LIVE – Mullum Music Festival 2017

[Published in Rolling Stone (Australia), November 2017]

SLOUCHING TOWARDS MULLUM

Mullum Music Festival, November 17-19, 2017 – Mullumbimby, NSW

The rain starts around midnight. Friday. Fat drops, cold for November. Stiff breeze off the ocean, pushes the wind chimes around a bit and they tinkle melodically in protest.

The palms dance in the dark; I can’t see them, but I know the sound.

Adeline is asleep, and Claire is watching something on Netflix. I’m sitting out the back, feet up on a chair, listening to the rain beat on the tin roof. Smoking cigarettes and drinking cold cans of Victoria Bitter. My favourite stubbie holder – white writing on black, Fuck Y’all, I’m From Texas, a souvenir from the deep south – winks at me from the otherwise dark.

Around seven clicks inland from here lies the township of Mullumbimby. It sits quietly at the base of Mount Chincogan, an almost perfect triangle that rises from the hinterland like a verdant pyramid and towers over this old town like a silent guardian, or a marker, a beacon that tells people from afar that this is where it is, this is where it’s happening.

Not much happens in Mullum, not usually. It’s a country town. It has an old IGA, which continues to exist in solemn defiance to the newer Woolies around the corner. It has a locally owned Mitre 10 which prospers despite the Bunnings in Byron. It has tennis courts you can rent by the hour for tuppence and the farmer’s market has stalls manned by farmers.

The barbershop doesn’t have eftpos.

And yet tonight, as the rain falls and drums on the tin and speckled toads dart through the light on the wet grass to the shadow over the garden beds, Mullum is ringing and thudding, its normally quiet Friday night streets awash with not just the rain but the continuously rhythmic footfalls of dozens and scores and throngs of people.

Music seeps from windows and doorways, suddenly loud as someone pushes open the glass to come out and smoke, veiled and muffled again as the door swings to behind them. Ten years ago, the Mullum Music Festival made its tentative debut in a town rich on culture but oddly suspicious of anything new and so it struggled to get a foothold for a few years before being embraced, now the multi-faceted musical beast that’ll sell out most years, drawing in people from all over the world.

The locals, an odd melange of refugee hippies and farmers, young families and single workers, embrace it all and dance in the rain with anyone who’ll join them.

Before the downpour, before I rounded the crew and drove them home, before I retired to my old wooden chair to sip a few of my own, a job well done, it’d been jostling for elbow room in the Courthouse Hotel, Sal Kimber playing her first show in a time. Country-soul set to a metronomic beat (courtesy of Cat Leahy), that’s equal parts jagged and worn smooth. Kimber writes from the heart and her songs carry a weight that’s hard to find.

Marty and I stay put once Kimber wraps it up, prop up the bar, waiting for Z Star Delta who, for a two-piece, take an inordinately long time to set up, their sound check promising waves of boogie blues but the reality, once it finally begins, is more a layered and layered soundscape of a set, guitar and drums, too many layers for the most part, too little substance amidst the fog. It’s interesting but it doesn’t land, for mine, and so we beat a lethargic retreat and stroll up to the Rizzla.

Lindi Ortega is onstage, sans full band, just her and guitarist ‘Champagne’ James Robertson. The former howls and wails, the latter picks and plucks, it all meets in the middle – country, blues, swing. Ortega, Canadian, has an odd method of lyrical phrasing, you think she’s not going to hit the right key but she does, almost impossibly, every time. It’s engaging, different. Robertson is the master, he is the roots guitarist, he tunes things way down and uses the slack to his advantage and plays blues like he’s somewhere steamy in the Delta and there ain’t nothin’ else to do nohow.

They finish with a completely rebuilt version of Janis’s ‘Mercedes Benz’, which becomes a habit – their Saturday set comes to a close with Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring Of Fire’, but it’s another beast entirely, the best reinterpretation I’ve heard in some time.

Like any other festival, happening, experience, Mullum Fest begins to run into itself. Saturday night and Sunday night, as wet as Friday, bend and colour into one another. Which is Mullum to a tee – “How weird is Mullum,” I overhear a man say to his partner, not a question but a statement. The town itself began life, back in the mid to late 1800s, as a refuge, and it still carries this feel today – somewhere you can come to hide, to sit, to be obvious or anonymous, a town where muddy Hilux’s are parked next to shitbox Kombis outside the Middle Pub and no one gives a toss in a place where kombucha is as common as black tea and damper.

