Created by the Cat Empire’s Felix Riebl and Ollie McGill for Marliya, of Gondwana Choirs, SPINIFEX GUM the album features guest vocalists Briggs, Peter Garrett and Emma Donovan in a song cycle reflecting the dramatic contrasts of the Pilbara region of northern WA.
The Spinifex Gum journey started for Felix Riebl in 2014, while he was in the studio recording with The Cat Empire. Lyn Williams (AM) contacted Felix and asked whether he would like to go to the Pilbara and write music for The Gondwana Indigenous Children’s Choir (members would go on to form Marliya). Within a few months he’d landed in Karratha and began exploring the surrounding towns and country. That began a journey that would continue for 3 and a half years for Felix, who returned to the area repeatedly and spent a lot of time in the Yindjibarndi community in Roebourne, especially with leaders such as Michael Woodley of the Juluwarlu center.
Felix, and long time friend and collaborator The Cat Empire’s Ollie McGill (engineer, arranger, and co-producer) along with Marliya were inspired to tell contemporary stories of this remote part of Australia, and developed a distinct production technique for the album. The Spinifex Gum sound was created by turning sampled sounds of the area – the iron ore trains, barking dogs, bouncing basketballs, industrial sounds of the mines, scratching feet, laughing kids, and so on – into drum machines. Those stark rhythms combined with the young uplifting voices of Marliya made for what they called “the most stylistically unique album we’ve ever been a part of.” Felix cites “we tried to invert what a choir traditionally does, and most of all make music that would be exciting for those amazing teenagers to sing.”
While the songs venture into areas like the sad and tumultuous colonial history of Roebourne, the Flying Foam Massacre (and many others like it), the land rights struggle of Long Mack and the Harding Dam, the tragedy of Ms Dhu, the disproportionate rate of Indigenous youth incarceration, and the spate of suicides amongst FIFO (Fly in Fly Out) workers in the area, the album has an underlying optimism as well, perhaps best described in the closing lines of the title track
And the future sees in the eyes of the young, soe things stick like spinifex gum
In 2016, Felix contacted Briggs, Peter Garrett, and Emma Donovan who expressed their interest in being involved. Briggs’ rap about the disproportionate detention of Indigenous youths in Locked Up, Peter’s performance of a suicidal FIFO worker in Malungungu, and Emma’s Gospel Yindibarndi rendition of Tom Waits’ Make it Rain added a new level of character and depth to the album.
The first single ‘Ms Dhu’ released earlier this year highlights the tragic death of 22 year old Indigenous woman Ms Dhu who died while in police custody in Port Hedland in August 2014. Felix says “It’s a political song. I’ve tried to tell the story as it happened, often using direct quotes from the courtroom. The young Indigenous singers of the chorus are the heart of the piece – a voice of youth and defiance. We’re dedicating the track to Ms Dhu’s family, who have shown extraordinary courage and resilience in the face of tragedy and loss. We hope it does something to keep this terrible event – and the necessity for change – at the forefront of the broader public’s mind. We hope it serves as a statement of solidarity with Ms Dhu’s family and the Indigenous community as a whole”.
The current single ‘Locked Up’ featuring Briggs (who also co-wrote the song), and Marliya takes aim at the disproportionate rate and sickening treatment of Indigenous Youths in juvenile detention.
Briggs’ rap highlights the economic, social and political injustices suffered by local communities in the far north of Australia. “Maximum punishment, rehab is minimal, treat them like that you just make them better criminals … Why’re the kids locked up? Take this silence and blow it up”.
Briggs says of ‘Locked Up’ “I got involved with the song ‘Locked Up’ because artistically; it sounded phenomenal. The youth justice is something I’m passionate about and the girls voices have brought light to such an intense subject matter. The choirs have brought such an original, honest, powerful and moving presence to the Spinifex Gum project and it was a pleasure to be part of”.
The haunting new single ‘Malungungu’ features Peter Garrett and Marliya is named after a creepy spirit in Yindjibarndi culture – which frightens black fellas but is itself scared by white people – imagines the inner voice of a FIFO worker, performed by Peter Garrett, driving at night and heading into that darkness.
Spinifex Gum is a project that reaches across the country. Its lyrics are a combination of English and Yindjibarndi, its stories emerged from the Pilbara, and its choir of Aboriginal and Torres Strait teenagers hails from North Queensland.
The release of ‘Spinifex Gum’ is timely as the findings of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory are due in November. This is the third time that the Royal Commission has delayed its reporting.
Above all else, the inspiration for this album is the young singers who champion it – their individuality, their laughter and friendship, and the power of their collective voice.
Felix says “it’s an album none of us could have predicted, but one that opened itself up to us. We just followed the music”.