Keeping it real Aboriginal
Miriam Cosic

THE roots of the biennial Laura dance festival run deep into the texture of central Queensland.

The Ang-gnarra festival ground, near the minuscule township of Laura, 300km north of Cairns, was a traditional dance ground before colonisation, and there are nine bora, or ceremonial, grounds nearby. Several Quinkin rock art galleries in the surrounding countryside are a visual testament to the longevity of the indigenous culture.

The modern festival, which attracts participants from as far north as the Torres Strait and as far south as Brisbane, was started in the early 1980s to preserve and encourage local culture.

"There's a huge fear among indigenous people worldwide about the effects the mass media have on culture," the festival's co-ordinator, Jeremy Geia, says. "Imagine if you lost the skill of reading or writing, or the ability to ride a bicycle or to use a computer. You'd start to question, 'What's going wrong with me?' A lot of Aboriginal people have a cultural identity crisis, about where they fit in the modern world. But I think that's the reality for a lot of people with strong traditions, not just Aboriginal people."

Geia, who grew up on Palm Island, is a man with wide-ranging frames of reference. Referring to Jewish music and Catalan language, the new pope's interest in reviving the Latin mass, and the roots of Afro-Cuban music in Yoruba culture, he takes the problems of Aboriginal people into an international context.

His own grandmother was one of the stolen generations. She was taken from central Queensland when she was a small child and actively discouraged from speaking her language, gugu yimithir.

"We have people from Barcelona here, and they understood when I told them about this," he says. "When Franco was the dictator of Spain, he used to say this about people speaking Catalan or Galician. The Catalan are very proud of their language. The Barcelona football club don't teach their foreign imports to speak Spanish, they speak Catalan. They have press conferences in Catalan, on principle. These are modern-day issues..."

People like Geia, who move easily between worlds, propose contemporary solutions to a longstanding and worsening problem. While some of the elders have expressed concern about the amount of pop music encroaching into the festival, for example, he is unrepentant. Indigenous kids, he points out, consider it far cooler to wear baseball caps and rap than to engage with their own traditions.

"So we've hijacked the hip-hop subculture and we've come up with the 'Lyrics in lingo' competition. We want young people to rap about their community, and add some words and phrases in there, and they get judged on that. Another competition we have is 'Show us where you live' - they rap about their community, where is it, what kind of languages are spoken there.

"We're trying to instil at a very young age what makes up cultural identity, and the elements that make up cultural identity are language, dance, art, song. It's all connected: you have water, ice and steam, but they're all water. Language, song and dance make up every individual on the planet."

Hip-hop isn't the only element of Western culture co-opted at Laura. Each evening, indigenous films were showing in a marquee cinema. And on Friday night, a karaoke competition, cheekily called Laura Idol, was held. Auntie Emily, an elderly woman from Lockhart River who sang country-and-western songs, was one of the show stoppers.

Geia is keen on using modern technology to record and preserve the ephemeral elements of oral culture - song and dance, and, most importantly, language. "If we start losing our language, we lose our history," he says.

The festival is introducing language seminars and Geia wants to attract philanthropists willing to underwrite the creation of programs to teach children language: to invent songs - "like Play School, head, shoulders, toes..." - to record stories in books and to foster indigenous pop music with lyrics in language.

Above all, he would like to see language skills - in both indigenous languages and English - taught with greater rigour. "A lot of people here would like to see their children speak their indigenous language first, then learn English - but to speak them both well, not a mix of creole."

Aboriginal people have always spoken several languages, as different groups intermarried and pursued trade and ceremonial connections outside their own country. For a historically polyglot people, English, so crucial to their survival as Australian citizens, should not be so difficult to master.

"Communication is an Aboriginal game," Geia says. "You communicate with art, you communicate with language and with dance. It's all about keeping the channels clear; that's why we are so adamant about boundaries and following protocols when we can."

The aim of the festival is not to preserve culture in a museum, but to encourage a dynamic engagement with tradition: "We have to use modern tools to preserve and promote the old ways, and not just so we dance the same dances. We can make new dances out of the old language."

Tiwi Islanders, for example, have a bombing-of-Darwin dance, which records Japanese planes coming in over northern Australia during World War II, machine guns firing, and the Islanders' capture of the first Japanese PoW. "That is a big part of their history, and of modern Australian history," Geia points out, adding that dances in indigenous culture are "our log of history".

"We have to keep recording everything that has an impact on the communities," he continues,"otherwise, it's not evolving and that too is a threat to culture."

On Saturday, men, women and children from Lockhart River people performed a traditional dance about the Parrot Sisters looking for mussels. Men, women and children raised dust from the ground with urgent, birdlike movements, the women stamping in mimetic swoops.

Fiona Omeenyo is one of the stars of the Lockhart painting movement. Their work is contemporary in its execution and sensibility, yet is grounded in the stories the young painters are hearing from their elders. Omeenyo's first city exhibition, which immediately brought her to national notice, was a series of paintings about the same Parrot Sisters. Seeing the dancers after seeing her paintings is a vivid illustration of Geia's point: new expressions growing out of old.

And so to hip-hop. "We're trying to have degrees of culture that are acceptable for everyone," Geia says.

The trick is to find a path that neither waters down the power of the old, nor shuts out the allure of the new. Dance at the festival is done to traditional accompaniment - the rhythm of clapsticks and the voices of the songmen (though they wear headsets and their singing is amplified through very 21st-century banks of loudspeakers). "We want to keep the dance as pure as possible," Geia says. "We wouldn't want it mixed with with rock music, for example."

But that's not to deny the importance of pop to indigenous youth. Seeing the children painted up and dancing is cute, but it holds a far greater promise. If teenagers learn to move easily between Western culture and their own heritage, to integrate the competing demands on their self-image, the scourges of suicide and alcohol dependency will begin to be addressed. A band from the Hopevale area, Black Image, played on Saturday night, singing their lyrics in gugu yimithir.

"Things like that go a long way," Geia says. "When you resurrect, maintain and promote culture in that way, people are very proud of that."

Miriam Cosic flew to Laura as a guest of the Queensland Arts and Education Minister.

  © The Australian