Autumn notes: The Song Keepers

I’m probably posting this too late.

I want to tell you about a documentary movie my wife and I saw a few days ago. The movie overwhelmed me.

My wife and I arrived a few minutes early and we took our seats. We were the first to arrive. We watched trailers of a number of forthcoming films in which an individual or a group achieves redemption through performance of music.

Then our movie began. Within minutes the story is told: a black man who travels to Central Australia finds groups of women choristers, all of them Aboriginal. The women used to sing ancient Lutheran hymns, not in German but in their own (far more ancient) Aboriginal languages. The man revives the choirs, brings them together, trains them and flies with them to Germany where the ladies (whose massed choir somehow includes two men) perform and triumph. Simple story, simply told.

The choirmaster drives from Alice Springs to the settlement of Hermannsburg (126 kilometres), from Alice to Areyonga (214 kms), from Alice to Docker River (673 kms), to meet and recruit his singers. Arriving in one remote community after dark, he feels his way to the little church by torchlight. The church is empty. Addressing the camera cheerfully, the would-be choirmaster says, I wonder how many will come. I wonder if any will come. A handful gathers and embraces the rebirth of their old songs. We see these women, clearly inspired and energised. Something, some memory, stirs them.

We watch these joyous women, mostly old and fat and jolly, in their singing and in their joyous being. We witness the joyfulness of these ladies, the exultation that flows from them and between them as they join together in song. We hear them tell their stories, stories of massacre, of confiscated children, stories of loss and of love. We watch and we tremble with formless stirrings of our own.

We watch the singers clothe their corpulent selves in their gowns of earth colours (I mean earth browns and earth reds), we see them congregate at Alice Springs airport for the unfamiliar enterprise of commercial jet travel. They land in the cold of Germany and discover Lutheran churches vaster and more ancient than they have known. Congregations materialise and the choristers master their nerves and they give voice. The local Lutherans are overcome: here is their old time music brought back alive and pulsating in tongues they do know. And yet they do know.

The locals weep, the choristers weep, and two old Jews seated in the cinema – the sole patrons in this screening –  weep too. My eyes moistened with the first sung chords and never dried, as I vibrated to the passion and the glory. What is this alchemy of sound, of treasured memory, of lost ceremony regained, that lets loose these springs of cleansing tears?

I realise I’ve probably spoiled the movie for you. Perhaps that doesn’t matter: the movie will end its so brief season any day now. But if you do manage somehow to catch ‘The Song Keepers’ remember to bring along a hankie.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhEh3kmBSxI

Jun 21, 2017 – Uploaded by MIFF

The Song Keepers Australia | 85 minutes Central Australia’s answer to The Buena Vista Social Club, The …

The Song Keepers – Trailer – YouTube

 2:43

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUFXbQAX9Z4

Mar 14, 2018 – Uploaded by Potential Films

Dir. by Naina Sen, Australia, 2017. 84 min | Documentary Four generations ofsong women that make …

I Feel Free

While my daughter is away I feel free…

My elder daughter and I share an understanding: I will write pieces for this blog and she alone will post them. The arrangement rests upon our secure shared knowledge of my technical incapacity to do the posting.  It rests too upon the lovingkindness of the daughter*.

That daughter is away. A small item has germinated in the deep soils of my being and it presses urgently to find the light. That trifle cannot possibly be a blog post, because, as I have mentioned, the daughter alone is blogenabled. What follows must be something different. It is the unripe fruit of my liberty.

I met a man the other day who was unwell. The man smiled a mouth of American teeth. He wore a white shirt, a dark tie with a tiepin and a name tag. The name on the tag read ELDER BLOGS**. The man was young, slim, erect in his bearing and he was bearing up despite being quite unwell. Elder Bloggs was accompanied by another young man, equally erect, endowed likewise with enviable teeth, a similar black tie, a very white shirt and a nametag of his own. This read: ELDER MAO**. Elder Mao spoke American but he was evidently Chinese.

We spoke of illness and of healing and we agreed I should try my hand at the latter. The Elders visited me again the following day. Healing was underway and we had leisure now to speak of other matters.

I asked Brother Mao: Is your family still in China?

Yes.

The American teeth appeared in affirmation.

Do they share your faith?