Over the course of the weekend, the corner of Dalley and Burringbar Streets, the centre of the action, becomes home to an ever-growing clutch of ferals and pseudo-hippies; barefoot and ragged, they set up trinket stalls on old blankets on the pavement and smoke weed and stage their own festival, getting sloppy and bumping into people. They have no true ethos though, and the corner becomes one to avoid, the small throng becoming hard to see through the green smoke and the film of aggression which thickens as the weekend goes on.

Jon Cleary, by contrast, is true and pure, he brings N’Awlins with him, solo on Saturday and Sunday with band, The Monster Gentlemen. He’s a true keysman in the southern Louisiana style and particularly on the Sunday, as the temperature in the High School hall soars and the humidity climbs, he relishes it all and splays all ten fingers across his vast array of ivories and for a while we’re all on Frenchmen Street, just off the Quarter, soaking it up, laissez les bons temps rouler.

Back over at the Civic Hall, caught on the way in a downpour and sheltering under an awning outside the Bowlo, watching the Magic Bus lumbering up towards the middle of town, people hanging from its windows, driven by Timbo who has an amazing collection of Safari Suits, Mama Kin Spender produce a set that epitomises what this festival is – Kin drumming upright with a voice that builds and projects, Spender on guitar, a twenty (or so)-piece choir, they breath soul and vitality into the place.

This is Mullum Fest – it invigorates you as the seasons change, as the promise of the thick and hot summer looms, gives you the energy to finish up the year… Kin and Spender set this to music, myriad voices building together and releasing over a full house like the tide coming in.

It’s joyous and powerful and people smile and grab each other’s shoulders and grin in delight in the darkness, smiles still evident as they spill out into the sodden courtyard.

Wallis Bird has people talking all weekend, as does Sal Wonder and Ron Artis II. Marlon Williams is at his soulful best and his new album will be one to hear, to put on repeat listens. Suzannah Espie brings her own country-soul; Lucie Thorne teams up once more with drummer Hamish Stuart; Jimmy Dowling’s songs of love and life become real and large; Heartworn Highway turn Americana Australian.

I end up back on my wooden chair on Sunday night, seven clicks back towards the coast, listening to the rain beat patterns on the tin above my head. Adeline’s asleep but Claire is sitting with me. We drink beer and wine and talk about the weekend which has, all of a sudden, passed us by.

The streets of Mullum are still slick and wet, the ferals are still on the corner and people are still spilling out of the Civic Hall, waiting for the bus under umbrellas and raincoats.

I see festival director Glenn Wright not long before I leave and he smiles and is relaxed as the event’s ten year anniversary party comes to an end, a success. Which doesn’t take much – planning, yes, but once it’s rolling, Mullum Fest does it’s own thing and for the punter, for the observer, for the people dancing and listening and bumping in the street, it runs seamlessly and perfectly, a glittering gem of a happening.

Back out here, the speckled toads continue their dance, and the fronds and the wind chimes whip and tinkle. And it’s all done for another year. Tomorrow, Mullum will return to its quiet self, a little country town in the shadow of its green pyramid. Resting. Waiting for next year.

Samuel J. Fell

Canned Heat

Published in the March / April issue of Rhythms magazine (Cover Feature – EXCERPT)

Fifty-three years ago, three blues nuts formed a band. Today, Canned Heat are still at it, still pushing the blues, writes Samuel J. Fell

I’m standing on a hay-bale or something, maybe a milk crate, I don’t really know, it’s too dark to see, but it’s higher than ground level and so I’ve purloined it and am standing on it in a vain attempt to see over the swelling rip-tide of human flesh in front of me, to get a better glimpse of what’s happening up on stage.

It’s a futile exercise though and I abandon my poor vantage point and try to wedge my way through the throng but it’s leather-pants-tight and I can’t penetrate and so I retreat, reluctantly, to the outer edges, where I can at least hear, if not see.

I roll a cigarette, fishing around in my pocket for a lighter, spark, inhale, you know the drill. I lean against a pole and let it all wash over me, forget I’m well outside the tent and nowhere near the stage, just feel the old music bursting from under the gargantuan faded canvas cover, over people’s heads and across the grass to where I’m standing.

Despite when it was written, or what’s informed it, the music is muscular and bawdy and seems made for right now, like maybe it’s being played for the first time and all of us, crammed together in the humidity with dust on our boots, wild-eyed after three days in the field (as it were), are hearing something new that no one else has ever heard before.

It’s blues, but it’s rock ‘n’ roll and it carries with it, as it whips across distance, an effortless cool that despite its immediacy, is at once familiar and comfortable. Not because you’ve heard the songs before but because of what they represent, a particular time where the music meant something else entirely but has since been lovingly reworked and fawned over and loaded up on all sorts of chemicals and wrought through the wringer and so it’s old and new at the same time and it just fits, like an old and faded pair of jeans you just can’t remember ever having lived without.

