In 2012, as James Morrison was collecting his trumpet from the baggage carousel at Cairns airport, a fan approached to ask where he was playing. ‘Yarrabah,’ the jazz musician replied, referring to the Aboriginal outpost an hour’s drive from the city. The man shook his head, disbelieving. No, he said, you wouldn’t be going to Yarrabah. You’ve got the name wrong. Morrison insisted he was. The man, again, insisted he wasn’t.
Morrison was initially confused: why wouldn’t he be going there? Yarrabah – with its white sands and dazzling blue seas – is postcard pretty. What’s more, the community had asked him for help. Greg Fourmile, a jovial local euphonium player, had ambitions to restart the Yarrabah Brass Band. Formed in 1901 during mission days it had been disbanded in the 1960s; many descendants of the players, though, were still alive – and they wanted to celebrate the music.
It was only later that Morrison discovered what the man had meant. For decades, visitation to Yarrabah was only allowed with a permit; plagued by poor roads and mired by poverty, it was remote and inaccessible. What’s more, the town – where drug and alcohol-abuse remains rife and unemployment hovers at around eighty per cent – retains a reputation for being rough. ‘It opened up many years ago, but I don’t think Cairns had caught up. Of course there are many reasons to go there: they just didn’t know them,’ says Morrison.
Re-launching the Yarrabah Brass Band was for the community. Yet it was also an attempt to show Yarrabah to the world: not as somewhere violent and disadvantaged, but as a vibrant hub of Aboriginal culture. Elders told Morrison that they wanted to welcome and connect with their white neighbours in Cairns.
Tubby and warm, with infectious enthusiasm and can-do attitude, Morrison took the challenge on board. And then some. This is a man, after all, who once conducted the world’s largest orchestra; who managed, under age at just sixteen, to get accepted to the Sydney Conservatorium; and who flies across Australia – band and instruments in tow – piloting his own plane. ‘Nothing is going to bring people [to Yarrabah] like a music festival,’ Morrison told the elders. ‘Let’s have a show!’
Five years later, the Yarrabah Band Festival – an evening of local and national talent, spearheaded by the Yarrabah Brass Band – is in full swing. It’s a spring Saturday night and a scattering of local food stalls sit around the football oval. As children, feverish with excitement, play on giant slides and bouncy castles, the adults sway to the music on blankets laid down on the grass. Later, they get up to dance, jiving in the hot, humid air, as the sound of jazz wafts over the mango groves. Morrison, previously director of the Queensland Music Festival (QMF), wanted to avoid another event ‘where you go shopping and put on acts from around the world. This is not that,’ he says emphatically. ‘It’s all about the Yarrabah Brass Band.’
The musician, however, was acutely aware of the sensitivities around a British tradition imported into steamy, tropical Queensland. The original band was created in an era when Christianity was enforced, languages were banned, and Aboriginal children were stolen. For members of the band and their descendants however, music was one of the few positive takeaways from a traumatic history. Something they could be proud of. Something they had made their own.
‘It had become part of their culture,’ says Morrison. ‘We weren’t bringing in a culture; that had been done one hundred years ago. We were reviving it.’
It is a tradition that this year’s QMF director, Katie Noonan, was adamant must keep going. For the 2017 festival she focussed on country music, with the likes of Troy Cassar-Daley, Sara Storer and Shellie Morris appearing. ‘Country is a very honest music that talks about hardship and difficulties and provides a path out. It’s a very honest art and I think people relate to that – there’s no pretence, no bullshit, it’s just really straight up storytelling,’ she says. ‘I think country speaks to heartache and hardship in a really profound way.’ Morrison agrees that music is a way to heal wounds and band together (no pun intended). Today’s focus on identity politics, he says, shaking his head, is all ‘division, division, division. It doesn’t matter what sex you are, what age you are, what colour you are – none of it matters through music.’
In November, Morrison became ‘the first white fella’ to be adopted into the Yarrabah tribe. Initiated in a smoking ceremony in a sacred space in the bush, he received a new name, Bippera, meaning ‘Music Stick’. Recalling the day, he can’t help but grin boyishly. ‘This year when I arrived they said, Hello Bippera. It’s different to come back as part of the family rather than just a good friend.’
Born in 1952 into a Christian household, Morrison first discovered his love of jazz from the gospel choir. Aged 18, he became a truckie, driving long distances in a monster vehicle, radio on. He had never seriously thought of music as a career. A musician, he says, ‘is not something you decide to be. It’s something you realise you are.’
Last year, in a concert that perhaps topped his composition and performance of the opening fanfare at Sydney’s 2000 Olympic Games, Morrison played for Obama in the White House – or, as he calls it with a chuckle, ‘the Blues House’.
Yet Morrison – who still loves to drive a truck (‘there’s something that goes to this primal thing of wrestling a tiger – with a little bit of skill and courage you can tame it’) insists that the highlight of his career is not a place, event or project.‘Most rewarding is that moment when you see people connect,’ he says, sincerely. ‘It doesn’t matter if it’s in Yarrabah with a bunch of school kids in the most informal concert you can imagine, the connection is exactly the same as standing there in the White House with the president of the United States. It’s being there when the lights come on.’
The lights have certainly come on in Yarrabah. When the festival was first founded in 2013 just 600 or so people turned up; this year, some 4,000 punters were there. Towards the end of the evening the local kids bopped under purple lasers on the stage. Now other Aboriginal communities are saying they would like their own festivals too. They want, in their words, ‘to do a Yarrabah’.
For Morrison this is the future. And it has worked. When he arrived at Cairns airport this time around it was a woman who approached him. ‘Are you going to Yarrabah?’ she asked. Yes he replied. She smiled. ‘You and everyone else.’