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A Trip Into The Heart Of Australia’s Indigenous Music Scene

11 December 2013 | 1:41 pm | Paula 'Jonesy' Jones

Noted publicist Paula 'Jonesy' Jones takes us behind our biggest Indigenous music showcase

2011 marked my 24th year in the music business; it's been a fortunate ride for me as publicist for some of Australia's most prolific and respected acts. I became Midnight Oil's publicist in 1998 and they taught me much about our indigenous culture. John Butler and Paul Kelly are two other clients who tick the same box. It was also the year I was invited to Central Australia to attend Bush Bands Business as a mentor. My trip was funded by The Seed Arts Grants Program established by John Butler and his wife Danielle Caruana. This was a profound life changing experience for me.

The Bush Bands Bash has developed over the last ten years to become the premier Central Australian Indigenous music showcase event.  Presented by MusicNT, the concert features eight bands from the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia, performing to a mixed audience of thousands. It is preceded by a three day professional development and rehearsal intensive called Bush Bands Business - held at Ross River Resort about an hour out of Alice Springs - bringing musicians, technicians and support workers together with local and national music industry and media representatives for three days of workshops and rehearsals. The icing on the cake is the concert held on a big stage in Alice Springs' centre on the Saturday night.

The pinnacle outcome of these activities is the Sand Tracks tour offered by Country Arts WA. Here, one band is selected to return to Bush Bands Business the following year. Directly following the concert they hit the road touring communities far and wide, gaining practical knowledge of life on the road from a mentor band touring with them.  Along with the opportunity of performing live, they make time to visit schools and hold workshops in communities sharing their experience and knowledge to young indigenous kids about education, music and schooling and how important these are to their future.

Many of the Bush Bands travel hundreds kilometres to get to camp. For some it will be an arduous journey.

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Up to eight people can be crammed into a Toyota troop carrier for 12 hours with a few belongings, their trusty instruments and a wrangler who is responsible for getting the bands to camp. Even before leaving home it can take a few days to round up the band members as they say goodbye to family and friends to ready themselves to make their long journey. The excitement is always high as Bush Bands Business is a rare opportunity for these musicians who have often ventured no further afield than playing at their local community sports weekends. Music and sport are fundamental components of these remote communities; often the only consistent positive social outlet providing momentum and feel good moments to their lives.

Bush Bands Bash group shot. Pic by Oliver Eclipse.

The economic and health problems of Indigenous (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Australians are well documented and can't be underestimated. Nor can the difficulties in relation to lack of basic infrastructure these bands face; the tyranny of distance, the lack of music equipment and suitable areas to hone their skills, the inability to easily purchase the basic consumables like guitar strings or drum skins, internet access - a critical pathway taken as a given in this day and age, which is virtually non-existent in many areas these bands hail from. If only at least one member of all of these Bush Bands could be equipped with a laptop, mobile phone and a USB internet device surely their careers would benefit immensely. Yet their positivity and excitement outweighs all the things city dwellers take for granted and have at our fingertips.

This year is the third year I have had the privilege of participating in Bush Bands. Here's a synopsis of my experience in the desert.

As we pile into the car from Alice Springs airport to make our way to Ross River Resort, after twenty minutes the mobile phone service cuts out which pleases me as I feel we can all focus on our mission. I am immediately struck by the wide open space and sheer red cliffs of the Eastern MacDonnell Ranges contrasted by the clear bright blue sky, the bleached gums, searing sun and a whirling desert wind, which welcomes me to camp where I join a group of mentors to impart information about the music business to participants. Most of these bands have a minimum of six to eight members bringing multiple permutations into play for all sorts of reasons; obligations to family, sorry time (the period that follows a funeral) and all manner of things which often affect and impact their experience at Bush Bands Bash.

After day one of observing the bands rehearsing and us sharing meals together, we become more relaxed and at ease with each other in this powerful landscape. The bands take to the make-shift bush stages for rehearsals, playing hard with much concentration and accuracy yet performing with little eye contact. I am astonished by the talent and musicianship of these bands, the passion they hold and their drive to succeed as musicians. Music is a fundamental part of their makeup and they are all quick to express their admiration of Indigenous artists who have forged a pathway and made it. Many of the vocalists here have amongst the most angelic and emotive voices I have ever heard.

Come Thursday it's my one on one time with each band, explaining what a publicist does and what tools they need to grow their profile beyond the communities they live in where they are often the ones others look up to. Throughout the days on camp, they rotate band rehearsals and mentoring sessions and we enjoy a movie night – usually a new documentary about successful musicians and community and culture. The favourite part for me is getting involved in a photo shoot with all the bands; a very tangible and immediate outcome which allows me to get to know them better. We encourage them to take direct responsibility for concepts for the shoots and when the camera starts rolling, the shyness dissipates and the stars emerge.  Seeing their professional photos for the first time, their faces light up; the excitement and fun they have is priceless! Each band receives a disc full of photos to use in artwork, marketing and promotion and I could immediately see some groups conceptualising how they could utilise these new tools for general publicity and forthcoming releases. This hands on, practical experience is truly valuable and as a national publicist always looking for ways to get media interest in acts I know how important the image is.

Jeffrey Zimran. Pic by Oliver Eclipse.

At Friday night's dress rehearsal the bands perform on the main bush stage as Nicky Bomba (Melbourne Ska Orchestra) works on percussion and stage presence and Paolo Fabris (Charles Darwin University) fine tunes vocal techniques. The performance coaches have definitely done the business. The improvements in the band's performances are pronounced. Polished, emotive, confident are words that describe the buzz in the bush. Saturday night's concert in Alice town is going to be magic!