The crowd throbs with an energy I’ve not come across all weekend, and the players themselves, up on stage – tiny from my vantage point, when I can catch a glimpse – seem to throb too, vibrating with an energy they themselves are creating via this music which all at once seems both timeless and of this one place and time. Frenzied harmonica cuts through buzzing guitar and the rhythm section bumps and grinds underneath it all like an old alligator death rolling in some muddy river somewhere south of the Mason Dixon.

I butt my smoke out and wonder if I can cut across to the bar on the other side of the stage to grab another beer before this song finishes but I can’t move and so stay and keep letting it all wash over me, somewhere in a field, wild-eyed, with dust on my boots and the sweat of a thousand others painting the air wet all around me.

***

That was the first time I ever saw Canned Heat, back in 2012 at the 23rd Byron Bay Bluesfest. I’d known of the band of course, but had never really delved into their extensive catalogue. I was actually introduced to them in a reasonably random way, a compilation album landing on my desk some years prior, Rarities From The Bob Hite Vaults, presented by some cat called Dr. Boogie, a collection of “rare pieces taken from Bob Hite’s fabulous collection of 78rpm records.” This is a record which still gets regular play at our place, and it was from this cut, along with the extensive liner notes contained within, that I was introduced to Bob ‘The Bear’ Hite, and the band he formed with Alan Wilson back in 1965, a band which would go on, in its own unassuming way, to change the face of popular music at a time when change was of the essence and a new way of looking at things – or hearing things – was paramount and carried with it weight and cred and cool.

Changing the face of popular music wasn’t what the band originally set out to do though. For many bands, this sort of ideal was high on the list, but Canned Heat it seems, just wanted to emulate the music of their heroes. Hite and Wilson were, as is well documented, mad blues fans and so the mandate of Canned Heat from the get-go – if indeed the band even had one – was to push the music of these mostly unknown players to a much, much wider audience. And it was this that was of paramount importance for Hite and Co., more so than fame, fortune, the trappings of being in a band in the red-hot middle-‘60s.

“Well, you had three guys, Bob Hite, Alan Wilson and Henry Vestine, who were all major record collectors,” recalls Skip Taylor, over the phone from Tucson, Arizona. “Mainly blues record collectors. They’d travelled to Mississippi in the south, and had talked to these older guys, and their lives were spent in the blues. And that wasn’t the most common thing [back then], it was really about rock for most young, white, American guys.

“So they were kind of a cult unto themselves, and in marrying their blues proficiencies with my rock ‘n’ roll background, together we were able to get something not necessarily commercial, but they always wanted to be as big as Paul Butterfield, having an album crack the Top 100 on Billboard, that was it. My thoughts had always been to go a little higher and deeper than that, but all of us talked about having a music that would appeal to a much wider, white audience, and give the blues and black blues… at least give the populace the chance to hear this more, and be aware of this more. In the same way I think John Mayall has always felt, you know?”

This Christmas, The ‘Where’ Is Just As Important As The ‘Who’…

[Published on Medium, December 31]

They say that, at this time of year, it doesn’t matter where you are. It matters more who you’re with, family and friends, loved ones, people you travel vast distances to spend time around; those you might not see regularly throughout the year, and so when the festive season lands upon us (often with surprising speed), you make haste to convene, wherever that may be.

This year though, it does matter where we are. This year it’s at the old family home, Mum’s place. A squat old farmhouse on a couple of scrubby acres a few hours north of Melbourne. At a glance, from the cracked and crumbling concrete front porch, it’s in the middle of nothing and nowhere, but cast a wider glance and it’s surrounded by vineyard along the back and one side, green and waving maize across the front road, a meandering channel to the east that winds its way down to Greens Lake.

Within a reasonable drive are bigger centres like Rochester, Kyabram, Echuca and Bendigo, and on the way there you’ll find places like Girgarre, Nanneella, Timmering and Corop. In between are vast tracts of land that undulate slowly, changing in the blink of an eye from earthen browns and oranges to shimmering greens and yellows, burnt and swaying under a merciless sun.

We’re here every two years, the in between times spent with my wife’s family in Brisbane. This year, over the Christmas and New Year period in the unwavering heat surrounded by fractured earth and crunchy grass, it’s the two of us with our eleven-month-old daughter, my sister and her partner, and Mum and the dog. Dad died a couple of years ago, and so now the old homestead is Mum’s Place. It’s different to how it used to be, but it’s home still, and when we all descend for Christmas, it rings with a familiar joie de vivre, this year added to by our daughter, spending her first time among the dusty eucalypts that line the driveway up from the red-dirt road.

