Crime, poverty and gangs: this dark trio of social circumstance can destroy lives. But in some cases, through the healing power of music, they can be redeemed.
By
Yasmin Noone

Source:
NITV
22 Jan 2016 - 2:04 PM  UPDATED 22 Jan 2016 - 8:28 PM

"When some people 'feel' a situation, they get emotional or angry and redirect their emotions to property or people," says the Queensland-based rapper, Junior. "Others use strategies to redirect their emotions: they might go for a run or punch a boxing bag.

"But for me, music has kept me sane. It's really helped me to find some hope."

Junior is a 30-year-old musician who hails from a large church-singing Tongan family and has lived most of his life in the multicultural southern suburb of Brisbane, Logan.

He grew up poor, joined a gang, survived the horrific murder of a cousin and endured the tragic death of his daughter, Evangelia.

'Music is my outlet…Music is my second wife.'

But, Junior says, through all of these harsh life events there was one constant saving grace: music, as it helped him to express his personal story, life on the streets, his culture and identity.

"Music is my outlet…Music is my second wife."

These days life is good. Junior is married and has an eight-year-old son. He also mentors young people from Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds who are at risk of further involvement with the justice system. And, Junior says, he uses music as one of the many tools needed build rapport with the ‘young fellas’ and help them express their emotions.

"There was one Indigenous kid," he explains. "He had a few people [close to him] who were incarcerated. He had three or four books of lyrics … All he did was write raps."

As Junior later learned, writing music had become the young man's healing therapy. "He would carry around his books of lyrics, making stories and songs out of the words he wrote…His music was his secret place."

Singing to good health

It's no accident that Junior and his young clients derive therapeutic benefits from music. The healing power of song and sound has been used in a range of health settings across the world to help people with dementia, cancer and mental health issues. 

Music's health-based powers have also been proven to help heal people within Australia's Indigenous culture, which maintains a unique spiritual appreciation for song, storytelling and dance. A 2010 study by the University of Southern Queensland found that didgeridoo playing and singing helped support Aboriginal men with asthma. 

The study reads, "the results of the project indicated that engaging in music activities had a significant positive outcome for male participants in terms of their asthma and overall health and wellbeing."

Music therapist and Aboriginal health facilitator, Anja Tanhane, has seen the impact that song can make on Indigenous communities, first-hand. Tanhane tells NITV that she's spent over 20 years in the field and in that time, has been invited by many communities and individuals to help to heal physical and emotional wounds.

"In Aboriginal communities, music is seen as a holistic way to heal that's important for your mind, body and sense of spirituality," says Tanhane.

A healing gift

Tanhane currently conducts the Melbourne-based Mullum Mullum Indigenous Gathering Place Choir (MMIGPC), which was originally established as a fun activity in 2014 but soon turned into so much more.

"The choir promotes culture within the group and to the wider community. It also helps to build a sense of pride," says Tanhane.

Every Monday, the choirs' Indigenous and non-Indigenous members (aged 30 to 75-plus) meet to lift their spirits and connect to culture. The group sings songs in language, Yorta Yorta and English. With clap sticks, the didgeridoo and guitar playing in the background, they perform a range of hymns, Indigenous and country and western tunes.

"Music is such a universal language that can really unite people and help them to express their feelings and thoughts that they find hard to put into words."

With no formal singing training, retired teacher Uncle Vincent Peters joined the choir over a year ago to meet new people and connect with his Indigenous roots.

"My father was killed at a timber mill when I was four-years-old," says Uncle Vincent.

"I always knew I had an Aboriginal ancestry but with my work, I didn’t have the headspace to find out more. So when I retired, I decided to look into it."

And look into it he did. "When I was not with the choir on Mondays I was doing research into my family history. I was a bit obsessed with it."

The stories that Uncle Vincent learned, which involved massacres and mission-based life, were disturbing.

"It was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. But being involved in the choir helped me with all that."

'I've never been drug taker or a drinker but I come out of that choir on a high'

Uncle Vincent tells NITV that participating in the choir helped reconcile a number of long-held cultural curiosities and connect with a deeper sense of spirituality.

"We've all grown very close as a group and that's one of the things I really like about it…I've never been drug taker or a drinker but I come out of that choir on a high, just from being with people you love."

The effect that Uncle Vincent experiences from participating in the choir is not unheard of. In fact, it is a common outcome of music therapy. 

International research shows that music can improve your blood pressure, increase the production of the 'feel-good' hormone, oxytocin and boost dopamine levels to improve your mood.

"A couple of members also have COPD and they've found that being part of the choir and singing helps to improve their lung capacity and breathing," adds referred by Anja Tanhane.

Aunty Daphne Milward is one of the elders who helped to set up MMIGPC. She says involvement has helped many of its members to battle mental, emotional and physical health issues.

"It's just improved their lives and interactions with other people," says Aunty Daphne. "They are all now confident enough to stand up and tell stories about their lives to help other people."

Aunty Daphne, who is currently 75-years-old, adds that she is also slight of hearing.

"I have my own health issues and hearing is one of the major ones. But everybody takes that into considering within the group.

"If they think I can not hear them properly, they stop and speak more clearly. Their acceptance means that I can socialise without being left out."

A reconciling tune

The overriding benefit of the choir, Aunty Daphne says, is the difference it is making community-wide, promoting greater cultural understanding among its members and the public.

So far, the group has clocked more than 26 official performances, having sung at Survival Day in Belgrave and for the annual service at Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance.

"We are now calling ourselves the Mullum Mullum Indigenous Gathering Place Reconciliation Choir," she says.

"We've learned a lot about each other and about culture because the non-Indigenous people have culture too."

Junior also accepts that universal healing power of music, impacting not just the individual but whole communities. He says music can change cultures and work to improve a whole population's perception of itself.

'I would say that music brought the city together.'

His multicultural and "multicoloured" hometown of Logan was one community that needed a change in narrative, having received negative media coverage for race-based conflicts in the past.

And that change came, he explains, with the 2015 Queensland Music Festival (QMF).

"I would say that music brought the city together."

The festival, now the subject of the upcoming SBS documentary The Logan Project (screening January 26, 8.30PM, SBS) used music to help residents to connect with each other and dispel long-held myths about Logan's peoples.  

Like many others around town, Junior got involved in the QMF.

"Every suburb has its dark spot but Logan is a fruitful, colourful place. So it was amazing to see everyone from all classes and cultures and backgrounds to be entrenched in positive music through the QMF.

"…People often talk about music and harmony. Well this festival brought all the major chords of the city together.

"There was a tune that was playing throughout Logan. Music effected and ignited something beautiful in our city."

The Logan Project, a two-part documentary series on SBS, charts the journey of the city's aspiring singers and musicians as they work together to create a new, positive narrative for their city.

Survival Day | 8.30PM | SBS | #TheLoganProjectSBS