Frank Yamma: a fire that burns brighter

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Frank Yamma: a fire that burns brighter

by Peter Vincent

Frank Yamma is not big on small talk when we meet. It's nothing personal, I've been told, that's just him.

Yamma and I are both 44, but we are worlds apart. He has battled problem drinking from the age of 10, was speared in the legs as a young man for a breach of tribal law (he doesn't want to elaborate), has had constant health problems (a close friend describes him as "44 going on 94") and has spent many years in jail, and yet, Yamma has emerged as a master singer-songwriter, with a reputation which takes him around the world. He's not long back from three music festivals in Canada.

Later, in the studio, however, Yamma transforms. He plays two songs: the upbeat Everybody's Talking from his fine new album, Uncle, and an achingly beautiful ballad, She Cried, from the 2010 David Bridie-produced record that got him noticed, Countryman.
Yamma's playing is neat, technically simple but with an instinct for pure melody, and his singing is affecting and expressive. When he sings: "Life is precious, down we go / Growing old", Yamma does what only the best singer-songwriters can: he makes you feel years of pain.

Sometimes a performer's voice is so confident it's easy for us to romanticise it as their true self. In reality, it's only what they allow us to know of them. "Be careful how quickly you give away your fire," wrote Robert Bly, American poet and men's movement figure.

Yamma gives people only what he needs to in conversation. He has more important work to put his fire into. Yamma grew up in camps outside Alice Springs.

I ask whether he had guitar lessons. "Guitar lessons?" he says, as if he has never heard of them. "I don't know about that. My father had a guitar. He'd muck around all the time. I'd watch his fingers all the time, so I decided to copy his hands."

Isaac Yamma, who died aged 50 in 1990, was a well-regarded country singer who founded the country's first national indigenous radio network, broadcasting content to remote areas. A street has recently been named after him in Canberra. Frank knew he wanted to play like his dad early on. He was about seven when he started playing and within three years had his own band.

"My big plan [was] to become a musician. Where the schoolteacher said, 'What you gonna be when you grow up?' other people say, 'I'm gonna be a doctor', 'I'm gonna be a fireman', blah, blah, blah. When it comes to my answer, I said, 'I gonna be a musician'."
Although he was in bands for years, including with his father and three brothers, Hector, Paul and Peter, it took years before Yamma could live off his music.

"Guys like us, we bush mob," he says. "Grow up in bush, work in stock hand, building houses, all stuff been happening before I been getting around [with] music.

"Some brothers said be a football player and I said, 'Nah, I don't wanna be a football player. Idon't want to break my fingers.' So I gotta look after my fingers. I don't wanna touch everything that fingers touch. I've seen my nephew play footy. His hands not really well. He still can grab a ball, but his fingers not really well. I said, 'I'm not going there. You enjoy it.' I enjoy what I do for a living, play music, express [myself to] the audience, simple as."
His long journey to recognition was anything but simple. Yamma has long been a musical talent, but spent several spells in jail, mostly for alcohol-related issues ("things like resisting arrest, causing police to have to chase, assault of police"). He's a burly man with a heavy silence, but once he speaks freely, you can tell his silence is more about sadness and shyness than anything darker. At times, he is downright cheeky. It's hard to miss the bright-yellow "Do not cross police line" guitar strap he wears as he plays.

Yamma has been invited to play in the United States, Britain (at Womad), Canada, Spain, Slovenia, Germany and the Czech Republic and he "represented Australia" at the London's 2012 Cultural Olympiad before the Olympic Games.

After a two-year stint in prison ended in 2009, Bridie, who had recognised Yamma's talent early on, took him aside and promised to help him produce an album. The 2010 debut, Countryman earned rave reviews. This month, Yamma is off to Womex world music conference in Spain (for the second time), only the second Australian to go. Virtuoso blues guitarist Jeff Lang is the other.
It's a peculiarly Australian paradox that at the same time Yamma was being feted around the world and staying in plush hotels, he was literally homeless in Australia. He lost his government housing in Adelaide and this winter lived on the streets. "Just waiting for a house, no place to live," he says.

"I had a swag and a tent, [but] it gets cold and wet. Staying in the street, I had extra warm clothes, wrap myself up.

"I put my guitar in a safe place," he adds, with a hint of worry that I might find out where.

Yamma isn't complaining, though. "You get sick of sleeping in a hotel. In Alice Springs, I was out in the bush all the time, sleep under the stars.

"Ever since when I kept on playing, I used to look back at things I enjoyed without a guitar, but that's been all changing because the music takes me round everywhere. I don't have a piece of time to go out walkabout in the bush these days which I enjoy the most, but if I got spare time, I still go out there.

"I'd like to go walkabout. I haven't done that for a while, I wouldn't mind doing that again."

Yamma takes his guitar, writes songs, hunts for food. "Kangaroo, emu, turkey, goanna," he says.

"All this [music] comes to me, when I got spare time, I go out and write more songs."

So how is the experience of playing at foreign music festivals? "For me, playing on the other side of the world is just playing in your own backyard."

Yamma's heart is never far from home: "I don't worry about going on stage to perform for those people. I just imagine that I'm playing back home in front of my home crowd, family sitting in [the Adelaide] parklands or the house.

"Me there jamming away every morning, when I get up for breakfast. That's the sort of bloke [I am]. I just get up and get the guitar and just jam along with the people I know."

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article posted by:Mr David Bridie, Wantok Musik