• The Yarrabah brass band rehearses once a week at a local community centre. (NITV)Source: NITV
Elders, children, a former rugby league player, an American expatriate, and a world famous jazz musician... in Yarrabah, this eclectic bunch has one thing in common: they all play in the local brass band.
Ella Archibald-Binge

2 Nov 2017 - 12:15 PM  UPDATED 2 Nov 2017 - 12:15 PM

Five years ago, Paul Neal was nursing a rugby league injury and looking for a way to occupy his time in his small hometown of Yarrabah, about an hour's drive from Cairns. 

At the suggestion of the local music teacher, he found himself starting an unlikely hobby — playing saxophone in the newly-formed brass band. 

"From football to a brass band, it wasn’t something I thought I’d do but I’m enjoying every minute of it," the 33-year-old tells NITV News. 

"One lady said to me, I like the look of that one - what's that? I said that's a flute. She said I want to play that. I said be our guest!"

The local youth worker says he "had a hard time clapping" before joining the band, but quickly learnt the basics of reading music and carrying a rhythm. 

On a humid spring afternoon, he's one of a dozen band members packed into the local community centre for a weekly rehearsal. Most have a similar story about joining the band, like Paul's mother Teresa who came along to make tea, but was roped into playing the flute. They share something else too; nearly all have ancestors who played in the original Yarrabah brass band in the early 1900s. 

Getting the band back together

The original Yarrabah brass band was set up by missionaries in 1901, at a time when Indigenous people in Queensland lived under tight government controls imposed by the Aborigines Protection Act. 

Though it was imposed, the band became a source of pride, providing a rare chance for its members to travel outside their community to perform. 

When it folded after the missionaries left, the community set out to revive it, and a second incarnation of the band was born. Aunty Lucy Rogers remembers her father proudly heading off to performances.

'The way they walked, they looked proud to be holding this particular instrument.'

"They made sure had their hair combed, really groomed nicely, had the white shirt and the black pants," the Yarrabah elder recalls. 

"The way they walked, they looked proud to be holding this particular instrument, that gave out messages to the community in another way."

The group disbanded in the early 1970s and brass was no longer heard in Yarrabah, until five years ago, when Greg Fourmile, the grandson of one of those band members, set out to bring it back.

"Despite everything that happened in the past, even going through the mission days and dormitory days and all that, our elders still manage to get together to play music, to have fun and to teach and perform for the community," he says. 

"In a sense it became its own culture, apart from traditional culture here in Yarrabah... so for me it was basically bringing back those values and that and carrying on."

Putting a band together isn't easy, but Greg soon found a powerful ally: world-renowned jazz musician James Morrison - then artistic director of the Queensland Music Festival - who helped source second-hand instruments.

The first rehearsal was unlike any Morrison had ever witnessed. Most new members had never played an instrument, let alone learnt how to read music.

"We came up here, brought all our instruments and laid them all out in a room and invited the community and said come in, have a look and see what you want to play," he recalls.

"It was an amazing day... one lady said to me, I like the look of that one - what's that? I said that's a flute. She said I want to play that. I said be our guest!"

In a few months, they had a band. Now all they needed was somewhere to play - cue the Yarrabah Band Festival.

Putting Yarrabah on show

"We said you just have a band here, how will it survive, what will it do?" said Morrison. 

"We need a festival here so there's an event every year to showcase the band and give them something to work towards, and also bring other people in - audience and musicians alike - for them to play for and with."

Now in its fifth year, the Yarrabah Band Festival has become a major event on the Queensland Music Festival calendar, with local musicians sharing the stage with the likes of Sara Storer, Troy Cassar-Daley and Shellie Morris.

"To be honest we were only expecting a small community hall type event, and here we've got big ticket names coming to Yarrabah," says Greg Fourmile. 

"It's helped to lift the pride in our community."

For local bands, it's a rare chance to perform for around 5000 people, without leaving Yarrabah. 

The event is set to continue in years to come, with the brass band now looking further afield.

"I think the next step is for the band to get back to their roots, which they used to travel, back we're talking nearly 100 years ago. It's time to do that again, and visit other communities and show them what's happened here, and perhaps inspire them to do likewise," says James Morrison. 

For elder Lucy Rogers, she loves to watch young people take up a new instrument.

"It's all in the name of progress, and beautifying Yarrabah in a musical way, creating a sense of peace and understanding in our culture," she says.

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