Tony Hillier

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Issue #3 July 28th 2009: Festival Cairns



The new streamlined Festival Cairns, starting later this month, constitutes a significant step on the path that, under the guidance of the Regional Council’s new Festivals Advisory Committee, will hopefully transform our fair city from a minor to major player on the burgeoning national festival circuit.

While events such as the Grand Parade and Carnival on Collins provide a link to the old ‘Fun In The Sun’ days, this year’s festival — at least the opening weekend — will put the emphasis squarely on indigenous culture. Both the Cairns Regional Council Cultural Plan and the Arts Nexus-driven Cultural Tourism Strategy identified that need.

MoantribeSaltwater Band

Indeed, the revamped and condensed Festival Cairns 2009 commences on Friday August 21st at the Tanks Arts Centre with the inaugural Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, which has a strong music component, and follows up with the Tropical Wave Festival on the Esplanade on Saturday the 22nd, culminating with a concert featuring the sensational Yolngu group Saltwater Band, more of which in a moment.

Apart from anything else, Bippera-Kymel will pay a timely tribute to the legendary Torres Strait singer Seaman Dan. The ARIA award-winning artist, who turns 80 this month, has just released what will assuredly be his last new studio album. Given Uncle Seaman’s inextricable association with the sea, Sailing Home is a singularly appropriate name for his swan song. As Dr Karl Neuenfeldt, the Queensland university academic who has guided his career over the past decade, points out: “Seaman’s work in the maritime industries has been a major part of his life. Every time he tells yarns there is some new adventure that’s crying out to be made into a song.”

Born Henry Gibson Dan on Thursday Island in 1929, he has answered to the name “Seaman Dan” or simply “Seaman” since he started diving for pearl and trochus in his teens. Although he has played guitar and sung since he was a young man, it was not until the early ‘80s that Seaman netted his first paid gig, and not until he met the man he calls “Dr Karl” in 1999 that he was first recorded. His debut album, Follow The Sun, was released to national acclaim in 2001, winning Screen Sound Australia’s National Folk Recording Award. Four years later, Seaman became the oldest ARIA award winner when Perfect Pearl was voted ‘Best World Music Album’. On his first trip overseas in 2005, he represented Australia at the World Expo in Japan. He has also played at many festivals around Australia, including Woodford, the National and Port Fairy.

The singer made his public debut in the mid-1950s while living in Darwin: “A mate asked me to sing at a Saturday night session at the Hotel Darwin. Nat King Cole had an EP out at the time with ‘Embraceable You’ and ‘Making Whoopee’ on, so I sang those two songs, and when the audience found out I came from Thursday Island, I had to sing ‘Old T.I.’. They were the only songs in my repertoire back then,” he laughs. It wasn’t until 1982, after he had written his first song, ‘T.I. Blues’, that Seaman was paid to play.

Sadly, a serious respiratory illness and advancing years have combined to put paid to Seaman’s late blossoming performing career, in the national arena at any rate. “We had agreed when we started recording and gigging that he would not go on stage unless he could perform well,” says Dr Karl. “In the past, some other elderly indigenous artists have been put up on stage when they definitely were not at their best … unlike other elderly singers such as the Buena Vista Social Club stars, he was never a ‘professional’ singer in the sense of someone who had training or decades of rigorous singing.”

As he prepares to sail into the sunset of a remarkable Indian summer, Seaman declares that winning an ARIA Award for Perfect Pearl five years ago was the pinnacle of his career. So excited was he to be at the presentation ceremony that he didn’t hear then NSW Premier Bob Carr hailing him the winner. “A lady from my record company said: ‘The premier has just called your name’.” Seaman has donated the trophy to the Thursday Island’s Gab Titui Cultural Centre, where it stands as a beacon of hope to the youth of Torres Strait. “I want it to inspire up-and-coming musicians. They might think if the old fella can do it, I can too. It was always my aim to inspire young people.”

Concertgoers at the Tanks will get to meet this remarkable musician and community ambassador and will hear songs from Sailing Home, including his surprisingly funky revamped versions of The Waifs’ ‘Lighthouse’ and Otis Redding’s ‘Dock of the Bay’. Bippera-Kymel will feature a performance from the Torres Strait’s other ARIA-award winning singer, pop queen Christine Anu, which is bound to include a rendition of her signature song and greatest hit, ‘My Island Home’. Seaman Dan’s long-time offsider multi-instrumentalist Will Kepa and King Kadu (Ricardo Idagi) are also part of the music program on the Festival’s opening night, along with Kuranda’s high energy Aboriginal reggae roots rockers and rappers Zennith.