It’ll likely be her last though, and the same is true for all of us. Mum, after a couple of years here by herself is moving north, closer to her siblings in Brisbane, closer to us. She and Dad moved up here in the late 1990s, just after my sister and I finished school, and so for almost twenty years, as we’ve grown into actual adults and begun to deal with life proper, we’ve had a place to escape to, to hide, to rebuild, to recharge.

It’s the same for our partners, and if only on one occasion, and an occasion she likely won’t remember, it’s the same for our daughter. Which is why this year the ‘where’ mattered as much as the ‘who’.

This past week, as the heat has begun to lift and dusk descends and the blue-breasted wrens dance about the backyard, we’ve sat and swatted mosquitoes and sipped beer from cans and bubbles from flutes; we’ve played Trivial Pursuit and snacked on chips and nuts; we’ve raised glasses to Dad, to each other, to life now and life to come. No one’s really mentioned that we won’t be doing this again, here.

In two years, when it’s again time to spend the festive season together, it’ll be somewhere else, somewhere up north. And that won’t matter really, because Mum and the rest of us will leave here, perhaps tearfully at first, but with many strong memories of the place and the experiences we all shared here, whether at Christmas time, or any other time during the year that was.

And so from then, I suppose it will ring true what people say, that it doesn’t matter where you are, it matters more who you’re with. We’ll be in a newer place, a place that yet won’t have many family memories, a place that Dad never saw. But we’ll all be there (perhaps there’ll be more of us), and so it’ll start to become the family home once again and will act as an escape, a hiding place, a place to rebuild and recharge. Mum’s Place.

And perhaps that’s the crux of it – it doesn’t matter where you are as long as the people you love are there, which makes where you are the most important thing of all.

Samuel J. Fell

Invisible Threads

[Published in the Summer issue of Peppermint Magazine. EXCERPT]

Microfibres are emerging as one of the biggest environmental problems of our time, and they originate from the shirt off your back, writes Samuel J. Fell

It’s the biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of, and it stems from the most basic of sources – the perpetrators are hanging in your wardrobe, in drawers, folded neatly in your linen closet. Microfibres, plastic fibres invisible to the naked eye that have been shown to shed from synthetic clothing during the washing process, are flushing via domestic wastewater through sewage treatment plants, eventually making it to rivers and the ocean.

A 2011 study by a number of scientists, including UNSW ecologist Dr. Mark Browne, found that microfibres make up 85% of human-made debris on beaches and shorelines around the world.

Microfibres themselves are tiny fragments of plastic debris that are micrometres in diameter, which emanate from myriad different sources – tyre dust; paints; the breaking down of secondary microplastics (plastic bags, take-away containers, plastic cutlery); airborne synthetic fibres; microbeads (which have been banned from facial cleansers and some cosmetics in the US and the UK).

The main culprit however, is synthetic clothing; fleece, rayon, acrylic and polyester garments, all of which emit thousands of microfibres every time they’re washed. Given, in 2014, 60% of all fabric produced by the textile industry was polyester, it’s little wonder microfibre pollution is becoming as rampant as it is.

The problem came to light in 2004, when Dr. Browne and a research team, through extensive testing, found these fibres to be the most prominent form of man-made waste washing up on shorelines worldwide. “A lot of the NGOs, who do their best to try and tell people about environmental issues, had been doing a pretty poor job of explaining the issue of plastic pollution,” explains Dr. Browne, a world-renowned authority on plastic debris pollution.

“They were confusing a whole range of issues… saying, it’s to do with microbeads, it’s to do with bags, it’s to do with packaging,” he goes on. “I [thought], actually, that’s really funny because I’ve gone around the world sampling on different shorelines from the poles to the equator, and most of the material we’re finding, although we expected to find bags and microbeads, are actually these fibres.”

Feature – Bigsound Turns Up The Volume On Gender In The Music Industry

[Published in The Guardian (Australia), September 10 2017]

‘We’re over it’: Bigsound turns up the volume on gender gap in music industry

Gender inequity in Australian music is as old as the industry itself – but this year’s Bigsound conference was focused on solutions. By SAMUEL J. FELL

Brisbane’s grimy entertainment district, Fortitude Valley, is home to a slew of live music venues, bars and clubs – and each year, the Australian music industry descends for annual conference Bigsound.

Tagging itself as a global gathering of musicians, media, brands and music lovers, Bigsound is at once a showcase for local talent, and a forum for discussion about an industry that’s in a constant state of flux. And two of the big issues on the table this year revolved around gender: sexual assault and antisocial behaviour at festivals and in live music venues; and gender equality and diversity within the industry itself.

