Published in Overland Issue 240 Spring 2020 · Culture / Aboriginal Australia Singing on country Willie Brim One of the old ladies in Mareeba used to buy my schoolbooks. She sponsored my schooling for me. She said, boy, when you go to school, I want you to learn and learn good, and what you learn you bring it back to your people. Going through high school, examinations. I’ve always kept that in mind. Of all things I got the highest marks in English in the whole school, and nearly up there with Mathematics as well. History. Well… I wasn’t too much interested in the history we were being taught. * During the mission times you weren’t allowed to speak tongues, weren’t allowed to tell stories about our creation. Basically weren’t even allowed to love. Everything was arranged for you, your marriages. My mother comes from New South Wales. She was sent to that mission in the ’40s because of the White Australia policy times. She ended up marrying my dad. As I said. It wasn’t about love. It was about arrangements by the superintendents and the preachers. Mass marriages going on throughout those days, shaped the communities we have up there today. These things were not allowed to be spoken about or even challenged in those days. Growing up, it was hard. Very strict ways of Christianity. We were getting along, doing that, growing up to be Christians. Doing as we’re told. Until the late ’60s. Old band of kids came up from the cities. Called ‘em hippies. They arrived in Kuranda, where I’m from. I was thinking, who are these people, we never seen people like this before. They were rebellious, educated, and they were running away from something that they’d had enough of. Cities. They started using our river systems, and they started swimming around with no clothes on and stuff. I could only think of my grandfather, who walked into that mission, naked, and was told to keep his clothes on from there on, to come out within five years after being in the mission system – – and we got these people running around naked on our riverbanks. These were different types of people, we thought, and they were. They brought along different things. Art, creative things, a different type of music. That’s where I got really interested in using music as voice. Started teaching myself how to play guitar, keyboards, bass and drums, they had electronic gears. And they made all that stuff in Kuranda, in little houses. We’d go along as younger ones and look at what they were doing and they’d share with us, asking people if they could lend us their gear so we could have something to play with. They made us a full band set. A bass amp, a guitar amp, mixer. It was all homemade, and wow. From there, – song writing. Another way began. I started writing songs about what was going on with our mob. Our dreams, our hopes. I didn’t realise it was gonna become popular. We become one of the most prominent forces of music in the country, supporting all the major acts in this land. The thing was to get our message out. Plant the seed of unconsciousness in their minds about Aboriginal people and their struggles. I got a song called I Don’t Want to Be No Slave. It’s a song I wrote while I was working on the railways when I was younger. I got that many songs. They building them houses but where do we stay everybody don’t run away we’ll watch them come we’ll watch them go so it’s time for you to know we’ll get up and we’ll stand up for our rights. Songs like that. You knock me down but I’ll get up again you can try and try again you was my enemy, but now my friend. You’ll knock me down but I’ll get up again. So what is this you put in front of me? All you laws and your policies, they’re made of glass, now I can see, right through the other side. The dark secret side. Just like genocide. Lyrics like that. Singing on country. * We were on our way to Melbourne in 1984 to see another Aboriginal band on their very first international tour. We were coming down to show our support. We couldn’t get down because the old Hume Highway was all iced up, and there were major accidents along the road. We only made it as far as Canberra so ended up going back home, the long way. Then the members of the band said, Listen, we gotta do something about our culture. It’s disappearing. So we put the guitars down for a little while, picked up the clap sticks and the boomerangs, and we started adventure there. We started the Tjapukai Dance Theatre up in Kuranda. It became so popular. It became one of the biggest things that ever hit our town. Employed over 70 people. All on above award wages. We changed that town just with the perseverance of what we thought we had to do to keep ourselves and our culture alive. Documenting. A way of us promoting ourselves as a group, as an Aboriginal tribe. Or, Bama. We call ourselves Bama up there. Aboriginal people. Bama. * Land management is where I find myself today, older. Getting back onto country, lookin’ after country. Looking after our art sites. Rock art sites in the rainforest. Scarred trees. Trees that have messages on them. Old tracks. The old Bora rings are still there, – intact. You call us activists. You call us freedom fighters. We didn’t wake up one day and say, this is what I’m gonna be. If it wasn’t for love of country, of our people, for each other, the land, the waters, the animals. We’d just wither away. Our ancestors don’t like to see it be forgotten. Singing on country. Read the rest of Overland 240 If you enjoyed this piece, buy the issue Or subscribe and receive four brilliant issues for a year Willie Brim Willie Brim is a Traditional Owner, Cultural Custodian, Bush Doctor and Songman of the Buluwai people of Kuranda in Far North Queensland. Willie is a self-taught, multiskilled instrumentalist and conscious songwriter. He is a musician responsible for the cultural heritage of his people and revival of their language, music and dance. He writes about spirituality, cultural values and Dreaming, the love and connection to his country and the struggle and resilience of his people. Willie’s performance career, political, public and community life spans decades; each chapter building on the last to bring about real change, in his lifetime, for the coming generations. More by Willie Brim › Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. 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