New label attempting to cross music’s great divide

Source: The Age, Andra Jackson, November 9, 2010

Frank Yamma 
PAPUA New Guineans rapping in pidgin English, Vanuatu women who slap water, and Australian indigenous musicians who sing their own languages are about to reach a wider audience, thanks to a new Melbourne-based record label.

The Wantok Musik label is concentrating on exposing the music of neighbouring Melanesia and indigenous Australia ”to make people realise there is something quite exceptional about the culture and music of this region”, Wantok producer and well-known Melbourne musician and composer David Bridie says.

It will be launched at Melbourne’s The Toff in Town on Saturday, November 20, with the release its first two albums, Akave from PNG string band singer George Telek and Countryman from acclaimed Central Australian indigenous singer-songwriter Frank Yamma – his first recording after a performing hiatus of five years.

The label is an offshoot of the Melbourne based not-for-profit Wantok Foundation established in 2006 to support ”traditional, contemporary, folk, roots and fusion music played or created by musicians that identify with a particular culture from within the region”.

Bridie is on its board, which includes indigenous and Melanesian artists such as Airi Ingram from Grilla Step and singer and former Tiddas member Lou Bennett.

(Melanesia is the name applied to a geographic region north of Australia whose people share a similar culture and ethnicity. It stretches from West Papua and Papua New Guinea through to the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, and numerous smaller islands.)

Bridie, a frequent visitor and performer in the region has a passionate interest in its music. He recorded the cross-cultural Tabaran with his band Not Drowning Waving with PNG musicians in 1988.

He has staged concerts such as Sing Sing in Australia [and New Zealand] as a showcase for the rich diversity in Melanesian music and its links to indigenous culture. Only a stretch of water – the Torres Strait – separates the communities, he points out.

Last year he toured Sing Sing to the United States for five soldout performances. The standing ovations the shows received, along with the Australian and overseas triumphs of Elcho Island’s singer Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, has convinced him of the increasing interest in indigenous music.

”Part of the reason for this Wantok label is that there is an amazing abundance at a whole lot of different tiered levels of Melanesian music both traditionally, with string band music, and contemporary music. The dub and reggae and hip-hop music coming out of Melanesia, I think, is very advanced and very idiosyncratic,” he says.

Wantok will also record indigenous Australian artists ”where appropriate, because there are other labels that are doing that in Australia but there are no labels doing that internationally for Melanesian artists”, says Bridie, who has just returned from making field recordings of Vanuatu’s water musicians, humming and hitting the water with their hands for percussive effect and to sound notes.

Existing indigenous labels include the Northern Territory’s 25-year-old Central Australian Music Media Association’s CAMMA label and Darwin’s Skinnyfish Music, the 12-year-old label behind Gurrumul’s wide recognition.

Another of Skinnyfish’s bands, the eight-piece Saltwater has sold more than 30,000 copies of its first two recordings, nearly all in the territory where it has ”a natural audience”, says Mark Grose, its co-founder and managing director. With the exception of Gurrumul, it is caught in a north-south divide. While both labels are highly successful in the Northern Territory, the $20,000 cost of bringing its artists to southern states to promote their recordings is prohibitive.

Grose who plays bass with Gurrumul says: ”He’s done very well in Europe with record sales of a couple of hundred thousand.

”My suspicion is that people are not responding so much to the indigenous element of Gurrumul but to the beauty of the music … we constantly get stories that ‘we didn’t know he was an indigenous artist because we heard him on the radio’.”

For Wantok to tap into a marketplace in southern Australia for indigenous musicians, ”it still comes back to the quality of the music”.

Grose is hopeful that Saltwater’s latest album Malk, which is being released simultaneously in Britain, may cross that north-south divide.

PAPUA New Guineans rapping in pidgin English, Vanuatu women who slap water, and Australian indigenous musicians who sing their own languages are about to reach a wider audience, thanks to a new Melbourne-based record label.

The Wantok Musik label is concentrating on exposing the music of neighbouring Melanesia and indigenous Australia ”to make people realise there is something quite exceptional about the culture and music of this region”, Wantok producer and well-known Melbourne musician and composer David Bridie says.

It will be launched at Melbourne’s The Toff in Town on Saturday, November 20, with the release its first two albums, Akave from PNG string band singer George Telek and Countryman from acclaimed Central Australian indigenous singer-songwriter Frank Yamma – his first recording after a performing hiatus of five years.

The label is an offshoot of the Melbourne based not-for-profit Wantok Foundation established in 2006 to support ”traditional, contemporary, folk, roots and fusion music played or created by musicians that identify with a particular culture from within the region”.

Bridie is on its board, which includes indigenous and Melanesian artists such as Airi Ingram from Grilla Step and singer and former Tiddas member Lou Bennett.

(Melanesia is the name applied to a geographic region north of Australia whose people share a similar culture and ethnicity. It stretches from West Papua and Papua New Guinea through to the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, and numerous smaller islands.)

Bridie, a frequent visitor and performer in the region has a passionate interest in its music. He recorded the cross-cultural Tabaran with his band Not Drowning Waving with PNG musicians in 1988.

He has staged concerts such as Sing Sing Sing in Australia as a showcase for the rich diversity in Melanesian music and its links to indigenous culture. Only a stretch of water – the Torres Strait – separates the communities, he points out.

Last year he toured Sing Sing Sing to the United States for five soldout performances. The standing ovations the shows received, along with the Australian and overseas triumphs of Elcho Island’s singer Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, has convinced him of the increasing interest in indigenous music.

”Part of the reason for this Wantok label is that there is an amazing abundance at a whole lot of different tiered levels of Melanesian music both traditionally, with string band music, and contemporary music. The dub and reggae and hip-hop music coming out of Melanesia, I think, is very advanced and very idiosyncratic,” he says.

Wantok will also record indigenous Australian artists ”where appropriate, because there are other labels that are doing that in Australia but there are no labels doing that internationally for Melanesian artists”, says Bridie, who has just returned from making field recordings of Vanuatu’s water musicians, humming and hitting the water with their hands for percussive effect and to sound notes.

Existing indigenous labels include the Northern Territory’s 25-year-old Central Australian Music Media Association’s CAMMA label and Darwin’s Skinnyfish Music, the 12-year-old label behind Gurrumul’s wide recognition.

Another of Skinnyfish’s bands, the eight-piece Saltwater has sold more than 30,000 copies of its first two recordings, nearly all in the territory where it has ”a natural audience”, says Mark Grose, its co-founder and managing director. With the exception of Gurrumul, it is caught in a north-south divide. While both labels are highly successful in the Northern Territory, the $20,000 cost of bringing its artists to southern states to promote their recordings is prohibitive.

Grose who plays bass with Gurrumul says: ”He’s done very well in Europe with record sales of a couple of hundred thousand.

”My suspicion is that people are not responding so much to the indigenous element of Gurrumul but to the beauty of the music … we constantly get stories that ‘we didn’t know he was an indigenous artist because we heard him on the radio’.”

For Wantok to tap into a marketplace in southern Australia for indigenous musicians, ”it still comes back to the quality of the music”.

Grose is hopeful that Saltwater’s latest album Malk, which is being released simultaneously in Britain, may cross that north-south divide.

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3 thoughts on “New label attempting to cross music’s great divide

  1. Can someone give us the place(address-any contact) where this music thing is being held in the Most liveable city in Australia – melbourne?

    It would be soo good to hear music from that region of the world…..

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