Wangkatjungka remote community is the home to a large number of talented musicians – a community of approx 150 people has three bands and a handful of solo artists! For this Desert Feet Tour the community came together, inspired by community leader, elder, musician and Honorary Life Member of Desert Feet, Olive Knight to engage in a series of musical events with the focus on mental well-being and emotional, cultural, and linguistic expression.
This Tour was funded by a WA Mental Health Commission Suicide Prevention grant, and by Nomad Two Worlds Foundation, as a pilot project to create a community-driven mental health improvement and suicide prevention program, using music!
The DFT for this tour was comprised of Broome-based Byron Lerner (musical therapist), Murdoch University researcher Dr Petra Skeffington (trauma and mental health research scientist) Glenn McDonald (anthropologist and musician), Dylan Hammond (musical workshop facilitator and sound engineer), and Dr Tony Balint (general practitioner and aboriginal mental health expert).
Dr Petra Skeffington is conducting a research project aiming to provide empirical evidence that music participation really does reduce stress levels. By testing all participants’ saliva for indications of stress prior to and following participation in musical activity, Petra will seek to prove what all musicians intuitively know, that music reduces stress and improves emotional wellbeing.
Upon arrival in Wangkatjungka, we had an introductory cup of tea and introduced ourselves to the community’s leaders, elders and musicians Olive, Ephraim, Raju, Hawk, MG, HH, Jake, and Jermason to establish a program of events surrounding music and wellbeing. Building on a two year collaboration to realise this project, it was decided that an On Country Trip with cultural activities, followed by a series of participatory music workshops, rehearsals, and live performances would be the agenda.
Let the music play!
After our initial meeting, our hosts decided that a jam was in order and musical instruments were pulled out from the truck and before too long we had a ‘getting to know you’ jam happening in the lounge room. It was apparent from that moment that the community and the DFT team would be participating in something special and it was a great way to get to know each other. Olive also revealed that she was keen to play for a local Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) awareness concert held in Fitzroy Crossing the following night. Wangkatjungka community has been severely impacted by FASD and Olive has been instrumental in building awareness in the community. It was a pleasure to be her backing band for the event.
Camping at Nyarlga Jarri
After getting to know the community and performing our first gig, the DFT crew filled the our 4WD mobile truck/stage/studio with food for the community (generously donated by Wangkatjungka Community Inc.) and headed out to a favourite camping place of the community about an hour’s drive south on a beautiful creek. Known as Nyarlga Jarri in Walmatjarri or Wattyl Spring in English, this served as a beautiful setting to experience music ‘on country’.
The crew from ABC’s 7:30 Report accompanied us, filming a story on Olive Knight, Wangkatjungka, and Desert Feet Tour. The first night we dined on bush turkey, kangaroo tail, damper, camp oven bread, and vegetables cooked in the ashes.
This provided the perfect scene for the first musical workshop, a listening and emotions session using classical music. As the campfire died down and bathed us all in an orange glow, we set up the PA speakers and turned up the music. Listening to such well-known pieces as Adagio for Strings, Ride of the Valkyries, Carmina Burana, Flight of the Bumblebee, Funeral March, and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, we explored how musicians and composers make us feel certain emotions by using musical devices such as tempo, melody, dynamics, and arrangement.
We discussed how this music made us feel and imagined what it might provide the soundtrack to, whether an emu running across the plains, a playful grasshopper, or a strong kangaroo bounding across the desert. It was amazing to contextualise these songs in the Wangkatjungka community’s experience, and environmental setting. Before the night was through, we had also conducted a song writing and lyrics session, and Ephraim, Hawk, and others had written a song about the next generation of young children in Wangkatjungka.
Culture, language, expression, two-way learning
The following night we lowered the truck’s stage and had a small concert in the bush. The talented mob from Wangkatjungka swapped instruments and we watched amazed as drummers became guitarists, and bass players became vocalists and the bands kept the community entertained for hours. More bush tucker, activities and games with the children down by the river, a hectic ABC interview schedule, and lots of cups of tea followed and our ‘on country’ trip was in full swing. Local musicians wrote Songs in Walmatjarri language, and the DFT learned many useful words to describe emotional states, and were grateful for the opportunity for some two-way cultural exchange. The command on two, three, and four languages is something that we were astounded by, and we loved getting involved and singing and writing songs in Walmatjarri language. Thank you to Olive, HH, Ephraim, and others for involving us in some language education sessions that were enlightening and rewarding.
