Frank Yamma laughs when I begin the interview, asking whether he would prefer to be called ‘Uncle’ or ‘Tjamu.’
Despite ‘Uncle’ being the name of his latest album, he shrugs his shoulders, and replies, “I dunno. Tjamu.”
Tjamu means grandfather in Pitjantjatjara language, and is a sign of respect where Frank is originally from, a small remote community called Docker River in the Western Desert.
Pitjantjatjara is the language that, along with English, Frank mostly sings in.
We are sitting in the Merri Creek Tavern where Frank is setting up to play a gig with his label, Wantok Music.
With 2019 being the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages, I am curious as to the role of language in Frank’s music.
Frank can speak at least five different Indigenous languages from the region, and I ask whether he makes a conscious decision to sing in a particular language when composing a new song.
While I might be intrigued by his capacity to sing in so many languages, Frank himself is nonchalant.
“People speak both in language and English these days. If you can’t sing it in language, sing it in English, if you can’t sing it in English, sing it in language. And that’s how it is, really,” he says.
Frank tells me that he generally comes up with the music first, and then puts words to it.
However, as Frank explains, this process does not diminish the role of words in any way.
“The voice, when you are writing a song — the words are very unique, you have to find really good words to put in it so people can enjoy it, think about the audience what sort of song you are writing.”
He also tells me how he has modified his music to suit city audiences.
“[The song] ‘Ngura Watjilpa’ used to be really rock, like blues."
He taps out a rock beat on his thigh and sings some of the chorus in a rocked out way, then explains how he and Wantok Music producer David Bridie slowed it down in the studio.
“I like singing slow songs, it really makes the song stand out. Nice and clear, so people can listen to it. I quite enjoy it.”
“When I’m in Melbourne I play slow stuff, with David and the other fellas. We play sorta slow. When I’m in Alice Springs I play electrified with the boys back home there.”
I tell Frank how I didn’t know he played full-blown rock n roll. He laughs again.
“Some of them [in the city] don’t know I’m hardcore electric guitar, you know! They don’t know nothing about it!
“When I’m in Alice Springs it‘s going to be a rock n roll show.”
I ask if there is a big difference between Anangu (blackfella) audiences in Alice Springs and other desert communities, to the predominantly white audiences he plays to in the city.
“Anangu people like dancing instead of standing around bored. People want to get active!," he says.
We get back to talking about language, in particular, the word ‘kulila’ which in Pitjantjatjara means to both ‘listen’ and ‘understand.’
'Kulila' is a word that pops up often in music from Pitjantjatara and Ngaanyatjarra countries, and I’m intrigued by its dual meaning, which Frank explains patiently to me.
“It means to listen and understand. Like, ‘hang on there, this is what I’m going to say in the song.’”
He warms to his theme.
“Kulila is one of those important words out there [in the desert]," he explains.
"In English, they use that sort of language to get people’s attention. For us mob, it’s a powerful word straight out, simple and calm, and sweet. Like, ‘listen up mate, this is what we are going to sing and this is what we are singing about.’ So that’s what it is, you know. The message is clear out there.”
Frank has had a long career earmarked with some rough living. His song ‘Coolibah’ tells the story of a tough drinker in the Todd River, while the intensely moving song ‘She Cried’ is about waking up from a coma and seeing his wife sitting by the bedside.
Frank Yamma playing 'She Cried' at Merri Creek Tavern (Wantok Music)
Another song, ‘Pitjantjatjara’ is another moving track, and despite being sung in a language that perhaps only a few thousand people in the world speak and understand, has found universal appeal.
“You can use universal music anywhere in the world,” Frank says.
“They got places where people can go sing universal songs. Festivals out there. Universal songs have been around for a long time. People love those sort of songs, you know.”
In 2016 Frank toured a series of festivals in Canada, and talks about meeting Indigenous peoples from up that way.
“It’s amazing. I got this young fella used to run into me now and then he started calling me Uncle Frank. One of the Native American Indians, calling me Uncle Frank. I called him my nephew straight out. That’s our connection,” he reflects.
I ask, now that he's a Tjamu — an elder in the community — whether there are there any young bands really standing out, and what advice he gives them.
“I just tell em to keep rockin. And enjoy, make the most of it. That’s how I done it. All the young fellas these days they got up and coming bands and the sound they got is amazing. I never heard it back in my day. And these days it’s like ‘woah this is great!’”
I can see the band starting to set up for sound check on the stage, so I begin to wrap up the interview. I ask Frank if there is any message he is trying to communicate with white audiences that is different to Anangu audiences.
“They [whitefellas] have to listen to the song, what it means, and they have to figure it out for themselves. It’s like storytelling.”
I ask if he has any last comments.
“Nah. Just got to go and get ready for the gig.”
He laughs again. Frank gets up from the bar stool with the energy of someone far younger than his age, and heads towards the stage.
“Palya,” he calls out, the universal word of the desert meaning ‘bye’, ‘hello’, ‘good’ and ‘OK'.
Frank Yamma is currently recording a new album with David Bridie and Wantok Music. Read more about Frank Yamma and hear his music here.
Ali MC (Alister McKeich) is a writer, photographer and legal professional who holds a Masters in Human Rights Law. His work documents global human rights issues, and he has had the privilege of working with a number of Aboriginal communities here and internationally. Follow @alimcphotos