Music with a mission:
In a unique move for an award winning composer, performer and creative entrepreneur, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artist, Jessie Lloyd, has made her work public.
“The Mission Songs Project works with songs that are for public use and the main aim is to ensure that these songs keep getting sung so they can be shared and taught,” she said.
“The bigger picture is that these songs need to become Australian classics, just like Waltzing Matilda,” she said.
“To achieve that we need to make these accessible for the Australian public so they can take ownership and also to acknowledge the Indigenous history.”
Mission Songs Project is an initiative to research and present a collection of Indigenous songs that were composed and performed from 1900 to 1999. Her music focuses on life on the missions, reserves and the fringes of townships where Indigenous people were relocated. Her collection of songs shed light and understanding into the history of our Indigenous communities, so they will not be forgotten.
A platform to share cultural identity and cultural practice inspired Jessie to conduct the Mission Songs Project. Attached with the album is a 16 page booklet with lyrics and a song book for those, as Jessie says, who want to ‘have a jam and continue passing, sharing and learning music’.
“These songs need to be shared - they need people to keep singing them. No good keeping it a secret because years later, no one will remember it even existed.”
Finding the beat behind Mission Songs Project:
It was inevitable that Jessie found music, or should we say, music found Jessie.
Her father, Joe Geia, grandfather, Albie Geia, and great-grandfather, Genami Geia were all talented Indigenous musicians with powerful stories of the past.
“I came about the Mission Songs Project when I was learning more about the history of my family. It was an intergenerational thing that all my family would sing.”
Her grandfather was an exceptional musician, an avid student of hymns and chorals and was the leader of the Palm Island Brass Band.
“One of the songs I have in the mission collection is one of his songs that talks about Palm Islands,” she said.
“He was one of the leaders of the 1957 strike on Palm Island and the song discussed native title before it even existed.”
Growing up in a religious family meant listening to people singing hymns, country gospel and island songs of worship with instruments such as the guitar, ukulele, piano and piano accordion.
Jessie’s aunt and mum raised her and they can be heard in the music by the sounds of the ucalaly and the hymn sounds to represent their strong faith.
“They’re the Indigenous flavours,” she said.
"I see cultural practice and oral traditions that will reach the next generation and I see modern day song lines coming back to life."
“Imagine a group of blackfellas singing at a backyard party, and someone pulls out the guitar and everyone knows the song and sings along, that’s what my music is about.”
Multiple conversations with music mentor, Archie Roach, helped Jessie pave the way forward.
“I was talking to Archie about the influence the missions had on his family – all around the country there’s these cultural practices that people have been having that are outside of the church,” she said.
"When I think about my culture I see legacy and tradition. I see cultural practice and oral traditions that will reach the next generation and I see modern day song lines coming back to life, all the way from 1916 right up until now."
Song Hunting and Gathering:
Jessie travelled Australia in search of missing pieces to add to her unique Indigenous narrative. From the Territory to the Torres Strait, Jessie spent time with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander senior song men and women, listening to their stories from the mission days, which enabled her to create songs.
“In April 2005 I travelled around Australia for three months looking for songs and going to different communities to speak to various elders – I like to call it song hunting and gathering,” she said.
“It really helped with my own cultural identity as a modern Indigenous musician and it also helped to articulate the origins and song traditions of modern Indigenous music.”
“It’s my belief that these Mission songs provide evidence of the continuation of song traditions from traditional to contemporary Indigenous music,” she said.
“Even though we sing in English and in western instruments, we’re still passing songs down from generation to generation, and singing and sharing songs about social environmental and cultural influence…
Just look at the last 100 years of blackfellas playing instruments and the adapted and maintained cultural significance.”
Jessie’s spoken to elders about her music and the reaction has been mixed. While some enjoy recalling their memories, others find it difficult to discuss as life on the mission wasn’t always positive, but she says everyone needs to take away one key thing from her music.
“The main thing to remember is that these songs celebrate survival and resilience. It’s a real positive approach to the mission days that everyone can feel good about,” she said.
“It’s a positive take on how our families survived, how were here and now were thriving and once upon a time on the missions it was a very different place.”
Jessie says it’s a matter of acknowledging our history and creating value around it.
“The most challenging is that I’ve struggled with the title mission song project - people always think that they’re religious based songs, but I’m trying to create a new genre of music that really covers the early contemporary stuff that blackfellas were writing, after they weren’t allowed to practice traditional songs and culture after they were removed.”