Shane Howard, Irish Australian song-writer of ‘Solid Rock,’ and founder of Goanna, has spent a life time trying to understand and distil the collective Australian story.
This journey has been because he strongly believes songs have great power to make a ‘new dreaming,’ for Australia.
“If it’s a song of great power in the contemporary popular era it might filter through and become part of the traditional culture for a thousand years, and not just five minutes – but Australia seems to be living in that very disposable pop world – we don’t value the folk tradition very much here.”
Part of creating a ‘new dreaming’ is the process of uncovering the truth about Australian history, and for Howard his finding of truth has been made possible through Irish Australian parents who were “very open minded, good and just” and instilled in him a love of music and song (from Irish Parlour songs to Bob Dylan, Peter Seeger, Woody Guthrie) and an openness to Aboriginal Australians who he credits with educating him with the truth.
Howard vividly remembers ‘serious questions’ gradually being raised in his mind from meeting with Aboriginal people – from Robert a friend who set next to him for a short time in class in primary school – to all the Aboriginal people encountered on his travels as a youth, with a limited budget, including an old man of the stolen generation.
“I kept running into Aboriginal people and grew more and more interested in the fact they were the real people of this country, they were the traditional owners, the original inhabitants. And that starts to invite some very serious questions – when you’ve been taught all your life that Australia was settled peaceably and there was no blood spilt here. Meeting Aboriginal Australia taught me that was a lie and that you’ve gotta search for the truth.”
His journeys took him to Uluru, the place which was to inspire the words of ‘Solid Rock’ in his twenties.
“I had an amazing journey out there – a sense of pilgrimage. It was pretty basic in those days – unsealed dirt roads, and camping grounds Mutitjulu.
I had an encounter with some of the local people that put me in touch with the depth of Aboriginal culture, spirituality and connectedness to country. I experienced inma, a corroboree, the night I happened to be there, so it was a really powerful experience to have as a young bloke, to realise that language and cultural practice and deep tradition were still being practiced out there in that country.
It renewed me and filled me up with a sense of the depth of the heartland of this country and reinforced the lie of Captain Cook that this land was Terra Nullius. Once you know those things you can’t unlearn them.”
As he speaks of being back at the rock to specifically perform ‘Solid Rock’ as part of a regular community cultural event – the Mutitjulu Community Carnival Howard is choked with emotion.
“It was a powerful experience that threatened to overwhelm me at any given moment just with the emotion of it and how generous the community were to us- to invite us to come and perform the concert.
No matter how much I try to give back to Aboriginal Australia, I keep getting back more than I can give. Such is the generosity. It was a very powerful and beautiful experience to share with the community.”
He explains that it has been a two year process to be invited to perform at the rock.
“There were a lot of elements to be taken into consideration. You’ve gotta remember Mutitjula, is where the community intervention started, so the last time for them that a lot of white fellahs came into the community was not a pleasant experience so some of it was healing business in a way through the music and it was really beautiful to share in the sport and culture.”
Howard now has three versions of ‘Solid Rock.’ The first is an up tempo version with a singing of some of it in pitjantjatjara with school children from Imampa, Docker River and Mutitjula school.
One of the highlights the ‘unfolding journey’ of ‘Solid Rock’ was working with Trevor Adamson, senior man from Ernbella way, to adjust the literal book translation of his song in pitjantjatjara done by Ruby Jane of Docker River, into a singable form.
“Trevor and I spent a lot of time talking it though, knocking it into shape so it still retained the meaning in English and it still had a meaning in Ptjantjatjara as well that was close to the original.”
Another was the engagement of contemporary and established singer- song writers’ talent, to re-present the song in a second up tempo version.
The other up tempo version brings in Dan Sultan and Natalie Pa’apa’a who does a great little rap – and it was like handing the torch onto the next generation.
The third version is slow and soulful and a result of an inspired studio session where it’s final form spontaneously happened.
Howard is an inspiration to many of our contemporary song writers, and he asks us to write with this in mind: “songs of Lament . . songs to uplift. . . .songs to get us through the difficult times and hard times?
“I think that’s what song writers like Archie Roach, Phil Murray, Paul Kelly, myself are about and a lot of the Aboriginal Song Writers – we’re engaged in a process of trying to define a tradition.”
The tradition he encourages is ‘a new dreaming’ and a sense of truth and depth, where Australian artists will tap into the richness of Indigenous cultures and also play a role in bringing about the achievement of social justice for Aboriginal Australia.
See more of June’s work here