It’s not often you get an opportunity to have a chat with a famous Australian who you have admired from afar for many years. Someone who you admire for their music, for their activism, for their elder’s role in the community, for their earthy humour and for their story-telling genius. Recently I got lucky. I was fortunate enough to interview Kev Carmody, one of Australia’s most respected singer / song writers.
On the back of a brilliant performance by Kev at WOMAD in Adelaide in March 2016 I reached out to Kev and requested an interview. Kindly he said yes. After a 40 odd minute chat with Kev in April 2016 I now have an even greater respect and admiration for the man. I assumed our chat would focus on his music and his activism for black rights. Kev took these conversations and others and linked them, in his most natural way, to the big picture. Kev has such a natural, easy charm and turn of phrase. Effortlessly he steered our conversation across many different subjects, across many different points of view. I was left richer for the experience. Sadly this article cannot give full and just expression to our conversation. But try I must, across a series of articles, of which, this is the first.
Kev’s thoughts and outlook strike me as those of an elder who has seen many moons, has walked many miles across this beautiful earth and met people of all persuasions. He has an implicit understanding of people and of how things work in this world of ours. He understands what is needed to bring about significant change in a society: patience, maturity, consensus and the courage to act.
Kev told me a golden nugget of a story that I found quite remarkable. Kev sung at Gough Whitlam’s public memorial service in late 2014 with Paul Kelly. Kev told me that Gough, the man who pulled Australia into the modern world, wrote the script for his own funeral and specified he wanted Kev & Paul to sing ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ at his own funeral. Such was the significance of this song and its related events to Gough. Such was the regard that Gough had for Kev and Paul. The song was co-written by Kev and Paul in 1993, and is based on the story of Vincent Lingiari and his Gurindji tribe’s land strike in the 70’s as part of the Indigenous struggle for land rights and reconciliation. Gough is the ’tall stranger’ referred to in the song handing back the soil to its original owners, the Gurindji. The protest led to the Commonwealth Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. This event, the successful 1967 Constitutional Referendum and the 1992 Mabo High Court decision / 1993 Native Title Act (terra nullius) are all significant milestone achievements in the struggle for Indigenous rights in Australia. These hard won achievements and the patience and struggle needed to achieve them have obviously shaped Kev’s big picture view and his understanding of the world.
In current day Australia, Kev believes that the ‘Reconciliation movement will progress – it has to. Recognition is good but it must be a partnership – recognition in the constitution and coupled with a treaty for Indigenous people. Prior sovereignty needs to be recognised. And a treaty is needed as well. Our mob have to discuss it, right across Australia. This takes time and we need a partnership approach’.
Kev reflected that he was a 20 year old at the start of 1967 and at that time he was not a citizen in his own country. The 1967 Referendum changed that and to this day it is Australia’s most successful vote. At the time, Kev noted, the global political movement for civil rights provided the necessary momentum, especially in the United States where Afro Americans were very active for change. Consensus for change in 1967 was found across society in Australia, Kev believes, because of this global movement. Do the same conditions exist today to give momentum to the Reconciliation campaign? Kev sees a lot more conversations needed to be had across Australia before we can reach a similar consensus as was achieved in 1967. Kev also pointed out that crucially consensus is needed amongst Indigenous Australians as well. His mob is divided on a number of issues. This will take time and patience to change. To reach consensus broadly across the whole of Australia it will take time, patience and most importantly, maturity. We need all our leaders across the spectrum that is Australia to speak up with a Gough inspired voice. To speak with a courageous voice that helps accelerate the growth needed to achieve this maturity. And then together we can ‘again’ pull Australia into the modern world.
A few times in our chat Kev returned to the same theme: Women. The respect for, the rights of and peace toward Women. I hadn’t expected Kev to bring this up. Which upon reflection was rather ignorant of me. It’s obvious to me now that Kev’s care for others extends far across all of society. His empathy has a broad reach. This is most probably inspired by his good parents and his strong culture. His songs and spoken word talk fondly of his upbringing and his mother especially. Also inspirational would likely be the strong Indigenous connection to Mother Earth. Kev spoke of the scourge of domestic violence occurring in the Indigenous communities. The level of domestic violence in the Indigenous communities is as bad as other parts of Australia. The common denominator? This disease in our communities across Australia is fuelled by alcohol and drugs and most critically by bad attitudes toward women. I am sure that Kev was raising this issue in our chat to keep the conversations about domestic violence alive. To keep working patiently towards the changing of attitudes.
At the end of our chat I asked Kev for any advice he could give me. Kev offered: ‘keep working on your intellect; make your intellect aware of the infinity and ancientness of this country; get a feel for this country; really feel it; get your being to feel the night sky’. This made sense to me. It reminded me of a time I was looking up at the stars at night in Papua New Guinea with no city lights to interrupt the darkness. I felt it then. I was in awe of the beauty of our cosmos. I also felt small and so temporary. I felt the weight of responsibility to preserve the beauty of our earth for those that follow in our footsteps. Just as the Koori people have done in this country for more than 40,000 years.
Author: Sam Evans