Yes.

Is it permitted in China?

Yes. In the family. I mean privately.

More teeth, to allay any misgiving.

Addressing both Elders I asked: Are you preaching the Gospel here in Australia?

Yes. Nodding of heads. Many teeth.

But – reverting here to Brother Mao – Is it permitted to preach the Gospel in China?

Oh no.

My eyebrow invited the Elder to elaborate.

It is against Government policy. China is atheistic.

No teeth. A worried look.

I resumed: I understand Falung Gong followers can be punished for teaching their practices. Do the same rules apply to you?

A nod. A serious look. No words: not apparently free to elaborate further.

I remembered Tiananmen Square.

I remember the times.

I remember the times of the Aboriginal man in the Channel Country who reminisced on his days as a cattleman. He looked back on those days with pride, long days that stretched into weeks on the track. Those periods of freedom punctuated the other days, days that were years on the station where he was bound, not at liberty to leave the boss’ employ. One man did and the cops hauled him back to the station where the whitefeller bosses whipped hi with iron chains. I calculated our age difference. When this man was eighteen I was ten, growing up in liberty. I learned at school of William Wilberforce and the ending of slavery. I lived in Australia. We didn’t have slavery in Australia. I remember the times.

I remember the times when we took away the children and gave them to whitefellers. I heard my parents’ friends say: They are going to good homes.

I remember when liked to wear Nike running shoes. But then I learned of child slavery in Asian factories.

I remember the times in Broken Hill when children as young as twelve were dying in the mines, of accidents, of lead poisoning.

I remember the times when my tribes lived in Judea under the Romans. They were times when great rabbis were burned alive for studying Torah.

I remember the times when we were enslaved in Egypt, times when they stole the children and drowned the baby boys.

I remember slavery in Auschwitz. If I went to the right I went into slavery. The slaves were the luckier ones.

Tonight, at home here in lucky Australia, I’ll lean back, a free man, and I’ll drink four glasses. I’ll tell my generations of the times when I was a slave.

And if they ask: were you a slave, Saba? – I’ll tell them I’ve never been to Egypt but I remember the times. I’ll tell the children I mustn’t forget the times.  If I ever forget I won’t deserve to be free.

* both daughters actually. The younger, removed geographically, is spared the call of this blog.

** I have changed the Elders’ names.

Summer Stories: Just Dirt

Before arriving in Coober Pedy I read of The Breakaways, an accessible scenic spot of some sacred significance. Once in town I asked directions. These were simple enough to alarm me: ‘Turn right at the Stuart Highway, turn right at the signposted track and drive to the end of the road.’  And – ‘You  best get there in time for sunset or sunrise, when the colours are stronger. Other times it’s bleached by the sun.’

The Stuart bisects our continent. I’ve never found myself alone on the Stuart before. The road roars with lorries and road trains that hug the tail of your smaller vehicle at their permitted 110 kilometres an hour. But this early morning my car alone moved through the dark along the Stuart. Cloud covered the stars. The car radio was silent. A velvet cloak sat upon the earth. I knew I was alone.

The kilometres slipped behind me as I raced to catch a doubtful sunrise. A tiny signpost flashed into sight and out. Had I missed the turnoff? I laughed aloud at my famed ability to get lost. But no – a few minutes on a large sign read: THE BREAKAWAYS. So-named, I read, because chunks of the planet appear broken off from the surrounding scarp.  One or two locals, indigenous people, shrugged when I mentioned The Breakaways: ‘Never been’, said one. ‘Just dirt’, said a second.

The velvet was breaking up. Teal blues split the clouds, a lightening over my shoulder from the east, the dark surface now reddening, the black grasses greening. Earth awakening, but everywhere, silence, stillness. The dirt track shifted beneath my tyres, the car, tipsy, slid from side to side, my passage never quite controlled, not fully skidding. Up a rise, the end of the road. Once out the car the first sensation a blast of wind, night-cooled, but warming towards today’s 46 maximum.  A wooden barrier separated me from a sudden void. The earth fell away at my feet, a vast valley, roughchopped, opened before me. The wind tore up the slopes and away. Nothing else moved. No sound. No life. Stepping forward felt like sacrilege.

