Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Lajamanu Teenage band

I wake up and roll over to check the time. It’s 2am. Disorientated by sleep, I listen to the noises outside and try to remember where I am.

I can hear the howl of camp dogs in the distance and the sound of rubbish blowing in the desert wind against the fence outside. I hear conversation in an unfamiliar tongue, yelling, and a car being driven off into the dark.

I’m in Lajamanu.

Lajamanu is a large Aboriginal community located somewhere in the middle of nowhere. It’s place you’re unlikely to visit unless you have a damn good reason. It’s a place you’d find on a map and wonder who in hell would live in such a remote and isolated spot. 800 people call this home way out here in the heart of the Northern Territory.

There’s a solitary store selling everything from fruit and vegetables to hamburgers, curried chicken, bicycles, kids jumpers and diesel. There’s a school, two policemen and an overworked health centre coping with the needs of 800 residents. There are no doctors, just nurses having to deal with any affliction that happens to walk in through the door (or is wheeled in from the Toyota Landcruiser ambulance) – runny noses, chesty coughs, ear infections, medications, lice infestation, psychiatric illness, suicide attempts, road trauma, broken limbs, cuts needing stitches and even just someone in need of some social company and a cup of tea.

It’s a town where the nearest doctor is a flight and another world away. 24 hours a day the nurses are expected to triage their patient and make the tough calls - either patch them up and send them on their way home, or fight with some faceless voice on the other end of a phone line to have them airlifted out just to receive the very basic medical treatment that anyone in this country has a right to expect. The people working out here are absolutely incredible.

Just yesterday there was a public outcry over some Vietnam Vet discovered living in lice infested conditions in Queensland. How could this happen? Why hasn’t someone stepped in to help this man? How could our country let this celebrated war hero down? Then I recall stories from the Lajamanu nurses of Aboriginal kids walking through their clinic doors day after day after day with chronic lice infestation and I feel shame that a crisis on this scale is not newsworthy enough for our ‘illustrious’ media outlets. Shame on us.

But tonight as I lay here in my bed, I’m not thinking about all of that. There’s a sound rising out from the community that grabs my attention. It’s the sound of band practice wafting through the night sky and waking me from my dreams.

It’s the sound of the Lajamanu Teenage Band.

It’s not easy to be a member of the Lajamanu Teenage Band. Certain characteristics are a must if you want to succeed in this dedicated outfit:
* You must be able to attend band practise (hours are anything from 2pm to 3am daily).
* You must be able to sing the same song at least 20 times per practise session.
* Singers must be able to sing out of tune (essential).
* Being a teenager is optional.

For the past 3 nights my dreams have been interrupted by this 2am cacophony. I’ve listened to tone-deaf singers belting out tunes that would make any Japanese karaoke bar proud. I’ve listened to a heaving mass of instruments rumbling away in unison. I’ve listened to voices ringing out in a language that I don’t understand.

But tonight is different. I lie quietly in the dark and listen intently. What am I really hearing at this small hour of the morning? Is it just a group of clumsy community kids strumming away amateurishly on their instruments, or is it something more?

Could it be the sound of hopes and dreams? Is it the sound of something transcending the physical boundaries of the community? Is it a hope of living past the age of 60 and defying the life expectancy of most Australian indigenous persons? Is it a wish to cease this cycle of cultural breakdown and social stigma?


Or maybe it’s just as simple as a group of kids indulging their love of music. One can only wonder. But tonight, lying here in my bed, there’s just the sound of beauty and rhythm and soul and passion.

There’s just the sound of the Lajamanu Teenage Band.

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