also played around with a 12-bar blues, inventing lyrics, getting the kids to sing, taking turns with the microphone.

The jam group

Saturday night Jam, Djarindjin-Lombadina (Gillian Howell)

It was a magic evening. I gave my camera to the children and they took photo after photo of themselves, doing hip poses and pulling silly faces. Lots of photos!

Posing for the camera, Djarindjin-LombadinaLittle boy Djarindjin-Lombadina

Where's the drummer gone?I asked one little girl to take a photo of the drummer for me. She came back with this photo, showing it to me on the screen at the back of the camera. “But where’s Willie?” I asked, showing her the photo. And she looked at it again and started giggling. I think Willie must have decided to duck down when she took the photo. She would have been standing in front of him for a while, taking care to set up her photo. Such a teaser! Yep. It was a fun night.

Apparently, this is the first time that this kind of music-making has taken place between the teacher community and the indigenous community, and the teachers were so, so pleased. I don’t know that we can take credit for it happening, due to our presence or influence – I have the impression that the local elders were already planning to have a bit of a jam around now, because they have a gig coming up next week. I think we were just very lucky that it happened on our first weekend. It was a wonderful way to get to know some of the children and just hang out. Music provides the meeting ground. We build rapport and some shared experiences, and hopefully we’ll be able to extend these when our project starts in earnest next week.

In any case, being musicians in a community isn’t just about working with the kids. It’s about contributing wherever we can or wherever it is wanted. We went along to Mass this morning (the school is a Catholic school, and the mission is an old Catholic mission, so those traditions are still maintained in the community) and played music for the start of the service. Neither of us are regular mass-goers, but it is an authentic and appreciated way for us to contribute to community life. It’s a very beautiful church, by the way. It has a roof thatch made from paperbark – one of the only remaining examples of this style – and it is 100 years old.

Lombadina paperbark church (Gillian Howell)

We have also talked with the teachers about their musical interests, and there are ways that we may be able to support the music projects that are part of their non-teaching lives here in Lombadina. At this stage, it is looking like the 12-bar blues could feature strongly in our end-of-residency concert, with solos for each teacher and a song created by the kids.

St Mary’s College, Broome

St Mary's College BroomeAt St Mary’s College we asked the participants (all members of the primary school choir) what they’d like to write a song about. I wrote all their suggestions on the board and put it to a vote. During the voting process we realised that themes like “Broome’s multicultural mob”, “Broome culture”, “the Common Gate” [a part of Broome’s history from the time when the Aboriginal people were restricted from entering the town centre], and “Pearling industry” could all be incorporated into a song about community and history. We organised the different broad ideas into verses, chorus, and bridge, and assigned smaller groups the task of writing lyrics for one of these.

The choir divided into four lyric-writing groups – 2 groups for verses, one for the chorus, and one for the bridge. Tony and I moved from group to group, asking questions and helping them develop sentences. I asked them to start with sentences first (rather than trying to fashion their ideas into full-realised verses, and risk getting blocked or stuck too early on),and then we sculpted the sentences into verses, adding words or removing them to make each phrase scan and fit with the melodies that were evolving as we went.

Here’s what they wrote:

The Europeans came to Australia and messed with the Aboriginal law

They started big wars, families were divided

It was a very bad and awful time…

We go to the beach to see the prints

Of the dinosaurs from long ago

The landscape that it used to be is now Chinatown – busy and free!

Brand new faces from different places – My home, Broome

Brand new faces from different places – My home, Broome

Japanese worked their breath away

Lifting pearl shells everyday

People came from all over the world

And now we’re stronger in every way

Broome’s become a place for people to stay.

We celebrate, we live the life

We stand as one, side by side

We look at the ocean, we see the light

We gaze at the sun with everyone.

Brand new faces from different places – My home, Broome

Brand new faces from different places – My home, Broome

I’m Aboriginal – Spanish, Greek

I’m Aboriginal – German, Italian

I’m Aboriginal – Malaysian, Chinese,

I’m Aboriginal.

(Repeat chorus and fade out)

Lyric-writing groupsThe theme of Broome’s multicultural community arose because of the many different cultures represented in the choir population. There were several that didn’t get included in the song – Filipino, Indian, Maori, Japanese.

An interesting discussion emerged when the different lyric-writing groups came together to share what they’d written and set it to music. One or two people raised concerns about the accuracy of what had been written in the first verse, with regard to the idea of “laws”.

“You see, when the Europeans came to Australia, the Aboriginal people were just living in the bush,” explained one girl. “They didn’t have any laws.”

“Oh, they did have laws,” responded Tony. “It was a different system of laws, but they definitely had laws.”

“Laws don’t have to be rule-books,” I added. “Laws are really just about how a society organises itself so that it can live in harmony and everyone knows what’s expected of them. The Aboriginal people lived here in harmony for thousands and thousands of years. They must have had laws!”

At this point one of Aboriginal students in the group took up the argument, and spoke very emphatically. Firstly she stated, “It doesn’t matter if things are written down or not. They are still laws. You can just tell people the laws. They are still laws.” She went on to talk about the ways that the Aboriginal population suffered under the European systems and beliefs. “They judged everyone on the colours, the colours of the skin. And people whose skin was lighter were taken away. They were stolen, and they didn’t know their families or country after this.”

After this there was no more discussion about the first verse of the song. Later, the teachers expressed their interest in the conversation, and in the lyrics that were written. They said wryly that there would certainly be people in the Broome community who would take issue with the line, “it was a very bad and awful time”. Here in Australia, that is what is often called a “black arm band version of history” (ie. a version that focuses on negatives, rather than seeing the colonial era as a time of prosperity and important growth) – particularly by the previous Liberal-National Coalition government. I don’t hold with this view at all – colonial eras may have been prosperous times for some, but for the colonised, they were times of frequent brutality, force, coercion and extreme differences in power, when traditional ways of life were destroyed or hugely compromised and traditional knowledge and skills were undermined.

