Frank Yamma headlines Down By The River (7 October) as part of Semaphore Music Festival (Adelaide).
This Labour Day Monday, the port-side suburb of Semaphore on the coastline of Adelaide, Australia’s UNESCO City of Music, will celebrate the UNESCO Year of Indigenous Languages with Down By The River (as part of Semaphore Music Festival), a festival of Indigenous music led by Pitjantjatjara storyteller, Frank Yamma.
Frank, who wrote his first song aged 16 on cardboard with a piece of burnt wood, rose to international prominence during his fifth decade of life, with his 2010 release 'Countryman'.
Having traversed the globe, playing festivals from Slovenia to Scotland, he returns to Semaphore with his guitar, the wisdom attained from enduring hard times, and the joy and gratitude that comes from making it to the other side.
The Semaphore Music Festival has grown since its inaugural event in 2005, to four nights and three days of concerts presenting South Australian home grown, live music to a niche market of music lovers.
“It’s important that our language doesn't disappear.” - Frank Yamma
It is held annually over the Labour Day long weekend (4-7 October, 2019) in Semaphore and surrounding pubs, clubs, and venues, and the historic Hart's Mill Shed (Mundy St, Port Adelaide).
Down By The River will feature an amazing line-up of SA-based Indigenous artists including Vonda Last, Corey Theatre, the MERRg, Eddie Peters, Dhungala Baarka, Of Desert & Sea Dance, Jack Buckskin and MC Joshua Warrior, who will all share the stage with Frank.
While Frank never had formal guitar lessons, he had the next best thing: the opportunity to sit at the feet of his father, country singer Issac Yamma, before joining his father’s Pitjantjatjara Country Band.
Frank tells us how his songwriting was shaped by his dad. “My father was one of the first Indigenous artists to release records in language. I followed him around as a young boy and played with him on the same stage. He taught me a lot. I've never known any other life than playing music, except when I was droving as a teenager.”
Like his dad, the polylingual Frank sings in language as well as English as he explains. “English is my fifth language. I do some songs in English, but a lot in Pitjantjatjara language like Ngura Waltjilpa, Pitjula Wankanye and Docker River.”
Singing in language was not the norm back in the 1980s, when Frank first started recording music.
But in recent times, artists such as Baker Boy, Electric Fields and Emily Wurramara have brought the Indigenous native tongue to the mainstream, which Frank says is very important for preserving cultural heritage. “It’s important that our language doesn't disappear. All the young kids speak it at home. We don’t speak English much.”
Although Frank hasn’t released a new album for five years, since 2014’s 'Uncle', he has new material on the way with the help of some of the next crop of Indigenous music stars, he says, as well as from new collaborators from distant shores.
“There is a vinyl record coming out called 'Tjukurrpa' and I've sung some language songs that are being remixed by some mob in Kenya, by Electric Fields, James Henry and David [Bridie]. It should be interesting. This is a different thing for me.”
While having his work remixed by electronic artists is something new for Frank, collaboration has played a major part of his career. One collaborator, Not Drowning, Waving and My Friend The Chocolate Cake’s David Bridie, has been there since the early 2000s, with the duo winning an APRA Screen Music Award in 2005 for ‘Pitjantjara’, a composition written for ‘The Alice’.
Frank explains the connection he has forged with David. “Tjilpi and I have been working for a long time. He is getting old like me. We've travelled ‘round the world together. I like his piano playing and he sings good harmonies and looks after me. We joke around a lot with each other. I like his Chocolate Cake songs too.”
Frank says there have been so many highlights on those journeys abroad with David. “We got to watch Grace Jones, Parliament and brother boy Dr G. I played with The Proclaimers in Scotland up in the north. That was good. It didn't get dark until midnight.”
While the sunsets in Scotland were markedly dissimilar to Australia, Frank saw many parallels to Australia in another northern hemisphere nation. “Canada is very similar to Australia, but a different kind of desert. Banff, Calgary and Winnipeg have been my favourite festivals in Canada.”
Though there’s something particularly special about playing a festival in your home town, Frank says. “I have lived in Adelaide for 15 years now. I have a lot of family here from my wife Judy’s side and sometimes mob come down from the APY lands.
"So playing at home is good. I love festivals, all these young bands are really good. Families come to festivals and there's often good food. Local festivals are really important.”
Prior to living in Adelaide, Frank spent his younger days in Alice Springs and his musical style has changed since those years living up north. “I play with my acoustic guitar these days. My band is back in Alice Springs and those days were when I was younger. The sound from the acoustic guitar is crystal clear and relaxing, but a few songs go fast with strumming.”
While Frank has always embraced new collaborations and opportunities, the fundamentals of his craft have remained the same. “Putting words and music together doesn't change much.”
A festival like Down By The River gives Frank an opportunity to connect with other Indigenous artists, where he can impart his wisdom and find new collaborators.
There are also many Australian artists he would still like to work with. “I always like playing with my countrymen. People like Bart Willoughby, Selwyn Burns, Tjimba Possum Burns, Emily Wurramara. I'd like to play some more with the young fellas in Alice from Docker River.”
Frank has a simple message for emerging artists wanting to follow in his footsteps. “Keep practicing and enjoy the ride.”
Frank Yamma plays Down By The River (as part of Semaphore Music Festival) at Hart’s Mill (Adelaide) on Labour Day, 7 October, alongside Vonda Last, Corey Theatre, the MERRg, Eddie Peters, Dhungala Baarka, Of Desert & Sea Dance, Jack Buckskin and MC Joshua Warrior. Semaphore Music Festival runs 4-7 October.