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Interview with James Webb from Wadumbah Aboriginal Dance Group.
I met James last year at the Nindji Nindji festival in Port Hedland on my way back from Garma. Editing this interview was hard work for Vicki because James is such a story teller and he was still talking long after the disk run out in the MD recorder. (Tony)
Wandoo - So what's been up with you since we last talked at the Nindji Nindji festival in Port Hedland?
Wadumbah - After the festival we came back to Perth and we've had all our normal work In Perth; Schools, Big Oz Concert, Survival 2001.
On Australia Day I've done jobs especially for the Australian Citizenship ceremonies where people become Australian citizens we do a performance and we welcome them into Australia from the Noongar Aboriginal side.
And of course the 2 big ones that we did after the Nindji Nindji festival on Australia day was the Oz concert beautiful concert, all the different ethnic groups, Russians, Chinese, Lithuanian, all kinds, Scandinavian people that live in Perth that show their traditional dance and music and we're one of them. They feature us importantly, most times at the beginning and at the end, to introduce and finish it all and Aboriginal women like Billy Court sing, The Oz Concert was started as a concert against racism about 10 or 11 years ago. We've been part of it for the last 3 or 4 years.
That one and of course our own one on Australia Day, the 2001 Survival Concert. This one was beautiful, we did it with an elder, Toogar Morrison. He arrived on that day, Australia Day, six o'clock in the morning, spent all day making a huge big sand painting on the lawn of the Esplanade overlooking the Swan River because for Toogar Morrison the Swan River holds a lot of traditional significance cause his family come from this area and this beautiful sand painting was excellent, about 5 to 6 different colors of sand spiraling out from a centre piece like spokes of a wheel and he did the traditional moves and animal skins, singing out singing out moving around the circle.
Toogar Morrison's Aboriginal sand painting - Australia Day, 2001.
I played very eerie spiritual didgeridoo and he had one of his nephews and brother calling out in Aboriginal language telling the story about creation, the stories about other people coming to this area who were not Aboriginal, and in the end the stories about us living together in peace and harmony. At the end of it all the old fella Toogar jumps up and calls everyone in, and, after spending hours upon hours creating this huge sand painting on the lawn everyone jumps on it and dances all over it, my dancers first and then we call everyone else and its gone in 5 mins, back to mother earth. It looks really great though as all the specific painting arms and circular things all around are actually then melded together and it looks quite good even when it's been all mucked up, it's a mixture of all our cultures you see. So we've done a fair few things since Nindji Nindji.
Wandoo - How and when did you first become interested in playing the Didgeridoo?
Wadumbah - I was born and raised in the Kimberley's around Fitzroy Crossing with the Walmatjerri people. I bordered on the Kookahdja tribe, Walmatjerri, Kurnandhi, Nqnqanah, Boonabah and Gigqyah, I speak a smattering of all of those languages but mostly Walmatjerri, and of course now I've been in Perth I have got to know all my Noongar roots right through to Pinjarra so I'm learning Noongar language as well.
I first became interested, well I can't even say that, I just grew up with the didgeridoo there was never a time in my life when I went, hey there's a didgeridoo, it was just a part of my upbringing with the old traditional ceremonies, when I was a child and of course all the ceremonies in a lot of the tribes especially around the Fitzroy river, not so much out in the desert country like Christmas Creek station towards Balgo Kookahdja country I didn't see too much didgeridoo out that way but when you came into Fitzroy Crossing towards Derby and up towards the Mitchell plateau Boonabah country they all use didgeridoo and I grew up with all that and that's when I started playing around with it as a child, making very bad sounds, not doing much with it at all, just playing around with it with all the other boys.
Wandoo - Can you describe your relationship with the didgeridoo?
Wadumbah - The Didgeridoo is an amazing instrument. When I came down to Perth with my wife and children about 12 years ago I was still working with the Commonwealth Public Service, I was a senior Aboriginal liaison officer. All the work I've had has had to do with Aboriginal development, so for a while I sort of put my music on hold, but always, always, proud and strong and known my culture.