The former issue was brought to the fore recently via a number of alleged assaultsat the Tasmanian leg of Falls festival. Helen Marcou, co-owner of Melbourne’s Bakehouse Studios, chaired a panel that argued for preventative, rather than reactive, measures.

Marcou is a co-founder of Your Choice, an initiative launched in Melbourne in July and heavily backed by industry heavyweights, which aims to curb sexual assault, violence and discrimination at live music events by making promoters, venue owners, artists and managers aware of the issue; and by giving them the tools and information they need to stop toxic behaviour.

As Marcou’s fellow panellist and PR head Stacey Piggott said, the only way culture will change is if people within the industry talk to each other about it: “The conversations need to be peer to peer,” she said.

The issue of gender equality was also on the table. In late July, the Skipping A Beat report was released by the University of Sydney, which assessed the state of gender representation in the industry. It found that women were poorly represented across festival lineups and industry boards; on stages and backstage.

The same week, industry copyright licensing body APRA/AMCOS released their own report which found that female members share in only 10% of the total royalty pool, and that more women are represented in cricket than songwriting in this country.

To many, these statistics come as no surprise.

“We’ve acknowledged there’s a problem; this is about how to deal with it,” Leanne de Souza said. De Souza is the executive director for the Association of Artist Managers, but also runs Facebook group MEGA (Music Equity Group for Action), advocating for a more inclusive industry.

“I think the conversation around gender equity has been so focussed on calling it out that we’re over it, women who’ve been working in the industry now for 20, 25 years are tired of that,” she tells me later. “We’ve heard those stories, so now it’s time to turn the narrative – what’s working?”

As a result of the research undertaken by RMIT, APRA/AMCOS have committed to a 25% increase in female members over the next three years. From October, the body will invest each year in the mentoring of female artists across a range of genres; and they have called for the entire industry to take action and eradicate gender disparity.

“So now there’s this energy for change,” de Souza said, “and there are some great things happening. There’s the Listen movement, safe spaces, there are youth mentoring services – there’s all this good stuff.”

Listen, based in Melbourne, is a diverse and inclusive feminist music collective whose focus is on giving a voice to minorities in the industry. It’s co-organised by Elspeth Scrine, who spoke on two panels at Bigsound and whose flyers could be found at venues across the Valley: “Top 5 Cop Outs For Booking A Lineup That Is Not Diverse” read one – no doubt a direct response to the Days Like This festival booking an all-male lineup in March.

Other fliers listed simple things everyone could do to make for a more inclusive industry: respect people’s pronouns; avoid reducing an artist to one part of their identity, like their gender; make sure your workplace has toilets that everyone can use.

They are deliberately easy ways to rebalance an industry that for decades has been seen as a boy’s club; a recent study by Triple J program Hack showed an overwhelming male bias within the majority of aspects of Australian music.

“It’s about individual accountability,” said de Souza. “There’s a sense in the industry that we’re moving towards a positive focus.”

Remembering Dr. G Yunupingu

[Published in the the Sep/Oct 2017 issue of Rhythms magazine]

REMEMBERING DR. G YUNUPINGU

Over the course of the past decade, Rhythms senior contributor SAMUEL J. FELL has written about, and spent time with, DR. YUNUPINGU on multiple occasions – he shares observations on an artist Rolling Stone called Australia’s Most Important Voice

It’s close to midnight, July 2010, and it’s cold, more so than usual for sub-tropical Byron Bay. Dr. G Yunupingu and I are standing outside Studio 301, smoking a cigarette together. His keeps going out and so I’ve relit it for him once or twice, fumbling in my pocket for the lighter each time.

We’re not talking much. I’ve told him how I’m enjoying watching him play, and he’s nodded, smiled a little to himself, but we’re spending the time together quietly for the most part; not as journalist and subject, not as white fella and black fella, but as two dudes just sharing some quiet space.

After the almost stifling heat inside, I’m enjoying the brisk air, only wearing a light hoodie. Yunupingu though is wearing a huge jacket which makes him appear twice as wide as he actually is. He’s quite short, slender. He smokes slowly, which is why it keeps going out. He seems in his own world.

Which he is. Over the three or four days I spend in the studio, as he and his team put the finishing touches to his second solo release, Rrakala, I don’t really get a sense as to what that world is like, and I suspect many who spend fleeting time with the man don’t either. All we can do it observe, listen. Watch how he moves, how he interacts, how he works. He is, as I noted in an article for The Saturday Paper in 2015, five years later after spending more time in the studio with him, a man of few words, and so he comes across as somewhat mysterious, a man on a trajectory that I couldn’t understand if I tried.

