Áilín Quinlan

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Frank Yamma’s seen it all on a long way to the top

Drawing on 40,000 years of his tribe, Frank Yamma has had a storied career, writes Áilín Quinlan

Frank Yamma’s seen it all on a long way to the top

ASTREET-BUSKER at the age of six, and a stage performer at nine, self-taught guitarist Frank Yamma has won international acclaim as the voice of Australia’s Central Desert.

His songs speak of the harsh problems which beset that continent’s Indigenous community — cultural degradation, alcohol and drug addiction, love, death, and heartache — and spring from the 40,000-year-old musical tradition of his tribe.

The Pitjantjara people are the caretakers of the land of Uluru which encapsulates Alice Springs and the Central Australian desert and, as an initiated Pitjantjatjara man, Yamma sings in his Indigenous language as well as in English.

“Really, I write songs about the land and the people; my own people and the place where I grew up,” he explains. “Some have good lives, but some have had very hard lives.”

Now in his mid-forties, he’s following in the footsteps of his musician father Isaac Yamma, a Pitjantjatjara singer, one of the first indigenous artists to perform in English as well as in his own language.

Frank’s mother died when he was 12 and, he recalls, he and his siblings were often looked after by relatives while Isaac was playing gigs far away from the family home in Docker River, 18km from Alice Springs in the Central Desert.

“Childhood was rough,” observes Yamma, who says that as a boy he sometimes busked on the streets for spare change with which to buy food. “I started drinking at 12 years of age.”

The 46-year-old later spent time both on the streets and, on and off during the 1990s and 2000s, in prison.

In fact, his musical career was put on hold for the best part of a decade whilst he dealt with the fallout from the challenges facing Aboriginal men in Australia.

Drug abuse, alcoholism, and poverty plague a large proportion of Indigenous Australians. Yamma’s song ‘Coolibah’ tackles alcohol abuse — his own and that of those around him.

His song ‘Make More Spear’ is an unofficial anthem that talks about indigenous men going back to their roots, finding their pride, making spears, and living the old way.

His favourite melody, ‘She Cried’, tells how he went into a coma in hospital after being injured in a fight and woke up to find his partner crying.

Things took a turn for the better for Yamma in 2010, when the award-winning songwriter and composer David Bridie worked with him to record and produce his debut solo album. Recorded in 2010, Countryman exploded onto the Australian music scene.

His latest album Uncle was released in October 2014. Featuring songs of country, love, protection, heartache, and travel, it draws together stripped-back acoustic songs and standout tracks ‘I’ll Be Back Soon’ and ‘Everybody’s Talking’.

In 2014 Yamma toured Canada where he performed to packed crowds at folk festivals in Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Calgary. Since then he’s toured the UK and Europe twice, including performances in 2012 at the BT River of Music for the London Olympic Festival; WOMAD UK; and appearing on the same bill as The Waterboys and The Proclaimers at the Hebridean Celtic Festival.

Frank Yamma plays Whelan’s in Dublin tomorrow; DeBarra’s in Clonakilty on Thursday, and Levis’ Corner House in Ballydehob on Friday.

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