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A Familiar Air

Peter Parkhill shares some insights about the place of music in a multicultural Australian context and about the recordings of performances and interviews which he donated to the National Library's Oral History Collection in 1986

This article first published in National Library of Australia News February 1995, used with kind permission of the author

SALMAN RUSHDIE has called our time 'the century of the migrant'. He speaks of an era in which people whose forebears have lived in one place for centuries have been forced to move to industrial towns or cities; either in their own countries or to countries far away, simply to earn enough to live. And the views of millions of people as to which group of people or which community they belong, even who they are, are challenged daily.

This question of identity has been a part of the migration experience for many Australians, and prior to the multicultural policies of the Whitlam government, Australian attitudes towards difference as a personal quality were negative in the extreme. For those who arrived here during the 'migration boom' following the Second World War, for example, assimilationist dogma insisted that immigrants to these shores should, and therefore could, abandon every part of their former lives and become 'complete Australians'. As the sociologist Jean Martin put it, quoting a not uncommon view of the time from the lips of an official:

a speaker who declared . . . that immigrants 'should be discouraged from retaining their own language, their own customs and traditions, which they should have left behind when they came to Australia'.

And discussing the incorporation of these views in official policy:

such programmes [were] couched in terms which [implied] a measure of control over the lives of immigrants which few [Anglo] Australians would tolerate in their said: to me assimilation means a period of compulsory education. a period of work and fulfilment of contracts. Assimilation to my mind means the elimination of national clubs.' Note the...language...used compulsory education, elimination of clubs.

While gallons of ink have flowed describing the communities of such 'outsiders' in our cities and those of other countries, such as the United States and Canada, who have also accepted large numbers of migrants from many parts of the world), very little has been made of the extremely fragile cultural traditions people carried with them over thousands of kilometres, to share among fellow settlers as volitional acts of identity. I suggest here that music is one of the most important of these. Not the western European art music of the concert hall, nor jazz (American art music), nor the products of the multinational popular music industry, but the musical traditions which have lived for centuries in many different parts of the world. As a part of daily life, these have been passed on from person to person over the generations and were brought to Australia through the agency of migration. Neither immutable nor static, they thrive within a continuing process of change.

And while language, religion and social practices are the things most usually written about as being the principal 'serious' markers of 'ethnicity'; of Greekness, Scottishness, Lebaneseness and so on, music and dance are relegated to the costumed display&emdash;at 'Festivals of all Nations' or folkloric concerts. Yet music is for many a seemingly unlimited storehouse of symbolic meaning. In my view, music is a kind of expressive capital, inextricably bound up with the personal swag of experience and interpretive strategies we all use to deal with the world. Music in all its manifestations&emdash;a melody; the sounds of a familiar instrument; the voice of a favourite singer; the themes of a modal improvisation; an old ballad; a set of improvised verses or a dance tune, all have within them different banks of symbolic and other meaning for every individual. And equally for every individual, all this is coded in terms of social and personal identity. One listens to a pipe tune not just as a Scot but as a Scot from a village in Aberdeenshire, and not only that, one listens as a Scot from a village in Aberdeenshire who lives in an Australian city and who has in his or her memory a whole set of experiences and associations which become very much a part of the music. But further, the music also presents a focus for this person's Scottishness.

The ud, the Middle-Eastern plucked lute

For the second generation of migrants from Europe, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, Britain and elsewhere, identity is something of a choice. In addition to members of the family, others coming from the same parts of the country and people who speak the same language, the sons and daughters of post-war immigrants have friends from university, from school or from work; not necessarily from the same background. They have a social mobility which was denied their parents, and for those who came to Australia as immigrants there were no such choices.

And so what of the music of that time; what of the musicians?

Many of the musical traditions (and music-related traditions), which came to Australia operated as smaller versions of those overseas. Some clubs and restaurants, featuring music as one of the attractions (often the most important one) thrived in several Australian cities, while parties, picnics, national day celebrations, religious festivals, seasonal celebrations, baptisms and weddings all called upon local musicians to fulfil the requests of the guests for performances of popular songs of the time or songs or dances from their home regions.

We used to sit out in front of in Exhibition Street. Someone would come up and say, Please, my daughter's getting married next month, can you come and play for the wedding.'

I say, 'wait here please,' and I go inside and speak to the others. I come back and I say to that man,' All right, we'll play, it will cost so and so'. And so we go and play for that wedding. Oh, many people asked us like this. And we get tips, too.

(A Greek musician interviewed by Peter Parkhill, Melbourne, 1976.)

Singer and ud player, Said Hajal and the Melbourne group, Middle East Night

One of the most important features of these musical climates is that the inhabitants were almost always in contact with the parent country. Visits from overseas performers were an important part of life among many communities, as was, especially by the late 1950s and early 1960s, recorded music. Much of this material, in the form of disks and cassettes, was commercially imported, though, of course, stores of recordings were brought here with individuals among their personal effects. The recordings produced in Australia were invariably custom pressings, put together by the musicians or their friends and distributed among members of the community through private sales or by subscription, through the larger emporium-style businesses in cities like Sydney and Melbourne or through corner shops in various community-specific areas, staffed by people who spoke the language of their customers.

These recordings have an important place in the communities which generated them. First, they were made by performers who were well known, if not in Australia, at least to their audiences in cities like Sydney and Melbourne. Second, because records and tapes are associated with successful performers in the commercial popular-music industry, the performers, and therefore the music on these custom-recordings was seen in the same context. And third, the performances frequently included extra-musical material&emdash;musicians congratulating each other on their performances, for example, or cries of approbation, assent and approval from members of an 'audience'.

