Interview: Shane Howard- WOMADelaide 2011 Preview

Image courtesy of Shane Howard

On Friday, Adelaide Correspondent Thom Miles took the time out to chat to Shane Howard – the man behind Goanna, and the first artist to use popular songs to bring indigenous issues to the forefront of Australian pop-culture. Ahead of his special Womadelaide performance with fellow indigenous music legends Neil Murray and Archie Roach, Shane discussed all things from indigenous history, the “Three Iconic Songs” project, the process of publishing “Solid Rock”,  The Black Arm Band, social progress in Australia, and everything in between.

Thom Miles: Firstly, I’d like to say how glad I was to see your name alongside “Archie Roach & Neil Murray” on the final announcement for Womadelaide. I understand Archie has had some health problems of late…
Shane Howard: It’s been a tough year for Archie. We’re old mates and neighbours these days, and yeah, it’s been a tough year for Archie losing his wife Ruby last February; it’s nearly been a year. And then he had health complications himself back in October when we were up in Turkey Creek in Western Australia. So it’s been a really challenging year, but his spirit is indomitable. He hasn’t been doing a lot of live performance work, so it’s really lovely that we’ve done a couple of these things together – Melbourne Writer’s Festival and Brisbane Writer’s Festival, but it’s really lovely to be bringing it to Womad.
TM: Yeah, well with Archie‘s health in doubt I guess that would have cast a shadow over whether or not the Three Iconic Songs performance could go ahead. Was it a last-minute thing?
SH: Well, we had an idea to do this before Archie had any health issues. He is keen to do this sort of work, and we have done some like I said. But I think he enjoys being with his brothers, with Neil and I, and not having to carry the show on his own but having the sense of a shared load. It’s really lovely travelling together and being together, it gives a sense of camaraderie.
TM: Absolutely. Could you tell me a bit about the show? I know it’s based on three iconic songs- “Solid Rock”, “Took the Children Away” and “My Island Home“, but is it a full concert with just an emphasis on these three songs or…
SH: It’s more about really being able to sit down and talk about the creation of those songs; what led to the formation of them, what led to the creation of them, the context of the time. Archie will be able to talk about the deeply personal implications of  being a member of the stolen generation, and it’s the impact of that at the time, and the resonance and the complications and the consequences of that even this far down the track. For myself, being able to talk about how “Solid Rock” was written, and Neil Murray and I have often talked about this; what led two white fellas to become so deeply involved with Aboriginal Australia. It’s an interesting discussion and exploration, and of course it’s open ended so we’re able to not only sing the songs and perform, but also explore the territory, to talk in detail about the social realities at the time the songs were written, but also the implications for where we are now as a nation. Of course, the books had a very practical focus. They’re part of the Ian Thrope “Fountain For Youth” project, which is an indigenous literacy project, and it just means that for indigenous kids- the resources are quite minimal, and this gives them stories and songs that they can relate to much more personally. In the case of “Solid Rock” it was really beautiful to have it translated. To go and work with the children out at Mutitjulu and Uluru who did a number of illustrations for the books, and also then to have it translated into Pitjantjara. So it’s not just in English, it’s bi-lingual, having that opportunity had a great and deeper sense of ownership. And at a practical level; a quarter of the proceeds of the sales go back to the community for literary resources, for art resources and for music resources. So it has a really practical outcome, and we’ve been able to raise somewhere between 10 and 15 thousand dollars already, which is great. It ensures an ongoing relationship with the community as well.
TM: Brilliant! The performance itself is mostly educational then, I guess?
SH: Yeah… Conversational. It’s performing the songs, but it’s also conversational, in the sense of a forum I guess. We’re there for people as well to ask questions, rather than just a straightforward musical performance.
TM: From my experience, Womadelaide audiences are incredibly varied in age. For some people, your performance of iconic songs might give them a chance to reflect and reminisce, but on the other hand there’ll be a lot of people like me who are aware of the music but were born long after songs like “Solid Rock” were released, and have of course missed the entire cultural significance of those songs. Is it hard to cater for all of those people at once?
SH: Yeah, it’s interesting to reflect on the fact that back in 1982 when “Solid Rock” was released and we started touring Australia with Goanna, Australia was a deeply racist country. We’ve come a long way in the last 30 years- next year it’s 30 years since “Solid Rock” was released- I must be getting old. It is important and interesting I think to reflect on how far Australia’s come in terms of what Bill Stanner the anthropologist used to call “The Cult of Forgetfulness” that developed in Australia. We’d just arranged the window in such a way that we failed to see Aboriginal people even though they were there. It’s important to reflect on that kind of history. I’ve seen an SBS series recently about the history of immigration to Australia, and a lot of young people would probably find it shocking to see how deeply racist and almost white supremacist early Australia was at the turn of the century. So there’s a whole evolution and whole story in terms of our… well the reality was that white Australia’s prosperity has come on the back of Aboriginal misery. I think for the first time in this contemporary era we’re able to look at it in a mature way and understand our journey as a nation- towards a much more enlightened and compassionate view.
TM: Well Womadelaide has a long established tradition of celebrating indigenous culture. This year they’ve got Leah Flanagan, The Yabu Band, and they’re showing a documentary called Murundak, and of course there’s the traditional Kaurna welcoming ceremony…
SH: Yeah I’m a member of Black Arm Band and part of that film. I’ve been involved in that as a founding member, and Leah Flanagan has come into that Black Arm Band ensemble as well, so I’ve gotten to know Leah who’s a beautiful talent through that ensemble and touring around the country and overseas to Womad UK, but as well into remote Aboriginal communities; taking the message back out there into the communities as well as the arts festivals. Now, there’s so many great indigenous artists and it’s true that Womad has done so much to break down – expose us to so much international cultural music – and to break down so many of those boundaries. It’s true – the old saying: once you know someone, fear and ignorance drop away – and fear and ignorance is the basis or racism, really.