I stood still and gazed, astonished. Unprepared for an encounter none could prepare for, I simply stood. My eyes flew up the slopes of table-topped massifs and followed the fall of abrupt clefts. Hills of caramel pink and nude rocks of white ochre in a repeating pattern of rise and fall, fall and rise. And no sound at all. Was this the birthplace of the world? Would that scrubby shrub at the valley floor burst into unconsuming flame?

I stood for some time as one at prayer. I knew an aloneness and a silence and a stillness that must have spoken to my soul. In time I returned to time and I took up the elements of my ritual dawn prayers and I prayed and I gave thanks. I felt kin to others who have stood here over the millennia and contemplated creation. I made my poor homage.

At length a living thing came to me in the stillness, a blowfly. The fly sniffed and sipped, and finding my skin dry, it went its ways. The wind whipped my tallith which made to join the insect in flight. Alone again, no human on earth today had better access to his Creator. If a voice had called, ‘Howard, Howard’, I believe I’d have answered, Hineni.

My prayers done I walked to the display that detailed the nearby salients. The text, authorized by a local elder, hinted opaquely at their sacred significance. The place has its true name, Kangu. Behind me at a short remove was the bearded dragon, Cadney, over there was Pupa, two dogs lying down.  And in front was Kalayu, the emu, father caring for his chicks. The area is an initiation site for young boys. Its elaborated meanings are secret, forbidden. This is meet. Sufficient to be here in mystery.

A side track to Pupa beckoned and I ran. Ochreous powder cushioned my feet. The track took me down and around. Soon I was at the valley floor and the mighty forms rose up, thronging about me. This was ‘just dirt’ and I human clay, a small thing in all the greatness. I thought of the miracle of being, I thought of annihilation. So easy here, to slip, to fall, to break an ankle. In a day or two the heat would finish a crippled runner. The thoughts carried no drama, little colour. Death in this valley would be ordinary; it was living and moving that were out of the order of things.

I was alive and moving. I turned and I ran back up the hills.

Eighteen Percent

As I ate my Weet Bix this morning I read the following email sent by my sister in the United States.

Café charges men 18% 'gender tax' to highlight pay gap


This sign lays out of the policy at Handsome Her, a Melbourne, Australia café where men are invited to pay 18% more to reflect the gender pay gap.

A café in Melbourne, Australia, is giving its male customers a side of gender equity with their lattes. At Handsome Her, men are asked to pay an 18% premium to "reflect the gender pay gap." Men earn an average 17.7% more than women for full-time work in Australia, a government report found. The difference is roughly the same in the United States.

The café, which opened its doors for the first time Thursday, is hoping to shine a spotlight on the issue. "All we really wanted was to raise awareness and start conversations about the gender gap," Belle Ngien, the café's manager, told CNN. The voluntary donations are collected during one week every month and given to women's charities, Ngien said.

But it didn't take long for the Internet to go crazy over the scheme, with some calling Handsome Her's "gender tax" discriminatory. But Ngien is unfazed: "Men have their own spaces that we're not allowed in to, so why not have that space for women?"
No one has declined paying the extra 18%, she said. In fact, a few customers — men and women — have donated more. "Eighteen percent is actually not a lot. Our coffee is $4, and 18% of that is 72 cents," Ngien said.

Indeed, men have come from across town to support the cause, owner Alex O'Brien said in a Facebook post. "We've had men travel across town to visit us and pay 'the man tax' and throw some extra in the donation jar," O'Brien wrote, adding, "Guys, you're pretty neat."
In the end, Ngien said, no one is turned away based on whether they pay extra.

"Sometimes it's hard for people to change their minds," she said. "We're not in the business of changing people's minds. They are welcome to go elsewhere if they don't want to pay a voluntary donation."

So far, Handsome Her has collected a couple hundred dollars for Elizabeth Morgan House Aboriginal Women's Service. And it's definitely fueled a conversation.

No-one gets roused to passion while eating Weet Bix. I mused and meandered and then it came to me: none of  the internet responses refers to the beneficiary, an Aboriginal women’s service. No-one is less equal in this egalitarian land than a beaten Aboriginal woman.

