Remote Residency 2013 – getting off to a good start

Almost a week into the 2013 Tura New Music Remote Residency in Broome and Dampier Peninsula, and there is much to report.

I’m Gillian Howell, musician (clarinettist), composer and facilitator of music workshops and events in communities. I’ve worked in some pretty diverse parts of the world, but never in remote communities in Australia so when I was invited by Tura New Music to be their 2013 Remote Residency Artist, I said “yes” straight away. Tura have been running these residencies and other events for years now, and I knew I’d be very well-supported by their expertise and strong pre-existing relationships in these communities. So big thanks to them for this inspiring invitation, and to the Remote Residency sponsors Healthway, promoting a SmokeFree WA and Horizon Power, for making the Remote Residency possible.

I’m working alongside musician Tony Hicks, a multi-instrumentalist who can turn his hand to just about any genre you care to name. After a flurry of media calls in Broome, including some live-to-air improvisations for clarinet and saxophone, and lots of discussion about what the residency and workshops would entail, we kicked off events with a one-day songwriting workshop at St Mary’s College Broome.

St Mary’s College Broome

St Mary’s is a large co-ed Catholic college in Broome. We worked with their primary choir (about 30 girls and 1 boy from grades 4-6) throughout the day, composing a song that celebrated Broome’s multicultural mix of people, and the history that has led to such a diverse population.

St Mary's College songwriters

The children didn’t shy away from the darker parts of their town’s history, describing events like “the Europeans came to Australia and messed with the Aboriginal laws”, and “Japanese worked their breath away, lifting pearl shells everyday”. But the chorus emphasised the benefits of living with people from so many different backgrounds and experiences:

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.

Brand new faces, from different places

My home, Broome.

The year 10 rock band joined us for the last two periods of the day, learning to play the song on their guitars and basses, and accompanying the choir for the final recording. It was a very full and fulfilling day – if you listen to the recording you can hear the school bell ringing for the end of the day, evidence that we took this project right up to the wire.

The following day, we hit the Cape Leveque Road, and travelled to the Dampier Peninsula. Our destination? Djarindjin-Lombadina remote community.

On the road to Dampier Peninsula

Djarindjin-Lombadina

I am writing this post at the end of our fourth day in residence at Djarindjin-Lombadina. On our first day, we went to the school, where students from pre-primary through to Year 10 attend each day. It’s an idyllic setting, with lots of green grass and majestic white gum tress dotted across the landscape. The school, like most of the houses, is unfenced, and there is a sense of openness and welcome about the community.

That first day, we worked with students in the senior class (years 7-10), getting to know them, and jamming on some improvisations using the instruments they had (djembes, drum kit) along with some that I had brought along with me (chime bars and agogo bell). We also performed at the whole-school assembly, Tony and I playing an improvisation for clarinet and saxophone as a way of establishing our interest with this project in creating new music from scratch, in a collaborative way.

Then I taught the whole school a song, a spiritual called ‘Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around’. We learned it line by line, and then sang it through together. There are some fine singers in this school! After the song, they asked us to play again so we got the senior class to clap a basic groove for us, and improvised a funkier, less esoteric number to wrap things up for the assembly.

Being musicians in the community means being a part of the community, and the weekend provided many opportunities to jam and hang out with adult musicians among the community and the teaching staff. On Friday night we played awhile with one of the school teachers, a young guy who is an accomplished guitarist, keen to develop his improvising skills. Tony got him playing solos on a minor blues scale, and this planted the seed of an idea for our school workshops – to create a Djarindjin-Lombadina Blues, and use this as a vehicle for some of the teachers and any others to develop their improvisation skills.

Saturday night community jamWe were thrilled to be invited to jam with some of the local indigenous community’s adult musicians on Saturday, along with some of the teachers. Apparently, this is the first time ever that the community’s musicians and the school’s teachers have played together in this way. The community musicians are professionals, who play in bands and have a gig coming up next week, so they were keen to get playing. They brought along electric bass, guitar, and a couple of well-travelled amps (lots of red dust adorning them, as befits an amp from this part of the world). One of the teachers played keyboard, another played guitar, and another played percussion. Tony played bass guitar, I played soprano sax, and before long, we’d been joined by a crowd of children who clamoured to the djembes and shakers and kept the grooves going well into the night.

This was a very warm introduction to the community and to some of the younger children. The following morning, we took up an invitation to bring our instruments along to Sunday Mass, and played ‘entrance’ music while people gathered in their seats. Once again, this was a way that we could contribute our music to community life, and build relationships with people. This kind of relationship-building within the community is an important part of Tura New Music’s remote residencies.

Today – Monday – was our second day in the school. We worked mainly with the senior class again (they are our main collaborating group for this project). This morning, we revisited some of the rhythmic and counting work we’d started the week before, spent some time exploring other instruments – such as the wah-wah tubes, and the violin that a previous teacher had left in the school but no-one knew how to play.

For our performance on Thursday we want to incorporate 3-4 pieces of music created by the children and teachers. Today we brainstormed ideas for ‘themes’ or topics that these pieces of music could depict or explore. Ideas such as “fishing”, “Family and Country”, and “Dreams for the future” were proposed.

We decided that the ‘fishing’ topic would make a good whole-school blues number. Today we created a chorus and a verse for this. The pre-primary/grade 1 class wrote the verse. Their lyrics are:

We gotta take a fishing line

We gotta take a bag of bait

Spearing fist and catching crabs

Along the mangroves on the beach.

In the afternoon we worked with the senior class again. We were pleased to see that the whole group had stayed in school for the whole day. Day-to-day life can be very transient in this part of the world and attendance at school is unpredictable. But the students seem extremely engaged in this project, excited to learn skills on the different instruments and to work with us to develop the music. Their teacher suggested to us that the word about the music residency was probably spreading, and that he “wouldn’t be surprised if these kids come back to school everyday you’re here”. That would be a wonderful additional outcome. Certainly, it feels like we have built some good relationships thus far, and that the young people are very engaged, trust what we are offering and what they are likely to get out of the project.