When I got to Perth I decided to have a rest from all of that and I left the department, I just got sick of it. I went and joined the Aboriginal music college at Clontarf and spent 3 years there, anyway I picked up the didgeridoo again and started refining my skills on it and then I thought I might just research the didgeridoo a bit.
Through a whole lot of different areas, talking to the elders, talking to some academics who had done a thesis or some kind of study on the didgeridoo, reading some old anthropology books from years ago, and I found out a lot more about the didgeridoo, and I discovered that it was only played in some parts of Australia.
I thought every Aboriginal person played it, I mean I thought it was relevant to most of the Aboriginal nation in Australia but it wasn't, so I started playing it and then I noticed that I was getting invitations to go to places like a preschool or a school.
"Can you play some didgeridoo and do some story telling?", and a lot of my story telling is a lot about actual things that I grew up with, actual stories instead of just concentrating on the dreamtime stories. I would tell them about how we used catch fish by crushing these leaves put the leaves in the water because the sap from the leaves used to knock the fish out little things like this that I had taken for granted and I suddenly realized that there were lots of people in Perth here that really enjoyed hearing about this stuff with me playing the didgeridoo in between.
I developed a real hunger and need to assist in straightening some of these incorrect attitudes about the southern peoples, about the Noongar people, so I then continued on discovering my roots about the Noongar community down here, kept developing the didgeridoo and then I was in a couple of contemporary rock and roll bands playing guitar, singing, using the didgeridoo for some of the songs, Aboriginal songs only. Anyway after a while I looked around and saw that there were a lot of people getting work in Perth that were not Aboriginal using the didgeridoo, and I've always been very tenacious and very proud, sometimes I get too proud I suppose, but I thought, no this is not right, so I kept working harder and harder and I kept getting more and more work and I kept saying to people, "look if your going to have people playing the didgeridoo you should make sure that they are Aboriginal".
If you want didgeridoo played in a music session to your country music or whatever sort of music, you should contract an Aboriginal person, so slowly but surely I built my name up, being very positive, being very assertive built it up so I started taking a lot of that work, and I developed a few friendships with non-Aboriginal didgeridoo players who respected that, and they actually stepped back believe it or not, good didgeridoo players and I was very proud of that, I was very taken by that, that's good.
Then I started doing freelance didgeridoo and dance with a couple of my wives people, and replacing other didgeridoo players when they were sick. Then I thought that I would like to start a Noongar dance group myself, so I contacted my Uncle Peter and told him that I wanted to make a real impact in this state, he had a good job but came down to join me.
I really wanted to show the dancing, I had some good choreography and traditional knowledge, coupled with Uncle Peters knowledge I knew we could really do something good here, it was hard I kept working on my didgeridoo playing kept researching the didgeridoo, and that's what we did.
We started small, couple of $20 jobs here and there sometimes for nothing but we built it up and through all of this my didgeridoo skills got better and better. So I developed this name, this reputation and all the time developing more skills and a real passion for my traditional instrument always remembering that our aim and my whole thing about the didgeridoo and showing traditional dance was about trying to educate audiences, but do it in such a way that the audiences were entertained and just absorbing all this good information without being stressed out about any negatives and by gee we've make a huge impact over the years, working hard, we feel good.
We've had audiences that have not been going our way at the beginning of the show but 99.9% have been with us by the end of the show. We've come across some really bad attitudes especially from children whose parents were very negative about the indigenous culture, and peoples. We've changed all that, we've made a huge impact, Perth, West Australia have adopted us, they enjoy my particular way of playing the didgeridoo, my particular skills, I tend to use a lot more vocals on the didgeridoo. So we've made positive changes. The dancers are now very skilled and confident.
Wandoo - What are your playing and practice habits?
Wadumbah - As I said, I tend to use a lot more vocals on the didgeridoo, I remember talking to an elder from up north and he said "yeah my boy didgeridoo players should be called didgeridoo singers because a good didgeridoo player will always use a lot of vocals to flavor the music", so I tend to do a lot of vocal warm ups before a major show. I try to keep up playing several times a week to keep my lip in, like the professional trombone and trumpet players and before a show I'll be in my corner doing all my vocal warm ups and practicing the rhythmic patterns on the didgeridoo before the show, each, and every show!