The musicians themselves led busy lives. Very few of these individuals attempted to use music as their sole source of income, and so rehearsals and performances would come to dominate their lives outside working hours. At some clubs and gatherings, musicians were expected to start early and to perform, almost without stopping, until the early morning. They would also be expected to have protean repertoires&emdash;knowledge of songs and dances from every region of the parent country, in addition to songs, and styles of playing and singing, which had achieved recent popularity overseas.

Many musicians have composed songs dealing with various aspects of life in Australia, and some of these are in two languages, that of the musical tradition governing the composition of the song, and the other, Australian English.

The Tsourdalalkis Brothers, George and Kostis

Early in 1974, while working as a singer in various folk music clubs in Melbourne, I became very interested in some of the major transplanted musical traditions operating in Australia. I visited musicians, singers and other musically involved individuals in clubs and in their homes, and as the word spread among members of various language, nationality or region-based communities, I was invited to concerts, parties and all kinds of gatherings to hear the music and to meet new people.

I acquired a 'professional' cassette recorder (a contradiction in terms), a microphone donated by the then Port Phillip Folk Foundation (now the Victorian Folk Song and Dance Society) and went off to initiate a personal project in which I have been involved now for more than twenty years. The Australia Council subsequently made it possible for me to have the use of a Nagra IS tape recorder and an allowance for tapes, batteries and limited travel expenses.

The Oral History Collection at the National Library of Australia acquired this collection in 1986. It now comprises In excess of two hundred hours of recorded performances and interviews, dealing with material from the musical traditions of Greece, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Italy, non-Greek Macedonia, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Spain, China, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Ukraine, Russia, East Timor and the Pacific Islands. The collection also includes recordings of sea shanties; Australian student and political songs; discussions and performances of English, Scottish and Irish traditional music and song; European dance music played in rural and urban parts of the country; recitations, yarns and stories, including a collection of Arabic and Turkish language stories recorded in Melbourne in 1976; music-hall and vaudeville songs, other kinds of popular music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and songs from various wars.

A short time into the running of this project, several contributors made it clear to me that the work in fact offered them an opportunity to leave something behind for future generations. For these musicians, the idea of a recorded music collection in a national institution was (and is) wholly satisfactory. And as a corollary, knowing that I was acting according to their wishes, my confidence in the project increased a great deal.

The late Veljan Vasilevsk playing the non-Greek Macedonian gaida, a bagpipe with double-reed chanter and single-reed drone

In addition to setting up the collection at the National Library, it has also been important to make people aware of these traditions. Prior to l975, few Anglo-Australians had heard very much of these kinds of music and in general, the sounds of the instruments, the extraordinary variety of regional, personal or collective styles associated with individual traditions, the extremely high quality of musicianship and musical integrity among musicians and singers, and the ways in which these traditions operated in Australia were mostly unnoticed or ignored though there were some notable exceptions. (Gail Holst, for example, began her research into urban Greek popular music while living in Melbourne and Sydney, and the folk movement took occasional notice of some individual performers.)

Since that time, the ABC has presented significant numbers of programs on these musical traditions, some written and presented by myself (1975 to the present) and some by others, notably the regular broadcasts of vastly different kinds of music in the ABC Radio National and ABC FM program, Music Deli. Over the years l have also presented lectures and talks on different aspects of transplanted music now extant in Australia, and have contributed to various publications.

The obvious next step in this project is the preparation of a work for future publication. This work will include oral history style accounts of the lives of musicians and singers in Australia, as well as descriptions of the various musical traditions and the forms and styles of vocal and instrumental music which they comprise. Over the past few years I have made several attempts to buy time in order to put such a work together. Sadly, this kind of publication has not been a priority for the various funding bodies whose policies might have allowed them to contribute. There is, however, no doubt that such a work will emerge, and in tandem with the National Library's collection of recordings, will help to 'leave something behind' of a generation of musicians, who, like their counterparts in the United States at the beginning of this century, will never be here again.

PETER PARKHILL contributes to ABC Radio National programs and continues to work with traditional musicians. He is currently preparing material for publication

Some of Peter Parkhill's Publications

"Two Folk Epics From Melbourne", in Meanjin, 1983, Melbourne University Press, Parkville, Vic.

The Music of Greece: a Brief Introduction, The Boite, Melbourne, 1984.

"Ethics, and a Folklore of the Young", in the Proceedings of the First National Folklore Conference, Aust., Folk Trust, Melbourne, 1984.

Cretan Traditional Music in Australia, commentary booklet to accompany disc of the same title, Sydney, 1985.

"Some Aspects of Performance Practice Among 'Multicultural' Musicians", in the Proceedings of the Second National Folklore Conference, Aust., Folk Trust, Sydney, 1986.

"The National Folklore Conference, An Overview", in Australian Folk, Curtin University, Perth, 1989.

"Muslim Musicians in Australia", in the Educational Supplement to the Muslims in Australia Exhibition, Museum of Victoria, in press.

"The Dark Side Of The Myth" and "Sabahattin Akdagcik", in Matia, Performing Arts Board, Sydney, 1987.

'Of Tradition, Tourism and the World Music Industry' in Meanjin, 3/1993, Melbourne University Press, Parkville, Victoria.

'Traditional Music Collections in the Sound Archive at the Australian National Library', in Papers from the 1991 Folklore Conference, Australian Folk Trust, Canberra, 1993.

See also: Ud Web / Oud Web


australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory