Aboriginal Brass Band Offers Burst of Hope in a Bleak Community
By CLARISSA SEBAG-MONTEFIOREJAN. 24, 2016
YARRABAH, Australia — This remote stretch of coastline in north Queensland has much to offer: pristine beaches dotted with mango and palm trees, tropical breezes, an azure ocean.
But the lush surroundings belie a troubled history. Yarrabah was settled as an Anglican mission in the 1890s, and Aboriginal and some South Sea island natives were forcibly relocated here from their traditional lands. Under mission rule, they toiled in agriculture, working on sugar and coffee plantations, for meager rations.
Children were separated from their parents and sent to church-run dormitories, their native languages banned and their freedom of movement curtailed and the Aboriginal community still struggles with this grim history.
There is, however, one aspect of the mission days that many older residents here remember fondly: the Yarrabah Brass Band. Established in 1901 to accompany hymns, it was one of eight indigenous brass bands in Queensland (brass, unlike string instruments, can survive humidity and heat). When the mission closed in the 1960s, the Yarrabah band also fizzled out.
Now, after nearly a half-century of silence, the band is making music. In an era when brass bands have fallen from favor in their mother country, Britain, the tradition has come to life here in the past few years. And in its own modest way, the band is helping to heal deep racial wounds.
The third annual Yarrabah Band Festival drew about 2,500 people in November. Many had made the journey from the city of Cairns, about an hour away, for the first time — settling on the grass to watch the band play with the well-known Australian jazz musician James Morrison.
“It sounds like here is an English tradition being foisted upon indigenous Australia — what a horrible colonial thing to do,” said Mr. Morrison, the former artistic director of the Queensland Music Festival, one of the project’s main supporters. “Nothing could be further from the truth. They loved it. It was a source of pride.”
Greg Fourmile, who plays the euphonium, is credited with reviving the tradition in 2012. He agreed that there was a sense of “ownership, and it’s a shared thing because music is universal.”
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On a recent hot afternoon, the band rehearsed as children scampered under palm trees. People lounged on wide porches, fanning themselves. Among the players was Paul Neal, a burly, bearded youth counselor who said he once had “trouble clapping, let alone playing an instrument.” Undeterred, Mr. Neal, 31, pitched up at the band tryouts, chose the tenor saxophone (one of 15 donated instruments) and learned his somewhat rough scales in six weeks.
All 13 of the band members are indigenous, with the exception of Tracey Radford, the conductor, who is white, and Lee Rogers, an African-American who plays the alto saxophone and is known as “the Texan.” Mr. Rogers, who served in the United States Navy, moved to Yarrabah in 1994 and married a local woman.
With its amateur cast of players that includes schoolchildren and grandmothers, the Yarrabah Brass Band does not always hit the right notes, and its rehearsals can be faintly raucous.
But a polished performance is only one aim. More important, Mr. Fourmile said, is a hope that the band can act as an ambassador to bring the community together and show the outside world another side of Yarrabah.
“We’ve been on the map for all the bad reasons,” said Errol Neal, who is the mayor of Yarrabah and is Paul’s uncle. Residents still have “post-traumatic stress,” he said, “as a result of being taken away, forcibly removed.”
The band is “a big part of how we move forward,” he added.
Though it is just an hour’s drive down a winding road from Cairns, Australia’s gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, Yarrabah has not benefited from a similar boom. Yarrabah, which is wedged between mountainous rain forest and the Coral Sea, first got electricity in the 1960s, followed by its first bitumen road, residents say. During the 1970s and ’80s, a permit was required to visit.
The white man, locals often joke, is akin to Migaloo, an albino humpback whale, because it is rare to see either in Yarrabah.
The area’s isolation contributes to the widespread poverty here. According to Mr. Neal, the unemployment rate in Yarrabah is 80 percent, with younger people the most affected. About 4,500 residents inhabit just over 400 houses; others live in makeshift bush shacks. Parts of town have a gritty, desperate feel.
Yarrabah is an alcohol-restricted zone as part of efforts by the state government to curb alcoholism in indigenous communities. There are high levels of domestic violence and drug use, with crystal meth making inroads.
To help counter those problems, Mr. Neal hopes to transform the coastal shire into a tourist destination: He has proposed a $250 million eco-tourism village and an $80 million cruise ship terminal. Yarrabah has received $7 million in government funding for a ferry jetty connecting it to Cairns.
“We have to get off the welfare — give our people a sense of hope,” he said. “We don’t want to be filling in rehabilitation centers, or correction centers, or being hooked up in dialysis, or going to the graveyard.”
Who will come is another question.
Many remain at best apathetic, and at worse hostile, toward their Aboriginal neighbors. Some assume you still need a permit to visit; for others there is a perception that if your car got stolen, “you’d be able to find it” here, said Ms. Radford, the conductor.
Mr. Fourmile, whose wife is white, said the band was an instrument to combat racism. “To make people realize this is not a scary place where all the black fellas hang out,” he said. “Yarrabah is not Alcatraz — it is a community.”
“One way to break down barriers is to educate people — and what better way than to have an event based on music, because everyone understands music,” he added. “To show people that we are just like everyone else.”
In the 1990s, Yarrabah had a high suicide rate, said Mr. Neal, the saxophone player, who specializes in self-harm prevention. “The youths that graduate here don’t have a job to come back to,” he said. “They have trouble getting out of the community, let alone the state. Empowerment is low, self-esteem is low.”
The irony of gaining empowerment by returning to a culture introduced by British colonialists is not lost on the band’s members. Paul’s mother, Teresa Neal, a flute player, said the difference was that while band members were forced to play during the mission days, “now we’re freely picking up the instruments ourselves.”
During the mission, being a member of the band provided a rare route to escape the shire. The band members, wearing black caps and crisp cream shirts, toured Queensland.
Now, the band is providing a window on the world, performing at events like the “Tropical Jam” at the Group of 20 finance ministers meeting in Cairns in 2014. The band also dreams of playing in New Orleans.
At the festival in November, Mr. Morrison played with Robert Patterson, a respected elder known as Uncle Bobby, and Yarrabah Brass Band member.
“The kids were mucking around and there was this great atmosphere — and Uncle Bobby stood there for a minute,” Mr. Morrison said of the crowd, where white and Aboriginal swayed together. “Then he looked at me and said: ‘That’s reconciliation.’ ”
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