Eastern Torres Strait Islander Songs

Can a language truly survive unless it can adequately convey its immediate world and the feeling of those living in its context? Can it travel without its full swag of voices? For people on the move, it’s the jokes, poems and songs that evoke all that the language can carry and keep it resonant anywhere. Its constant, vital use maintains the community that moved with it.

When Father Elemo Tapim and his gangs of Eastern Torres Strait Islanders began work constructing the massive Queensland and Western Australian inland rail system, they documented every mile in a remarkable collection of songs in the Meriam language. The songs were contemporary folk songs in their time and made sure the Eastern Torres Strait Island languages arrived on the mainland strong, and more importantly, vital.

Songlines can stretch across islands, nations, states and cultures. They can be born, carried, modified, forgotten, picked up, fused and regenerated. It seems moving, mixing and reflecting a new context keeps them vital.

The rhythms were those of oceans, family and the patience needed to land that big one. Its words spoke of “Hammersly Iron” locomotives, pumping cars, goods trains and distant, lonely camps along the Mount Isa Line, whose only warmth could be found close to a campfire and a couple of basic chords.

The work was tough, the sun fierce and the bosses fiercer still, but Father Tapim and his fettling gangs had the strength of song and the solace of company along every sleeper and spike.

“Torres Strait Islander
people are always singing;
when we’re working,
when we’re taking a
break, when we’re around
that campfire we sing…”

Torres Strait Islander railway workers

A striking feature of the songs is that unlike much contemporary Indigenous song writing, the fettling gangs of Torres Strait Islanders in the sixties, seventies and eighties did not write predominately about home. For the songwriters of the line, where they were, what they were doing and feeling at that moment was far more important.

Now retired from the railways he worked for 28 years, 65-year-old Father Tapim lives in Townsville, surrounded by his family, and working in local schools teaching his language and culture. He remembers his time fondly.

“The work was hard but we enjoyed it,” The panther-voiced Father Tapim breathes down the phone from his Townsville home. He is a man of few, well-considered words, that he makes sure count where it matters, whether in conversation or song.

“Torres Strait Islander people are always singing; when we’re working, when we’re taking a break, when we’re around that campfire we sing… When we composed those songs, its just telling the story of where we’re working, the environment, the work. They make people back home very emotional.”

Victor Wailu laying track near Mt Tom Price, 1970s

The songs were recorded for a CD and documentary in 2005. And on initial listening one is held be subtly shifting genres whilst maintaining a constant traditional Islander sound.

Folk, country, blues and gospel can all be heard weaving in and around, while some songs take on the distinct chugging rhythms of the railways themselves, not dissimilar to early Johnny Cash and Luther Perkins.

Such a mixture shouldn’t be surprising considering the multi-ethnic, immigrant workforce of the rail-gangs.

“We had Greeks, Italians, Spanish and Yanks working with us. The Yanks were like wharfies, they were the bosses, very tough, but they were good to work for,” said Father Tapim, chuckling at the memory.

“We were always very aware that we were Australians, but we never distanced ourselves, we all spoke English to each other at work or having a drink or whatever, but we did keep to our own languages when we were singing our songs.” Whilst carrying their language and instruments with them, they were able to keep their language vibrant in this new context through a tradition as old and diverse as music itself.

The simple practise of gathering, communing and performing as a way of explaining a new life and place provides its people with strength and happiness. It reaffirms strong links with the past because, while the lyrics sing of now, the music carries the rhythms and footsteps of the past.

...don’t mistake his fettling gang as happy-go-lucky troubadours.
These guys were seriously good and seriously tough.

The songs created by the Eastern Torres Strait Islanders also act as a roadmap for future generations - figuratively and literally. With songs like “Debe Kiki” singing about the afternoon train from Tom Price in W.A., “226” about the rail camp 226 miles along the Richmond line and “Kara 32” along the Mount Isa line, Father Tapim and his fettling gangs mapped outback Queensland and W.A. in song.

Father Tapim believes it is the contemporary topical nature of the lyrics that helped keep the language strong in the early years.

Cook Akee and workers near Cloncurry, late 1960s

“You know we sung lots of those songs for the people back home, to tell them what it was like down here …. and we needed to make, kind of, sense of it to each other as well,” he said.

“And it wasn’t just sitting on your own and writing, we Murray Islanders would sit with other gangs from other Torres Strait Islands and swap stories and songs, and sometimes with the people from other places.”

The collective experience of the rail-workers was translated into song through the Torres Strait Island tradition of collective singing and voices. Though influenced by a Protestant gospel tradition that has thrived since white settlement, it was a tradition that fit snugly into indigenous Torres Strait Island expression.

However it must be remembered, the construction of the railways across the crackling heat of the outback was as hard as work gets. Little of it was mechanised, the temperatures almost apocalyptic, the days endless, and the nights bitter. While Father Tapim likes to look on those days fondly, don’t mistake his fettling gang as happy-go-lucky troubadours. These guys were seriously good and seriously tough.

“The Torres Strait Island boys held the state record in Queensland for the Mount Isa line. That was completed well ahead of time. I’m pretty sure a Torres Strait Island gang held the world record in W.A. We worked hard, we worked really hard, but it was good.”

“We were learning to survive in the Western system and earning good money at the same time. It was sort of like fun, we enjoyed it”, said Father Tapim, admitting he still misses the life.

It’s not the image many have of the Torres Strait, where gentle breezes and a relaxed way of life is most people’s idea of Island life and Islanders.

“It was sort of a real country life,” Father Tapim says of his early years. “On the remote islands, the customs and culture were still very much alive. You just enjoyed life day to day. But my parents were pretty tough, it was proper discipline, if you wanted something you gotta work for it.” he said. However, Father Tapim isn’t as optimistic for the future of his language.

“The language is slowly dying away, very very slowly… I can’t go back there now, not to live. Some of my mates from the railways went back, they’re doing OK. My family is here now, but my heart is still there. I have children and grandchildren born here and have grown up here in Townsville,” he said. The Torres Strait Islander diaspora is strongest in Townsville and these days Father Tapim works in the local schools teaching his language and culture.

“You can’t forget yourself and where you come from in any of your achievements, or whatever. Growing up in that environment and customs, you can’t get rid of it. I still teach my grandchildren, it’s a constant thing, the language, the dancing everything, as well as all the schools around Townsville,” he said.

And so the songs-lines keep stretching, from rail camps to schoolrooms, through backyards, campfires and occasional homecomings. Father Tapim and his Eastern Torres Strait family came from a place of isolated beauty through a dusty patchwork of hard-working people, to create a cultural beachhead far from home.

A culture cannot hope to exist in the pure form of it origins, but through the maintenance of language and expression, it can continue to view its new context through the wisdom of its past. Father Tapim and his mates built many long, strong lines of metal and song. Their cultures could go anywhere from here.

see original article from Voice of the Land Magazine Vol 35 November 2007

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