Back to Wangkatjungka for music therapy
Well and truly physically exhausted, the team headed back to Wangkatjungka with renewed inspiration for musical expression. Songs had been started, genres had been explored, Ephraim and the Springside Reggae band wanted to forge a new inroad into funk reggae, Jake Daisybell’s ‘Rocky Ridge Band’ had written at least three new songs and the community was ready to delve a little deeper into musical therapy and performance. Byron conducted several workshops exploring how drumming ‘in sync’ and ‘out of sync’ can represent the changing emotional states we experience. Sometimes we are in sync with our thoughts and those around us, and sometimes we are not. Byron encouraged the group to follow his rhythm and tempo and explained how this can relate to observing whether someone close to us in the community is in sync, or perhaps in need of some support to get back in time. The musical leaders in the community involved children and non-musicians and we all learned a great deal about expression and emotional connection through music.
We all have a part to play
The following day we looked at musical creativity and the actual creation of musical instruments and the creation of songs with them, with everyone playing a small but unique part. We went for a walk to the community’s garbage tip to see what interesting objects we could find to make musical instruments out of. Glenn made an interesting instrument of some old PVC pipe, a chair, and a spare thong. Byron favoured the old disc brake and metal rod, and Petra was quite keen on the bicycle wheel and bamboo. We performed a number of percussion drills and looked at how each person adding a relatively small part on a unique instrument, could create a complex and satisfying composition.
Let the concert begin!
By now we couldn’t keep the musicians off the stage any longer, they were raring to go with new songs, new lyrics, and a desire to show the community their musical chops on the big stage. We put in a hard day lowering the stage, setting up the PA and tuning the guitars and then Jake, Ephraim, Hawk, Jermason, Michael, Elias, and Cyril smashed out song after song in English, Walmatjarri, Gooniyandi, and Bunuba languages at a three hour concert in the community. These guys rock, seriously. Cyril wailed on guitar, Ephram’s vocals soured, Jake’s reggae guitar and vocals were on point, and the revolving door of drummers kept our feet tapping. The community kids showed their dance moves and predictably bugged the band to play “Wipeout” just one more time. Of course they obliged and children’s laughter filled the air. You could just make out their smiles as they rushed to and from the dance floor to shake it.
School workshop makes a MAD song!
While walking around the community one afternoon, the DFT crew was approached by some community kids who wanted to write a funky reggae hip hop tune. We had approached the school and Josh and Brenton were kind enough to set aside some time for the kids to participate in a music workshop with us. Thanks to the children’s suggestion, we also now had a focus. We worked with HH (the school’s linguist and translator) to write lyrics about a community favourite pastime, fishing. We also incorporated the school’s motto “Strong, Smart, Proud” into the lyrics. The children helped us to compose the song with samples, keyboards, and bass guitar, and the results are amazing. You can check out the video here. The kids were soooo talented and we also shot a film clip to accompany their song. Not bad for a day’s work!
All good things must end…
We rounded out the end of the tour with some cracking concerts and some epic live performances. Highlights include Cyril’s divebombing guitar lead breaks and face melting solos, Hawk’s husky vocals and evocative and emotionally charged songwriting, Jake’s continually evolving songwriting and passion for rehearsal and striving for improvement, Ephraim’s genre experimentation and support for the DFT team, Raju’s generosity with freshly baked bread for the team almost daily, and Olive’s leadership and spirit always encouraging participation, inclusion, appreciation, and respect. The musical talent in Wangkatjungka blew the DFT team away and we all want to come back, and are proud to have been included and welcomed by the community with such respect, generosity, and support. Angus Dawson, Mark Turner and Edde Masson are about to head to Wangkatjungka for round 2 of the music and healing program which will involve musical development workshops, studio recording, a trip to the Looma sports carnival for live performances by Olive Knight, the Springside Reggae Band, the Rocky Ridge Band, and others, and more musical fun and frivolity.
Thankyou so much!
The DFT crew wish to thank the Wangkatjungka community for all of their help but special mention must go to Olive, Ephraim, Lee, Chris and Jan, Hawk, Jake, MG, HH, Raju, Micheal, Dermott, Jermason, Brenton, Josh, and all of the community kids for helping with the stage, and generally participating with 100% enthusiasm in everything we did. Wangkatjungka is a special place with a deep love of music and a profound emotional connection with music. We were proud to play a small part in encouraging wellbeing through musical expression and we look forward to coming back.
Thanks to the financial supporters of this project – WA Mental Health Commission, Nomad Two Worlds Foundation and Desert Feet donors and volunteers!
Let’s make this bigger and better!
The scientific results will take some time to analyse and write-up, but we already know from what people told us, that this project was a success and needs to be built on. Will you join us on this journey? You could make a much-needed donation (we are a volunteer-run, grassroots charity!), or let us know how else you’d like to be a part of it!