Musician Jessie Lloyd is on a mission in more ways than one.
Unearthing songs from the settlements and missions where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lived, her Mission Songs Project adds another dimension to Indigenous Australia’s rich cultural history.
From the late 1700s well into the 20th century, Indigenous Australians were relocated — often by force — to state-run settlements, Christian missions and reserves. Many of these had on-site churches.
“Our people were restricted from practising culture or talking in lingo, and having to sings songs in English in church,” explains Jessie Lloyd, a musician and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman whose research into mission music has unearthed an almost forgotten genre.
Missions were generally run by Christian churches of different denominations, while settlements were run by the state, but Lloyd says music was common to all.
“It was very much the missionaries who introduced our people to Western music and instruments because they had to sing at church,” she says.
“Our people took that music and those skills and adapted to their own feel once church was over.”
Curious about the secular songs sung after church, Lloyd established Mission Songs Project, an initiative to revive Indigenous folk songs and reimagine the music through modern performances.
Finding forgotten songs
As the 2017 recipient of the National Folk Fellowship, offered annually by the National Library of Australia and National Folk Festival, Lloyd has had valuable access to oral histories and folk recordings held in the archives.
But prior to this, the North Queensland-born, Melbourne-based musician spent years travelling the length and breadth of the country to speak with senior Indigenous songmen and songwomen — including Archie Roach and Roger Knox — hear their stories, and collect their songs.
“There are songs about people travelling, people coming to visit, songs about the war, songs about food, saying goodbye to loved ones,” Lloyd says.
“They give a beautiful insight into what day-to-day life was like on the mission, whether people were cutting canefields or working on the pearl luggers or laying rail tracks or on the stock routes.”
The result of her research — and recording — is the album The Songs Back Home, a rare collection of Indigenous songs composed and performed between 1900 to 1999 on missions and settlements.
“I focus a lot on the harmonies, group singing, basically trying to create the feel of sitting in the backyard,” Lloyd says.
“You might have a barbecue, somebody grabs a guitar and everybody starts singing. That’s the sort of communal feel that I try to create.”
Performed as a vocal quartet with singers Deline Briscoe, Emma Donovan and Jessica Hitchcock, and featuring arrangements from some of Australia’s finest musicians, the album incorporates modern Western music traditions and instruments.
“On the album, there’s some beautiful instrumentation that I’ve chosen — pedal-steel guitar and piano accordion — trying to create that old time,” Lloyd says.
“And, more personally, because those are the instruments that my grandfather played. I guess in honour of him and his musicality, I put those instruments on there. And of course, the ukulele.”
It runs in the family
Lloyd’s grandfather, Albie Geia, was a talented musician and the leader of the Palm Island Brass Band.
Her father Joe Geia is one of the pioneering musicians of contemporary Aboriginal music. A former member of No Fixed Address, his solo music career has also been formidable.
Geia’s 1988 track Yil Lull, for instance, is often described as an Aboriginal anthem.
Growing up on a musical diet of hymns, country gospel and island songs of worship, a career in music seemed inevitable for Lloyd.
Having gained formal qualifications from the Indigenous training college Abmusic in Perth in 2002, she is now a vocalist, guitar player, bassist and ukulele player.
Through music, she hopes to keep the legacy of her family, and people, alive.
“The Mission Songs Project is an important work to show that Indigenous people are still maintaining song traditions post-colonisation,” she says.
“We talk about the song traditions in pre-colonisation times of songlines, and all of these language things, but the Mission Songs Project shows we’re still continuing those song traditions. We’re just singing in English and on Western instruments.
“In a 100 years’ time, 200 years’ time, these songs from the Mission Songs Project will be considered traditional.”
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