‘For our community of around 200 people there is one general store, one school, no mobile phone range and little access to the internet. But Ikuntji [aka Haasts Bluff, NT] is much more than the town itself – it’s the rocky hills, the red earth, the country of our Dreaming, our grandfathers’ country.’ – Tjintu Desert Band
In the lead-up to WOMADelaide, I had the opportunity to speak with Jeffrey Zimran (vocals/guitar), who with his brother Joseph (vocals/keys) make up part of Tjintu Desert Band along with Terry Marshall (lead vocals, guitars), Aaron Sharpe (bass) and Kieren Jakamara (drums). He joined me on the line at CAAMA Music, in Alice Springs, I was keen to know more about a part of the country I have only seen from the sky.
Ikuntji is a solid four hours drive west of Alice Springs, in the Western Desert region, and I wanted to know why they were making music popularly called desert reggae (something I associate more with Bob Marley than central Australia). ‘I would call it desert reggae but it’s not just reggae, there’s also a bit of funk, rock, dubbie in there as well’, said Jeffery.
According to him, it all started on a trip to Brisbane many years ago. ‘I remember we didn’t know other Australians played other types of music, I remember one of the first time we went to Brisbane, in one of the nightclubs. In the bar, there was a band playing – we heard a bit of dubby sound – we didn’t know but thought – that’s a great sound, yeah. Because when someone goes out, a musician, to a different country or different city, they get to listen to different to a different style of music, and you keep it in your head and you sometimes you bring it back.’
But now they get there inspiration from wherever they travel, and the more they travel the more sounds they have access to. ‘We been to other communities, other desert communities and also different cities, listening to different types of music on the CD player, that’s where the other ideas come from.’
As for inspiration, Jeffrey was inspired musically by his father Smithy who was also a key instigator in the Homelands Movement. Beginning in the late 1960s, there was a concerted push by Indigenous communities to move away from larger communities and reclaim their traditional lands, language and culture.
Because of people like his dad, kids ‘in the community they are speaking their own language’, Luritja and take the dreaming stories and songlines recorded by Tjintu Desert Band as a birthright. ‘That’s my father’s country, it’s all about our special places, you know – our country, our important sites in the country. Our grandfather is around; looking after it, protecting it,’ he lamented.
Tjamuku Ngurra itself features songs in a mix of Luritja and English and the booklet has some stunning images of the desert land that Tjintu call home.
One of the most interesting things about talking with Jeffrey is how it all leads back to talking about family. He was drawn to music as he idolised his father who was also a guiatarist whilst he was around. The songs, the stories the meaning behind the songs link the present to the ancestors through the songs of the dreaming.
It is all about honouring and maintaining the past, but also sharing their culture with others. ‘Yeah, it’s going to be really special at WOMAD ’cause all these people coming over from all over the world, getting together [and] we’re up there singing songs in our language and sharing our culture through the songs, through the music,’ said Jeffery.
That is the beautiful thing about WOMAD is that it is a coming together of sounds but all of communities. Sure, it is a major commercial festival like many others but there is an alluring depth – a sense of sanctitude – that in my experience has not been matched by other major touring events.
During WOMAD, attendees become a part of that broader community – a bigger family. It makes us feel small and special; it scales the world down to a more bite-size scale. To participate here is not just to consume music. It is, as Jeffrey spoke of, a chance to share with and learn from each other. ‘The music for me, it’s sort of like a connection. We’d never been around Australia before we started touring. In the last couple of years we’ve done a national tour. Coming into cities we come across people that we don’t get to see every day. We don’t have the chance to like sit down and talk the music is really, for me it’s a connection, sharing language and culture through the music, it brings people together as well, connecting them to other countrymen.’
Remember too that just as we can share music and culture, we also share history. So when we celebrate the joy, harmony and diversity that WOMAD brings together it is important to remember that it is all a journey. Enjoy the music that reveals secret paths and rhythms of their Grandfather’s country (Tjamuku Ngurra).
By Robbie Slape.
The University of South Australia has a strong commitment to reconciliation and addressing Indigenous disadvantage, guided by its Reconciliation Action Plan.