Wandoo - What kind of didgeridoos are you using? How do you select your instruments? What is your favorite key?
Wadumbah - I don' t have any qualms about any timber or any area where didgeridoos come from. Most of the didgeridoos I use have been given to me. Because I did contempory music training at the Aboriginal college for 3 years I 'm very much aware now of pitch, and the timbre of each one, now I might have two didgeridoos in approx the key of E, but I'll select one because of the timbre and I'll select the other for it's characteristics.
One thing I've tried deliberately not to do is concentrate on one particular didgeridoo. I've deliberately played large bore ones, small ones, long ones, short ones, all different shapes and sizes and timber, deliberately so that I could get skilled over all instead of concentrating on one or two didgeridoos. I use shorter didges when I want to get a lot of power from it for our warrior dance, and a long one for a beautiful low pitch for our spiritual dances.
Wandoo - Do you have any comments to make about didge healing?
Wadumbah - I've always known that the didgeridoo does things to people, but I've come across some non-aboriginal people who have said this is my healing didge, this is my other didge and it all sounded very superficial and shallow, that I thought these people don't even know what they talking about and I got very annoyed, but when I taught one on one we often spoke about the good effects about the didgeridoo, number one is the meditative aspects of the didgeridoo - now when you're playing a didgeridoo you can feel the solid instrument, say you place your mouth to it, that's one form of focus, and then you can hear the sounds of the didgeridoo.
So I focus in on a lot of the meditational aspects of the didgeridoo. So yes, initially straight off the meditational properties of playing a didgeridoo, the drone that you create, the idea of focusing in on the solid object, being almost forced to breathe properly, and having to relax so you can breathe properly.
Wandoo - What are your view in regards of the spread of the didgeridoo to Aboriginal Communities not traditionally associated with it, like the Noongar?
Wadumbah - We feel for our brothers and sisters in most of southern Australia where the white man hit first and they made some huge negative impact on the aboriginal communities, the missionaries tried to stop us talking our language, now sharing things like the didgeridoo and other cultural aspects like language is part of our way, the Aboriginal way.
The Noongar people didn't use the didgeridoo traditionally, but it has been adopted by the Noongar people, and everybody's quite fine with that, I have no qualms about that because I see that the Noongar people have developed an incredible, beautiful style of playing the didgeridoo which is a lot different from up north.
I haven't heard anything negative from the elders anywhere, not once in my life about why other Aboriginal groups are playing the didgeridoo. I think it is just the nature of the aboriginal people it's a sharing things, and okay you want to play our traditional instrument that's good, and, we're looking at you, yes you're doing it for your traditional dance and stuff, not a problem, we like that.
Wandoo - Do you have a few words about reconciliation?
Wadumbah - Reconciliation, yep. Reconciliation well, Aboriginal people have reconciled with the white community here for years, it's about time it happened the other way, and the thing is too, to have it officially done I thought, I didn't quite like it at first. I mean I've seen it in so many ways as a child growing up.
I've seen all the terrible injustices inflicted upon my people, and I thought to myself what's this reconciliation, what crap is this, what's happening here, why should we have to reconcile, we've been doing it, we've accepted certain things, we've learnt the English language for gods sake. We've reconciled in many, many ways.
We've had Aboriginal people in churches that have become preachers in white man churches and all this. Then as the reconciliation process took off I could see it was a way when I was a child there were very few white people who would go out on their own and say, "hey, don't talk about Aboriginal people like that," because the peer group pressure, from people who were racist. There would always be pressure to shit-can the Aboriginal people, always.
Then when you had an official reconciliation process happening this actually gave a lot of non-Aboriginal people, who really wanted to understand the indigenous culture a way of coming out and saying, right, here we are, let's do it. I eventually saw this as a positive thing, and then I suddenly realized that there's a majority of non-Aboriginal people in this country, from all different nationalities, that really do think a lot about indigenous people, they really do support our people, and that showed me that.
I think it was that official recognition of this reconciliation process that bought a lot of these people out to the front and the minority of people who were racist and all that were driven underground almost. Those people don't like themselves anyway, let alone anybody else. So now I think that reconciliation was a very, very good thing.
Visit the Wadumbah Aboriginal Dance Group website.
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