That notion also plays out in reverse. Yunupingu, born on Elcho Island off the coast of Darwin, is a true Yolngu man and due to his cultural upbringing has no real concept of western life. He has no concept of the press, or of the music industry in which he finds himself, he has no understanding of the significance of appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone, aside from a love of the lyrics to that old Dr. Hook song. It’s just not on his radar, and so me being there in 2010 doesn’t register for him as, ‘there’s a writer from Rolling Stone in the studio’, I’m just another body in the room. I could be from anywhere.

As a result of this lack of concept, Yunupingu isn’t trying to impress people, he’s not attempting to curry journalistic favour, he’s not looking to win awards, he’s creating in the purest form, because he has to, it’s as simple as that.

In the article I wrote for Rolling Stone, which ran in April 2011, the same month Darwin-based label Skinnyfish Music released Rrakala, I wrote how refreshing this was. Over the course of my career as a music writer, I’ve interviewed hundreds and hundreds of musicians, and while many of them, the majority of them I hope, create because they have to as artists, none of them come within stone’s throw of Yunupingu. He is the only musician I’ve ever encountered who can honesty say they are completely pure as creators. And it showed in his music, in the way if affected people across the globe.

***

It was 2008 when Yunupingu – guided by label-boss, bass player and longtime friend Michael Hohnen – released his eponymous solo debut. The powerful simplicity of this clutch of songs, the obvious meaning to him and his people they conveyed, and the angelic voice with which they were adorned, stunned a jaded music establishment. The music itself was nothing new, essentially folk music, but the way in which it was delivered was almost miraculous.

Rrakala was a calculated release – calculated by Hohnen and Skinnyfish co-director Mark Grose – which capitalised on the success the debut had here in Australia, and over in Europe. It was Rrakala that brought Yunupingu to America, helping raise his star even higher. The third solo release, The Gospel Album, released in 2015, came about, by comparison, almost by accident – once again at Byron’s Studio 301, looking to pass some time before another album came together (a record of Yunupingu’s songs, backed by a symphony orchestra was in the works at that point), Yunupingu started playing, Hohnen jumped to press record, and so that album, inspired by the Methodist gospel music Yunupingu was exposed to as a child, tumbled forth, appearing as if from nowhere.

I spent a little more time in the studio for this album, writing in this instance for The Saturday Paper, as I mentioned. As I noted in the subsequent story, “There was a different energy in the air, a raw excitement, an almost incredulity at what was happening.” Where the Rrakala sessions were, for lack of a better phrase, serious business, The Gospel Album sessions pulsated with a sense of fun. Not that Yunupingu wasn’t having fun in 2010, but this was free and seemed easy. By that point, he had nothing to prove and it was joyous.

Hohnen wanted Yunupingu to “blow off some steam” after the intense high this studio time would have given him, and so he and I organised a pop-up gig at the tiny Civic Hall in Mullumbimby, ten kilometres north-west of Byron. I took care of the details – my one and only stint as a promoter – and come the Wednesday morning, a few days later, Hohnen posted show details on Yunupingu’s Facebook page.

People began showing up at around two in the afternoon, and a couple of hours later, as the sun set over another chilly sub-tropical winter’s scene, almost four hundred formed a line which snaked from the Hall’s front doors, down Dalley Street past the fire and police stations, almost to the post office down on the corner. I walked along the line, killing time before opening the doors, chatting with people I knew, really feeling the sense of excitement these people were exuding, along with a sense of almost-disbelief that they were about to see Dr. Yunupingu in such an intimate setting. Some people were in tears at the thought.

A little while later, in the tiny green room, Hohnen and Yunupingu arrived, the latter once again rugged up to ward off the chill, a smile on his face as he contemplated playing his songs – two of them brand new, only recorded in the days prior – to people in a warm little hall somewhere in the countryside with his friend by his side. I’d enlisted a rag-tag group of volunteers and a local sound engineer, Hohnen had put together a band. Just before going on stage, Yunupingu was bouncing on his feet, smiling, calm, ready.

The show was magic. Only an hour or so, it wasn’t even so much a show as it was a small gathering. “One of the great things about that whole gig, was the community feeling,” Hohnen recalled in my article. “We walked out at the end of it and said, ‘We should do this everywhere in Australia’.” Yunupingu came off stage grinning, Hohnen was grinning too, everyone was – it was a moment which captured all that had happened in that three or four day period; the music was so real and had been flowing so freely, it was just a joy to behold for all concerned, not least of all Dr. Yunupingu.