By the end of the day our song was ready to be recorded. In the recording we made on the portable Zoom H4n, you can hear the school bell ringing in the second-last chorus – we took it right up to the wire on this project!

Djarindjin-Lombadina remote community

Gillian and Tony on air at Goolarri Radio, BroomeThursday morning we did another media call, then checked out of the hotel and hit the supermarket, stocking up on supplies that we wouldn’t be able to buy in the remote community shops. Then we hit the road.

To get to the Dampier Peninsula drive to the outskirts of Broome, then turn left on Cape Leveque Road. This road is unsealed for most of the way, and was closed all of last week due to heavy rains (unseasonal rains – this is supposed to be the Dry Season). The road runs long and straight for kilometres at a time. Low scrub covers either side of the road.

Cape Leveque Road, out of Broome

We passed a few vehicles – this is not as remote as many other communities, and the road is quite well-trafficked. Still, I wouldn’t want to drive it every day. Thick soft red sand is the surface in some parts, and there were some sudden pot-hole surprises where the road surface had washed away. It’s not an easy drive and you can imagine it wouldn’t take much to roll your car if you weren’t familiar with the conditions, or taking things carefully.

Gum and paperbark church, LombadinaDjarindjin-Lombadina is a very pretty community. Lots of green grass and graceful, majestic white gum trees. The roads throughout the community are unsealed, and curve their way around the different dwellings. This was an old church mission, and the local church is made of paper-bark – one of the last remaining examples of its kind. It celebrated its 100-year anniversary last year.

We led a workshop on Friday morning with the senior class in the community school – students from years 7-10. It was a small group on Friday, around 8 kids, and after doing some rhythmic warm-up tasks we moved quickly onto the instruments for a jam. I’d brought a set of alto chime bars with me, and two members of the group used these to create some melodic material that acted as an ‘anchor’ for the improvisation.

School on Friday ends with a whole-school assembly, so this was the perfect chance for Tony and I to be introduced to everyone in the school. We played a short improvised duet on the clarinet and saxophone, demonstrating our instruments and the sorts of sounds they can make, as well as the idea of improvisation and creating our own music (which is the primary intention of these residencies). Then I taught a song to everyone, a spiritual that I learned quite recently. It has three parts – we learned the melody today, but I have plans to get the whole school singing in three parts by the end of our residency.

In the evening, some of the teachers from the school invited us to join them at the beach to watch the sunset. It’s a drive there over the dunes (if you look up Darindjin-Lombadina on Google maps you will see a whole lot of white stuff – that’s all the sand dunes that you have to cross to get to the beach). Sunsets are legendary in this part of the world. Every night it is an extraordinary display of colours, offset by shimmering ocean, so we joined the teachers in what appears to be a regular ritual of Friday night fishing (none of us caught anything, but it was a great way to watch the sunset) and star-gazing.

Residencies in the far north-west

I would be the first to say I have an enviable life in music. I work with new ideas in every workshop, alongside some fabulous musicians and inspiring first-timers, and spend lots of my days immersed in the buzz and intensity of creating new compositions. Occasionally I’m invited to lead this work in some pretty extraordinary parts of the world, a privilege I am always both thrilled and humbled to accept.

Camels heading home, Broome June 2013So please don’t hate me too much when I confess that I am writing this post to the hum of a ceiling fan, with an accompaniment of crickets, in a beautifully-appointed room in the Cable Beach Club Resort in Broome, in the far north-west of Australia. Earlier this evening I watched the sun set over beautiful Cable Beach, while a train of camels made its way up the road from the beach to wherever they bunk down for the night. Broome is almost the diagonal opposite point on the Australian continent from Melbourne, a world away in climate, environment, ambience and culture. I’m getting ready for workshops as part of Tura New Music’s 2013 Remote Residency project.

We kicked off today at St Mary’s College in Broome. I’m up here with Tony Hicks, versatile musician extraordinaire (Tony is regular collaborator – we’ve worked together on projects for the Australian Art Orchestra and also in Timor-Leste. He is my life partner so we tend to look out for opportunities to work together). I’ll write about this one-day workshop in more detail in my next post. We worked with the primary school choir, writing a song together. In the afternoon the year 10 rock band joined us and by the end of the day we’d created a new composition that the choir and band can perform together for Naidoc festivities in a few weeks time.

On Thursday (tomorrow) we head a bit further north and west to the Dampier Peninsula, where we will visit two remote communities and schools. The communities are a couple of hours away from Broome (and 30-60 minutes away from each other), along an unsealed road that was closed last week because of many days of unseasonal heavy rain. It’s been dry the last few days, and is expected to be fine for Thursday. We’ll spend a week in each community.

Gillian and Tony at ABC Kimberley, June 2013Yesterday was a day of media calls – I did a phone interview with a local commercial radio breakfast show, and then Tony and I did an interview and short live performance for local ABC radio (a clarinet and soprano saxophone improvisation). We emphasised the open-ended nature of these residencies. “It’s a collaboration”, I said in each interview. “We’re going to make the work together. Tony and I will guide it, and set a process in place that encourages forth the young people’s ideas and contributions, but we don’t know any more than that about what the final outcome will be, or sound like”.

I like the element of risk and possibility that is inherent in this way of working. In an authentic collaboration, it has to be this way, I think. How can you pre-determine things if you don’t even know the people you are going to be working with? How can you know it will be a good fit? I’ve never been to this part of the world before. I don’t want to make assumptions about people, I want us to meet and find our common ground, so that the music grows from that, without being contained or restricted by any pre-determined outcomes. I like to be taken by surprise.