I can affirm that: in my present posting I was asked to give evidence in the trial of the ex-partner who took to his girlfriend with baseball bat. He injured head, eye, limbs, trunk. Bones were broken. She was admitted unconscious to Intensive Care. A huge purple discoloration on the woman’s back, the size and shape of a bat, said clearly what she could not.

I forwarded the above to friends and family. A friend, Colin Hockley, wrote in response:

Once upon a time in a far away country lived a little boy. He had a big sister. 

The little boy's jobs were to feed the chooks and collect eggs, mow the lawns, work in the huge garden, chop the kindling wood, fetch coal, light the fire, walk the dog, get up in the cold, pre dawn and deliver newspapers before school, and deliver meat for a butcher on Saturday mornings. He worked on a farm through school holidays planting or picking potatoes, peas, Brussels sprouts, strawberries, raspberries, and was the chief shouter in a gang of rat catchers.  

At home his role was to peel the potatoes every day, lay the table for meals, wash dishes, and in summer, select salads from the garden. His best job was to roam across soggy fields early in the mornings, before even the farmer was up and about and find huge mushrooms laying amongst the cow poo.

The big sister cleaned house and the little boy helped with that. She also ironed, washed dishes and was very busy with homework from school. Big sisters got more pocket money because they "have to look after their hair". They don't do paper rounds in the dark, or butcher rounds, or work on a farm. This is for the boys. 

When the little boy grew up he sometimes found himself looking into an ugly pit of resentment at these differences and the bubble of pain that went with it, threatening to burst one day. Later he began to see that everyone carries weeping wounds or scar tissue and that he could transcend pain by looking at someone with greater pain. 

Like the story of the poor woman bashed with a baseball bat. 

A special tax of 18% on baseball bats should be imposed to pay for this atrocity.  
 
 

Silent Singer

 
The voice floated across my lonely motel room in Darwin. The sound of slow sweet lament suited my mood in that anonymous room in a lodging for transients. The voice sang of home, of home lost, of home dreamed and remembered. In that room, at that season – the three weeks of mourning for Jerusalem and the Temple – the voice sang to me of loss, my own and the singer’s.
 
 
After a period working on Elcho Island I had arrived in Darwin at day’s end, had wandered blindly about the Darwin Festival, blindly had selected this CD of Elcho singers. Later, in the light I read their names. I recognised ‘Yunipingu’: hadn’t he been Australian of the Year? But this would be a different Yunipingu.
 
 
Only a couple of years later that floating voice had percolated through the ears  of the entire nation, seeped into our being and changed us. Distinctive as didgeridoo, his voice was recognised everywhere. His solo album was the cultural event of the year. Realising how a voice had become the sound that we recognised ourselves by, I wrote. “Australia is becoming more Australian.”  
 
 
Born in 1971 the singer passed away last week. He died during the three weeks of mourning. I listen to ‘Warwu’ and I feel for my country, impoverished. The singer has passed from us. So much loss, so many, so young.
 
 
 
 
click on this link to hear him singing 'Warwu': https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhkMP89rRMk

From the Heart 2

Silent Companion

 

I approach as the sun withdraws. There are only two of us, the Rock and me. I glance upwards: gorgeous parabolas of stone, ferrous waterways etched in rust. One convex curve of curtained rock is fretted and tinted, purnu, an Aboriginal wood carving.

 

Around me all is still. I feel as I did as a child when I intruded into my grandparents’ bedroom. No-one found me, but the stillness nearly undid me.

 

I park the car, hide my keys, and set out, running clockwise. The rock is my companion, watching me, looking down from steeps and heights, not austerely, not unkindly nor yet tenderly. Keeping me in sight, keeping an eye on me.

 

Everywhere I go on earth I run; I feel the place then, I connect with its earth. I breathe its air. Well, no, not quite everywhere: not in sacred places – not on the Temple Mount, not at the Shrine of Remembrance.

 

The first time I came to Uluru, I drove here with my Dad. I parked and leaped from the car, crying, See you soon, Dad. Just going for a run to the top.

On the way up I discovered no-one ‘just runs to the top’. Too high, too steep, too tough.

On the way down I encountered an old old man, torturously creeping, pulling himself upward hand over hand by the safety chain. The old man looked up and our eyes met. He smiled. I said Hello Dad.

Preposterous ambitions. Absurd.