***

Yunupingu’s passing in late July after a long battle with illness closed a chapter, but by no means ended a story. The music he created so purely has lifted the spirits of countless people, and will no doubt continue to do so. The man truly was on his own trajectory, and to spend even a little time with him was something special – his gift will certainly be missed, by people all over the world.

Jerusalem… A Brief Portrait

[UNPUBLISHED]

Jerusalem throbs with a religious fervour, with a visceral sense of time and place, with tension you can almost cut and with a power that’s hard to put your finger on.

It swelters in summer heat, its maze of streets – in both the new and old cities – an indecipherable sprawl of foot-polished stone, undulating with the hillside, sharp left turns and dips, rivulets of some liquid or other coming to pool in the cracks, covered over with wet cardboard and shredded paper; detritus and bits and pieces that, at the end of the day, are hosed off and left to fester in the damp heat.

Damascus Gate

Outside the daunting Damascus Gate, perhaps the most formidable entrance to the Old City, long and black guns are strapped to uniformed fronts, tan pants tucked into boots planted firm on shining flagstones behind blue Police barriers. Inside the gate though, in the Old City on the final day of Ramadan, in the Muslim Quarter, the market booms and bustles and people throng. A seething mass bumping up against one another as they move from place to place, up steps, vanishing into dark corners behind the old rock, the giant walls disappearing behind as you descend into the maze, covered alleys decked with garments and plastic toys and sweets with names you can’t pronounce and shouldn’t pretend to.

We follow the stations of the cross and stop in small churches amidst lush gardens, oasis’ from the heat and noise outside. For the most part, they’re empty and quiet and our footsteps echo and we whisper just because. A lone woman kneels at the alter and starts to sing and her voice fills the entire space, ricocheting and furling back on itself and it sounds like a choir and stuns us to silence as we listen, before slowly fading out.

Temple Mount

The Temple Mount is closed and things are quiet at the Western Wall. We don yamakas and wander down to the ancient barrier and touch its smooth sides, think for a minute about what it all means. The tension doesn’t seem too heightened here, the sunshine layering the scene perhaps a pleasant distraction from what could, or what has, or what might happen. An electrifyingly religious place for so many with varied beliefs and opinions as to what it means, what happened, who has ownership, who can do what and when. The guns are still there, but they’re hanging loose and it all seems so calm.

Jordan (background)

Having dinner with the ABC middle east correspondent on the hill above town, Jordan visible through the heat haze as the sun sets. We talk shop and throw opinions and observations onto the table among the tall cans of Budweiser and bottles of red wine, olives and bread and shredded meat. Talk is cheap and as the wine flows, so to does the speculation. Half a dozen people from halfway around the world trying to dissect a place as tangled and gnarled as any on earth.

Flashes of gold from a way across the desert as the setting sun reflects back off glass in another country.

The streets around the Old City seem grey and listless. The closer you get, the busier it is though, cars and buses bumper to bumper, horns blaring. At the crossing, men and women of different religions and belief systems stand side by side, the minutia of the everyday relegating them from sworn enemies to mere people crossing the road together, with their shopping, to catch the bus, to head home, to pray, to pick up their children.

The market bustles and a young Asian man sprints past, accosts someone, seems his passport has been lifted from his pocket. The accosted man is indignant and the Asian kid nearly beside himself, potentially trapped somewhere he no longer wants to be.

Alleyways

James and I head out later, at night, to a shisha bar where we smoke giant pipes and drink cold Lebanese beer while discussing this and that. Stray cats play in the garden and jump from the trees. A young woman sitting by herself receives a birthday cake from the staff who sing to her, and we wonder why she’s there alone.

Ramadan had finished the day before, and having dinner high atop one of the local hotels, we hear what seems an explosion, but are told it’s just the signal for the sun setting and so the feast begins – seems an odd signal in this part of the world, an explosion. To get here from Tel Aviv, we’ve driven through the West Bank, a long and fast run through the desert which, before you realise, is bordered on both sides by high barbed-wire fences, cameras every fifty metres on tall poles, monitoring the scene… one doesn’t stop on this road, not even for a flat tyre, one just drives until the destination, either way, is reached.

We pass through checkpoints along the way, and the soldiers manning them look no older than seventeen.

You can see the Palestinian towns, marked by tall mosques, and the Israeli settlements, marked by red-tiled roofs and huge Israeli flags. It’s tense and I feel the car speed up a little. It seems so incongruous that this place, the West bank and Jerusalem itself, these volatile pits of possible violence and despair, are so close to Tel Aviv with its convivial feel and its cosmopolitan ambiance. They seem of different countries.

