Even when faced with something of the reality of the enormity of the landscape, it’s deeply challenging to take in and comprehend. The centre of Australia must have deeply disturbed those early white explorers with its almost literal endlessness.
It’s messing with my head as I’m scoping it out from 36,000 feet, doing it easy, flying nor-west from Melbourne to Broome. I squint through the plane window at the overwhelming openness and imagine a party of bearded men, canvas-backed camels and saddled horses, as they trudge away from the sanity of their civilisation. They chased great myths of inland seas and abundant, verdant pasturelands and found instead, little more than the vast, searing shimmer of the dry red centre. The hot, high sky, as big as the land it baked, must have sent them mad.
I reach the end of forever and touch down in the oasis of Broome. After a few days in this pearling town, I point myself in a north-easterly direction and head out to the Kimberley. I set off in a long wheelbase bus, piloted by our tour guide, Luke. He’s a young bloke with a deep love for the country and for the feel of rolling wheels underneath him. We set out and I ride shotgun as he points out things that, at first, I miss, naming birds and reptiles with a sweep of his arm. He knows his stuff and likes to talk but is wise enough to know when the unfolding landscape needs its own space to speak.
Invariably our conversation turns to music. He chastises me for my decision to leave my ukulele at home.
“It’d sound just great out here,” he imagines.
We swap stories of performers and bands that we love, and he tells me of a Broome-based group that he reckons captures the spirit of the Kimberley better than anyone else.
“Yeah,” he says, “if you ever get a chance see to The Pigram Brothers…”
His voice tails off and turns into a grin.
“Amazing. Do you know their stuff?”
“Kinda”, I say. I tell him I came across a CD by Scrap Metal, an early incarnation of the band, more than a decade earlier but that this had failed to move me. Our location and Luke’s enthusiasm has me wondering if I’d been too hasty in dismissing their music.
We stop for lunch in the still shade of Halls Creek. I wander off to the air conditioned cool of the local art gallery and find a Pigram Brothers CD in a rack of indigenous music. As we hit the road again an excited Luke slides my new CD into the player.
This is big sky music, languid yet powerful, like a wedge tail cruising on an updraft. The spirit of the sound echoes the spirit of the land. As the bus rumbles beneath us, I start to see and hear in my mind, different imaginings, this land before white people, capturing subtle rhythms, the pulse that runs under the red dirt, the original custodians, their plants, their animals and their ways of being.
Later we walk along Tunnel Creek and Luke tells stories of what happened there after white people landed, and stuns me with the epic tale of Jandamara, a mercurial black warrior and former slave who out-witted and enraged the local police and pastoralists for years. I studied Australian history all through high school and am left wondering why I’d not heard of this iconic figure before.
Under all these stories and imaginings, we play the Pigram Brothers.
I arrive back in Broome in time to catch the tail end of the annual Festival of the Pearl and am delighted to discover that the brothers are headlining the event. They are home, local heroes playing to an adoring crowd of old fans and newbie ring-ins like me. Up here, the south wind is warm, and it blows across the outdoor stage overlooking Cable Beach gently phasing the sound. The timbre and sway of the music touches me on some sub-conscious level and makes new sense of my most recent adventures. While the maps, guides, wheels and wings helped me understand the enormity of the Kimberley, the Pigram Brothers’ music showed me something of the big spirit of this place.
Stereo Story #500