On my first visit to the desert in 2011 I felt a natural and strong connection with Tjintu Desert Band (formerly known as the Sunshine Reggae Band) who come from Kintore and Haasts Bluff, two remote communities 530 kilometres and 227 kilometres west of Alice Springs respectively. This area is reasonably close to Papunya, 240 kilometres northwest of Alice, a community I've always been interested in. It's where the Warumpi Band formed and was included on the run for the Black Fella White Fella tour in 1986. It was a ground-breaking tour which saw Midnight Oil become the first non-indigenous rock band ever to perform for remote indigenous communities. As the Oils publicist I was very aware that this tour and time spent with the Warumpi Band and communities inspired the songs for their globally acclaimed Diesel And Dust album. I'd first learnt about this region through the amazing Papunya Tula artists who tell their story through intricate dot paintings and I had always been intrigued by Papunya and the desert region in general.  Over the years I educated myself about it from a distance well knowing the best way to do this was directly through the people and the land.

Jeffrey Zimran Tjangala, the lead guitarist of Tjintu Desert Band has an excellent grip of English and at our first meeting I could tell he was a can do type of person and keen to absorb, learn and question all that was taking place at Bush Bands Business. With his language advantage he is responsible for organising the other band members and this alone bestows pride and respect. He is the eyes and ears out in the community whilst their manager Micheal 'Miko' Smith, who runs the Central Australian Aboriginal Music Association (CAAMA) music label, is in Alice Springs.

When we first met in 2011, Jeffrey shared a little of his family history with me and pointed me to the Benny and The Dreamers documentary, which he featured on the cover as an eight year old with his father Smithy Zimran with the text; “The extraordinary story of the Pintupi peoples' first meeting with the white world.” I bought a copy when I got back to Alice and I could see in Jeffrey's eyes that he was delighted. Smithy Zimran was instrumental in the homeland movements, his achievements are acknowledged in the Kintore community with a plaque. Jeffrey and his brother Joseph, the keyboardist in the band, are both painters as is their sister who beautifully translates women's business stories. Jeffrey's father's painting inspired him to take to the brushes and out of respect for the elders and their stories he wanted to keep their country and dreamtime stories alive by creating beautiful paintings.

Jonesy and CAAMA with Running Water Band. Pic by Amy Hetherington.

I felt Tjintu Desert Band was one of the highlight bands at Bush Bands Bash in 2011 and I'd hoped our paths would cross again.

Fast forward to 2012 and I was again invited to Bush Bands Business and was thrilled to learn that Tjintu Desert Band were chosen for the Sand Tracks tour. They hit the road straight after Bush Bands Bash with rockers Nabarlek, a hugely respected band from Western Arnhem Land. Lead singer Terra Guymal and his band mates are highly regarded in communities around the country and they rock hard! They are tight touring veterans and full of energy. Terra is an ardent and engaging front man and also has a great grasp of English. I knew this would be a great pairing and that Tjintu Desert Band would do well from this experience.

Again this September, I returned to the desert for another rewarding and inspiring session with these wonderful musicians. To my surprise I was reunited with my friend Jeffrey Zimran Tjangala, who on this occasion was attending as manager of a young outfit from Kintore called Running Water Band. I met them briefly at CAAMA's office in Alice Springs the day before we all headed out for Bush Bands Business. Congratulating Jeffrey on his rise to manager, I told this group of young fellas they were the luckiest band around and that they should respect and listen to Jeffrey as he has great knowledge and experience and will help them achieve big things. They probably knew this already but I wanted to reinforce it before they headed out bush to soak up all the heady information they would be delivered over the coming three days.

Settling in at camp I felt an immediate connection with Running Water Band, and I had a sneaking suspicion Jeffrey had told them of our connection over the past two years. After day one, these seven young fellas called me Ami-mi which in Lurita Language translates to Grandmother. I was thrilled even if I don't consider myself that way at home! But the term is a sign of respect and allowed for relaxed and easy company for the next three days.

After 26 years in the music business I've seen my fair share of the best… but in Alice Springs on a hot dusty Saturday night witnessing Running Water Band's performance at Bush Bands Bash, I was astonished at their ability to activate what they'd learnt so quickly, especially the performance tips they were given.

Jonesy with Jeffrey, Terra and Running Water Band. Pic by Stuart Williams.

Their initial rehearsal out on camp was stiff, they stared at the ground and didn't interact with each other yet each member was brilliant at their craft. It's a typical performance style for these shy fellas from remote communities and one has to remember they aren't performing to a crowd in community setting; they are completely out of their comfort zone and rehearsing in front of their peers and highly experienced people in the field of music.

However, when they hit the stage mid concert in Alice they held the audience in the palm of their hand. I was so proud and astounded at how they engaged and performed, working the crowd, enjoying it, encouraging and connecting with each other and delivering a tight set as the crowd rose and screamed for more. This was their moment in the sun and they shone brightly!

Will Running Water Band be chosen as the next Sand Tracks band with Tjintu Desert Band as their mentors? For me that would be well deserved and a dream of mine and theirs come true!

Jeffrey has the drive, ability and determination to make it happen for Tjintu Desert band and as a manager of Running Water Band and I will continue to do what I can to help him.

And so Jeffrey Zimran Tjangala 's journey continues, I hope our paths cross once again. He has opened his world to me and this is an honour and a privilege for which I will be forever grateful.