Only after descending carefully to the car park did we find the Notice: Anangu prefer that you do not climb the Rock.

 

Over the twenty years since, I have come here and run, again and again, always to find myself surrounded by crowds drawn to the celebrity rock, the “icon”. The thought grew in me that I was running around a cliché.

But this time I am alone and – beyond doubting – the great silent rock is real, sanctity manifest. 

Only self doubt now: Is this alright? Do I offend?

I run alone but doubt keeps pace: What are you doing here?

My day’s work done, my afternoon prayer said, I come at sunset, the day’s dying moment, its moment of truth. That fragment of suspended time when a great peace settles upon the wild places. The earth exhales, blows out the light. And waits for evening.

 

Your complexion, pitted and scarred. What was your youth, your birth? Those gouges – what violence tore out such chunks? The battered old face, past vanity, gazes down, mute. You don’t say nothing/You must know something…

 

Ahead and above, a gracile arc of stone, seventy metres high, five metres wide, a bow stretched by the Archer a small way from the mother rock, admits a beam of last light from the vanishing sun. It is a benison, a gift to one alone, an old plodding jogger, come to pay respect.

 

Around the first bend now, the late sunlight dims behind me, I run deeper into silence. The road, the paved human arteriole that links me to my comfortable world, is long behind. No-one who passes along that road will dream I might be here. Alone, with the great rock. 

 

The walls of stone, fawn in late sunlight, chocolate as I set out, darken, deepen, solidify. The Rock, too dense now for colour, is pure form. Bulky, tremendous, powerful beyond my thought or racing fear, my companion is sheer presence. And I, grateful ant, scurry about its foot.

 

I can barely see the path at my feet. The stars are a carpet of light, unspeakably ancient. The sliver of new moon, a lovely silvery skullcap that sheds no light. This new moon marks the start of the month of Tammuz and the season of lamentation for Jewish people. I look at the great wall on my right: What sorrows do you weep for?

 

Onward, racing for heat to fight the settling chill, I hear my hard breathing, louder than my soft footfall. Onward, beyond fear of the dark – that one element left to me from distant childhood – I run. I run because I can, I run now because I must; to stop invites dangerous cooling. And were I to stop I’d hear the bush, its frightening noises.

I run, hoping not to stumble and fall and fracture a weight-bearing bone. One fall, one small break, a night alone, a body frozen and still, to be found in the morning by innocent early tourist or earlier, by carrion-feeding raptor.

 

The stars show me my way, I run on and I do not fall.

 

Shapes loom at my shoulder on my pathless left side. Unseen, the remainder of the planet keeps pace with me in darkness.

 

I lose the path and run blindly on. I stumble at speed, my thoughts rush before me, the sloping earth, ragged here and jagged, rushes upwards at me, my skin shrinks in foreknowledge of the tearing, the scraping. But my downhill-speeding legs keep pounding, one past its brother, now brother past the other, and legs connect to feet that hold. I do not crash. I breathe my thanks, and I slow, get my bearings and trot chastened limbs towards mother rock.

Yes, this is a mother place, sacred for women, the Mutitjulu Pool, ever green and cool, in all heat and glare. 

 

I look up. The great bowl above me is crowded with stars. One patch alone of unlight, upon my right. Casserole shaped mammoth, you alone, you starless immensity, you must be Uluru.

You kept me company. You brought me home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the Heart 1

Warily opening the newspaper I came upon the following passage, quoted in an essay authored by Aboriginal leaders. I found it unusual.

 

“What Aboriginal people ask is that the modern world now makes the sacrifices necessary to give us a real future. To relax its grip on us. To let us breathe, to let us be free of the determined control exerted on us to make us like you. And you should take that a step further and recognise us for who we are – Aboriginal people in a modern world – and be proud of us. Acknowledge that we have survived the worst the past has thrown at us, and we are here with our songs, our ceremonies, our land, our language and our people – our full identity. What a gift this is that we can give you, if you choose to accept us in a meaningful way.”

 

 

This cri de coeur from the pen of former Australian of the Year, Galarwuy Yunupingu, distils the Letter from the Heart, which is the statement of Aboriginal consensus on their future. There’s a Jewish saying, words that come out from the heart (will) enter the heart.