TM: Absolutely. At  Womad people find music from cultures that mightn’t ever heard of. It’s celebrated in such a way that it makes it impossible for people to view diversity negatively – just an impossible environment for hostility to be harboured.
SH: One of the great things I see about the new generation coming through – and that’s my children. In many ways my generation had to build bridges between black and white Australia, we built bridges between religious divides, racial divides, cultural divides. The great thing is; I see my grown up kids- they don’t have to build those bridges. They cross them easily, and this generation that’s coming through now- they don’t see that kind of difference that used to exist in the old days- they just embrace diversity. It really is an amazing world that we live in now, that it’s globally connected, there’s incredible respect for each-other in terms of our cultural identity and the diversity of music that festivals bring, particularly to places like Womad, is just extraordinary. One of the great memories for me, Thom, was going and playing with The Black Arm Band at Womad in The UK and Peter Gabriel, who founded Womad, was playing too, and just to see Aboriginal music take it’s place alongside Arabic music and African music and that great pool of cultural music from around the world – and Aboriginal music is now just seen as another dimension of that.
TM: The project you’re working on now with Archie and Neil all began with Melbourne Writer’s Festival, is that right?
SH: Yeah we did Melbourne Writer’s Festival and Brisbane Writer’s Festival, and it was interesting; I think it was the first time we’d really done something like that together. Normally we’re just on stage and we play and introduce the songs, but this was about going into detail about the creation of the song and the history of the circumstances that surround that. So it’s an intersting sweep through the cultural and historical reality.
TM: Was it a coincidence that you’d all written books on these iconic songs at the same time?
SH: No it wasn’t – it was a publisher from One Tree Hill, a small independent publisher, that came to us with the idea. They’d done a project with “From Little Things Big Things Grow”, with that song and with Gurindji children from out at Wave Hill and illustrating that. But then they came to us and said “Are you interested?”- and so I went to Uluru and it was much more hands on I guess in the way that we took ownership of the project and working with the community and the kids to develop the book, and there’s an ongoing relationship there now, seeing that it also helps in developing music, art and literary resources. For Archie, there’s a deeply personal dimension to “Took The Children Away” because his wife Ruby who passed away a year ago illustrated the book. it was one of the last things she did before she passed away suddenly. So it has a very deep resonance for Archie. For Neil, like all of us; we retraced our song-lines I think- the stories and the song-lines that created those songs. We re-walked those tracks, and that brings up all sorts of memories and we used all kind of acquaintances and friendships. So there’s a deep sense of connection with all that.
TM: The three iconic songs obviously brought important issues into the foreground of popular culture at the time, and really forced people to think. In my opinion, it’s really important that that continues to happen – because for all the promise and optimism these songs have generated- it still seems like there’s so much that needs to be put right today and in the future. Do you think indigenous music can keep the ball rolling in that sense?
SH: I think the future is potentially amazing, and like I said, a lot has changed in 30 years. There’s been real developments and real growth in this country in terms of Aboriginal empowerment – Like with The Black Arm Band – there are now Aboriginal people who are working at an administrative level, management structures, on stage at a technical level, and artists in the forefront creating foundations. All sorts of educational empowerment and opportunities that exist. I think for the new generation of young Aboriginal people coming through, the doors are wide open, and they can really explore and develop their potential to the fullest. I don’t think that was true of people of my generation 30 years ago. I think a lot of the doors were closed, and a lot of people have worked hard for a long period of time to address that situation and bring about change. It has happened but we’ve still got a long way to go in terms of addressing indigenous disadvantage, health education and opportunity, particularly people in remote communities are still very under-resourced. I don’t believe intervention is the way to go about it. The way forward is to really sit down with the people, from a government perspective, and really engage in meaningful dialogue. Sit down and listen. The people know what they want, and they know what needs to be done and we have the ability to create really meaningful partnerships now for the future. The reality is, as white fellas we can make a great contribution as well in those situations, but we can only help with white fella solutions, in terms of our world. I don’t think we can help Aboriginal people in the Aboriginal world. That’s their job, they just need the power to do it. We’ve come a long way, there’s a long way to go. In many ways it’s time for us old people to hand the baton on to the young people and say “make a greater future, make a brighter future all together. Make a great nation. Be a shining light in the world. Be inspired and inspiring. Become the country that we should become. Become our better selves.” I think that was true the day of Kevin Rudd’s apology – about 50% of people in Australia supported the apology before it happened, and after the event it was 75-80% that supported the apology, because I think as Australians we saw our better selves in that moment, and we really liked our better selves.
TM: The last question I wanted to ask you was about how you got involved with indigenous culture and indigenous music, but I think our allocated interview time ran out quite a while ago…
SH: Well I do talk about that in the performance. It’s a bottomless and fascinating story, and I’ve been writing a book for the last 4 or 5 years that deals with a lot of that stuff on that subject, Thom. I’m curious myself as to what led me down that track. But I don’t know if I could answer it in a few minutes, Thom. I grew up with Aboriginal people around me, so it was inevitably a fact of life for me and brought up those big questions. But everything honours the mother and the father, so in many ways, my mother and father taught me about respect, and that’s probably the basis of it all.
TM: Well I look forward to learning more about it at Womadelaide in March.
SH: On ya, Thom. Thanks for taking the time.
TM: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me!
SH: See ya, Thom. See ya there.


  1. March 9, 2011 at 09:05

    […] Shane Howard […]

  2. March 11, 2011 at 09:41

    […] and focus on the coverage, but I can’t help but make this one last fitting post. If you read our interview with Shane Howard from Goanna a month or so ago then you’d know that Womadelaide is a festival with a very strong interest […]

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