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Sweet and Dangerous Music: Soundtrack For A Secret Country


Music has moved many of us to act, and inspires us in our work for justice and liberation. Close friends and comrades tell of how music has helped form, frame and inflame their political consciousness and hunger for justice. While much of the world is being colonised and doped up with formularized vacuous corporate pop/pap, music and the other arts still communicate with our hearts, minds and spirits, to sustain, nourish and move people in ways that articles, books and speeches perhaps don’t.

The words and music of Australian singer-songwriter Shane Howard (www.shanehoward.com.au) have occupied an important space in my life during the past twenty years. In 1982 I scoured London’s record stores for a pricey imported copy of Goanna’s “Spirit of Place” LP, after hearing Howard’s “Solid Rock (Sacred Ground)”, an indictment of the colonisation and dispossession of Indigenous Peoples in Australia. Howard has written many other equally fine and powerful songs, but few pieces of music have ever resonated as strongly with me. It was the first time I recall hearing the word “genocide” in a song.

“They were standing on the shore one day Saw the white sails in the sun Wasn’t long before they felt the sting White man – white law – white gun Don’t tell me that it’s justified ‘Cause somewhere Someone lied Someone died Genocide”

In an interview with Goldmine (May 2002) Howard described his feelings about a visit to Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Alice Springs in central Australia which led him to write the song. “I realised that this country that I grew up in, that I thought was my country, it wasn’t. I had to reassess my whole relationship with the land and the landscape, and understand that we had come from somewhere else, and we had disempowered a whole race of people when we arrived.”

In 1986 I lived and worked in Australia, saw Goanna in concert in Melbourne and found that the words and music of Goanna, Shane Howard, and his sometimes co-writer and bandmate, Aboriginal musician and poet Bart Willoughby, greatly helped me to understand what John Pilger has aptly dubbed “A Secret Country”. While there, I hitchhiked along the Great Ocean Road through Gunditjmarra country, in South West Victoria, where Howard’s musical family and Goanna hail from, still home to a vibrant and politically engaged music scene of black and white musicians, many of them recording in the same folk/rock idiom.

Since then, from London to Lahore, Melbourne to Montreal, Howard’s songs have never been far away from me. They have been havens of refuge and relief in my personal and political life as I have battled to make sense of what one of his songs calls “a world all cut up with barbed wire fences” (“Free As Stone”).

Living in Aotearoa (New Zealand), another white colonial settler state, working for social and economic justice, and in support of struggles for Indigenous Peoples’ self-determination, they have been touchstones for much of my activism. Goanna recorded two other albums, “Oceania” and “Spirit Returns”, combining Howard’s songwriting, singing and playing with those of his sister Marcia and Rose Bygrave, both fine writers and singers in their own right (see my review of Bygrave’s impressive 2001 CD, “Walking Home”, at www.voiceoftheturtle.org/reviews/music). In 1983, Goanna recorded Howard’s “Let The Franklin Flow” as a single and released it under the pseudonym Gordon Franklin and the Wilderness Ensemble. The song, written after Howard had joined the major protest actions against the proposed damming of Tasmania’s pristine Franklin River, hit the Australian top 20 and became an anthem for the movement which ultimately won the fight to stop the dam and an ecological disaster. Just as his music reflects the landscapes of Australia, a passion for environmental justice has remained a major theme in his work.

Shane Howard has released six solo CDs, the latest of which, last year’s self-financed and produced “Beyond Hope’s Bridge”, is a masterpiece of Irish influenced Australian folk music.

Musically and lyrically Howard has increasingly reflected on the history of his forebears that fled to Australia from Ireland during the Famine in the 1850s: “What I saw when in time we reached that fatal shore Men whose crime was to defend their native land and lore Dark skinned men with noble heads bound in iron chains Native people at the mercy of my same oppressor’s reign” (“Silvermines”, from “Clan”, 1996)

Building on his folk music roots, his journeys to Ireland and connections with many Irish musicians have deeply enriched his recordings musically and thematically as he looked at his own history and drew parallels between the Irish experience of dispossession and emigration, and the colonisation of Australia. At the same time he has continued to co-write and play with Aboriginal artists like Willoughby, Kev Carmody, the poet Lionel Fogarty and Andy Alberts. He has also produced releases by Alberts, Jimmy Chi and the Pigram Brothers, among others.

As he put it in the liner notes to 1996’s “Clan”: “Here we are, as Australians, descended of migrants of many cultures, now living on Aboriginal country under a British colonial political system. How do any of us non-aboriginal people make sense of ourselves and who we are and what we are doing here? How do we reconcile the past with the present and future? How do we deal with living in a nation whose legacy to us is one of conquest. How do we face up to the immoral dispossession of the indigenous inhabitants?”

Howard’s songs continue to explore these questions. About myth and reality. But he is as equally adept at singing about relationships, love, loss and hope. About life in big cities, and the remote Outback. Rivers, mountains, deserts and oceans sweep through his songs. His music draws links and connection between people, places and struggles for a better world, but also reminds us not to lose sight of the simple things in life.

Howard is a consummate weaver and teller of stories. The Melbourne Age’s Warwick McFadyen calls him a “sculptor of song, chipping away at the rock of ages.” The characters and situations he sings about seem alive and real. Like the Aboriginal war veteran in “One Eyed Johnny” from his debut solo CD, “Back To The Track”: “I was a soldier in the Army, an educated man, a medal for bravery, a letter from the king, then I come back here, back to my home land, ‘sorry about the job you’re just the wrong colour man’”.

While they are deeply evocative of Australia, a “spirit of place”, Howard’s songs have a global reach. Music is an important part of my life, and there are few contemporary musicians who have made such an enduring impact.

In our struggles for a better world we need to take strong positions against imperialism and all forms of injustice. We need theory, we need to assert our values, we need to organise, to build strong communities of resistance and find courage to carry on. But to stay sane and balanced, we also need the music of people like Shane Howard to feed our souls and keep our hopes alive for a better future.

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