We leave Jerusalem after a couple of days having walked the flagstones and seen the people and the places. It still sat heavy and foreboding, despite the sun and the heat, a place that could erupt at any time and yet is so full of history and tales tall and true that one could get lost there for decades.

It recedes behind us in the rear-view mirror as we re-enter the West Bank, past checkpoints and guns, and seems like it wasn’t even ever real, just an imaginary place where trouble brews but where people just get on with life as if it’ll never change.

Samuel J. Fell

Tel Aviv… A Brief Portrait

[UNPUBLISHED]

Tel Aviv shimmers rippled gold from the midnight desert. A sprawling jewel against black from the tiny airplane window, disappears as we bank left, reappears on the far side. Closer now. The thud as we touch down and reverse thrust and finally, still.

From verdant English countryside to layers of burnt orange and gold, a layer of dust covers it all in a dull warmth, the heat from the dying day a slow and languid wash that envelops you as you navigate the airport, Hebrew lettering and blue and white flags and shawls draped and flaccid in the marble quiet.

In the old town, Jaffa and its ancient port, lights are lit and music tumbles from old, arched doorways despite the time of day and we sit on the top deck and drink Israeli beer after we’ve put her to bed and we catch up, smoking in the still air, wafting upward. The new city burns bright in the middle distance, white light, while below us basks in yellow, the flickering painting the cobbled streets in ever-changing layers of light and shade. Stray cats prowl and the purple bougainvillea spews over an old grey wall like spent beer from a bottle left in the freezer overnight.

The next day we wander the maze of the port, ancient and labrynthian, tiny galleries and churches hewn into rock on the side of the hill rolling up from the water. We stand on the hilltop and look across the half-moon bay. Sunlight, ever-present, dances on the water, on the stone, off the pale walls of houses shuttered against the building heat. The cats sit in the shade in high places and watch from under lidded eyes.

Across Yefet Street, into the flea market and its own twisted alleys and underpasses, antique dealers’ wares spill onto the roadways. We sit outside a café under an orange umbrella and drink weak black coffee with small glasses of water as people wander past – young and old, some with children hanging off them, in prams and strapped to chests, men on scooters with cigarettes hanging from lips and mobile phones pressed against their ears, the sound of car horns always on the breeze which comes in from the Mediterranean and becomes a part of the city noise like the talking and the yelling, the call to prayer and the music from weddings and churches, Arabic music and Jewish music, the occasional burst of a western sound, cars and trucks and bikes through the round-about at the clock tower, horns and shouting, street hawkers and people gawking and yelling.

The sound of a city shifting restlessly in the midday heat.

In the mornings, I strap her to me and we walk for an hour or so while she sleeps. I pick up one of the newspapers thrown on the front step and tuck it into my back pocket should I come across somewhere to drink coffee while we’re out but I never do, nothing is open this early. We have the old streets to ourselves and we make for the water, along the foreshore, into the maze of the port and upward, upward, steps and slopes, warn smooth from centuries of feet, so many feet, up to the crown of the hill overlooking it all and down the other side. Across the wishing bridge. Past the church facing west. Into the shade and bustle of Yefet and into the market where nothing is open and we’re hidden from the sun under shade of narrow paths and old, faded sun-shades stretched across alleys entwined with electrical wires and ornate strands of fairy lights and wreaths of coloured cloth.

We get home before she wakes and I make coffee in the kitchen and sit out the back under the passionfruit vine and read the paper until she wakes up and we have breakfast together as the rest of the house stirs and comes to join us

Everything is burnt orange and gold and there’s a layer of dust that covers it all in a dull warmth and yet it shimmers with a vibrant colour and sheen, polishing the edges and washing the roadways of rubbish and refuse, detritus from centuries of use and overuse and underuse, and the green-blue Mediterranean gently pushes up against its edge and the palm trees bow in the breeze and Tel Aviv exists, shimmering rippled gold in the midnight desert.

Feature In No Depression Magazine (US) – Yirrmal & Indigenous Australian Music

Appearing in the summer issue of legendary American roots music magazine No Depression, SJF has a long feature on up-and-coming artist Yirrmal, and the scope, influence and identity of indigenous Australian contemporary music.

Issue out in mid-May.

And consider subscribing to No Depression – for only $6 a month, you can support ad-free, in-depth arts journalism. Head to the website HERE.

Stars & Hype Reviewed In Rhythms Magazine

A review of Stars & Hype: First Time Notes On The American Deep South has been published in the January / February issue of Australian roots music bible, Rhythms magazine.

Written by legendary Australian journo Michael Smith, the review goes in-depth, and make comment on not just the work in question, but also the “paradoxes that combine to make America what it is.” See below for the full review.