The appearance of Northern Territory-based the Saltwater Band at a free concert that follows the Tropical Wave Festival and Grand Parade on Saturday August 22 (8-10pm) is a real coup for Festival Cairns. The 10-piece band is a veritable national treasure. It certainly matched the high expectations of this correspondent at this year’s East Coast Blues & Roots Music Festival

The Saltwater Band actually started in 1996 after Gurrumul Yunupingu left Yothu Yindi, but they have only made a handful of appearances outside of the Territory. Yunupingu and his Elcho Island mates, including the equally incredible singer Manuel Dhurrkay, put the group together during a music course that was being run at Darwin University. While the Saltwater Band rapidly became an institution in NT, it has remained something of a well-kept secret elsewhere in Australia, largely due to economics and the tyranny of distance. Gurrumul’s phenomenal success as a soloist — his debut album is currently racing up the charts in the UK — has opened doors to performances overseas.

Yunupingu performs a couple of his solo songs with the Saltwater Band, ‘Galiku’ and ‘Gathu Mawulah’, which turn into reggae-rock tunes with the group. “The songs are infectious, danceable and uplifting,” says the band’s manager Michael Hohnen. “In fact, everything about the band is powerful and uplifting.”

Michael says Gurrumul and the other lead vocalist, Manuel Dhurrkay, are like Lennon and McCartney in many ways. “They are a perfect balance in a band as they fulfill very different roles. They harmonise with each other. They have enormous confidence in their own abilities, and themselves as Yolngu men, and are both capable of delivering strong performances. In terms of songwriting they write their own songs but also share, in songs such as ‘Let’s Work Together’. It’s a great collaborative process because they have a lot of respect for each other, but different skills.

“Manuel is very traditionally educated too and has written some very poetic and more culturally based material in the last few years. When he writes a song, once you are told what it’s about, then you can almost hear the subject. Both Manuel and Gurrumul have an encyclopedia of ideas and knowledge to tap in on.”

Hohnen describes Manuel as the driving force and Gurrumul as the engine room. “They both grace the band with a quality that very few other indigenous bands come close to. They are special and talented. They also have the quality of writing uplifting happy, celebratory songs, which makes people feel great, and I think this is really needed in indigenous Australia.”

Some of the traditional songs in their repertoire sound surprisingly modern considering they were written 10,000 year ago, which speaks volumes for the quality of the arranging. “They arrange everything; it just comes naturally to them. They are a very musical group of people who adapt very quickly,” says Hohnen.

The band’s style is also informed by ska and reggae, and artists like Bob Marley and Lucky Dube, but Michael says they also listen to a wide range of mainstream pop artists. “Many musicians come to NT and try to get indigenous musicians to become more ‘world’ or more this or that, but Yolngu don't follow fashions or trends.”

Since the Saltwater Band are set to release their third CD shortly, Festival Cairns concertgoers are likely to get a sneak peek of their new songs, which Michael Hohnen describes as “rich, full and beautiful”.

The CBD will come alive with free fun and entertainment every day and night during Festival Cairns at the dedicated Festival Food & Entertainment Hubs. The opening day at the Market Square Stage, located at the restaurant strip end of Shields Street (between Grafton & Sheridan) on Sunday the 23rd will feature Latin oriented Gold Coast ensemble Tijuana Cartel (12-3pm), who will also be in action at the Salt House on the 21st, 22nd and 23rd, and Cairns band Kamerunga (6-9pm), who are currently making waves on the national festival circuit with their folk-funk fusion. If you want to know more about either band, proceed to the following sites:

The Market Square Stage on Saturday the 29th, and the Esplanade stage on the 31st (also at the Salt House on the 30th) will feature the cool samba/nu jazz vibe of Brisbane band The View From Madeline’s Couch —

The focus of the second weekend of Festival Cairns will be the timeOUT concert, set down for Fogarty Park on Saturday the 29th (3-10pm). With the likes of Hilltop Hoods, Grinspoon and The Fumes on the card, young rock heads are likely to be richly entertained. If you’re going, make sure you arrive early to see the winner of Gilligan’s local Battle of the Bands start the ball rolling. There’s nothing more deflating for a young band than to play the early spot to only a handful of punters, especially when they have toiled to be selected.

With action every night scheduled for the Esplanade Main Stage, courtesy of the Council, and at the Festival Club at Salt House, there’ll certainly be no shortage of local talent on display during Festival Cairns ’09. It’s all free, so there’s no excuse for not checking it out. Highlights will include the Sunday the 23rd Telstra Road To Tamworth concert on the Nard (2.30-6.30pm), which has James Blundell as special guest. Also not to be missed at the Esplanade Stage: Patch Up on Tuesday the 25th (6.30-9.30pm) and Johno’s Blues Band on Saturday the 29th (12-3pm).

Tony Hillier