Goonoowigall Soundtrail: reflections from the production floor
In a week’s time, I will drive from Queensland down to New South Wales to a small flora and fauna reserve outside the town of Inverell. Here in on the forested hillside, littered with large and muscular granite rocks and feathery black pine, I will attend the launch of the Goonoowigall ‘Aboriginal Fringe Camp’ Soundtrail. I will be one among a small group of people: academics, local councillors, former and current Goonoowigall locals, and the people who lived here and whose voices are a major part of the Soundtrail. By design, this will be a small and intimate event. There will be a welcome to country by a Jukambal elder, no doubt some media to cover the moment and at various times, people will kick up the Soundtrails app, don their headphones, and head off around the track that heads up from the carpark. On route they will hear the voices, the stories, the sounds and songs that are inextricably connected to this site. There will be post launch drinks, cups of tea back in town and herein, in the weeks, months and years to come, when visitors arrive at the Inverell visitors information centre, as many thousands do each year, they will be invited to download the Goonoowigall Soundtrail and make their way out here.
Goonoowigall, meaning plenty of wallabies, was first settled in the late 1800s, on the banks of Sheep Station Gulley near the main Inverell - Bundarra road. When the creek was dammed and a tannery started, it became a sizeable community. In old photographs it look like a English hamlet with row boats, willow trees and grassy banks. Later on it was tin mining that left its pock-marked legacy of tailings and erosion for hundreds of miles. Goonoowigall today, where we will gather for the launch, has sat at the forgotten border zone to Inverell, a moderately large regional town. It is up the hill from the original township. It is here on the marginal, thin rocky soil that no one bothered with, that Aboriginal people came to live from the 1940s to the 1970s: the Connors, McDougals, Porters, Bartholomews, Davis’s, the Browns and many more who were often related; several hundred over the years at a guess. It was a hard existence and remnant bits of stoves, engine blocks, kitchen utensils are still peppered through the bush today. These camps were transient in nature as work was scarce. Men had to travel for miles to support their families: whether ring barking, fruit picking, or seasonal work. The rest of the family had to either follow or stay here and risk the welfare. Everyone hated the welfare - and their agents, the police. There was a constant look out for their black car arriving. The parents knew it. The kids knew it: that they just had to go to school, that they ought be clean, responsible, Christian and of sober habits. Despite the enduring odds, the systemic poverty, a broader regional racism that stacked against them, this was, by all measures, a cohesive community. Parents helped out, kids played together, Mrs Brown from the Salvation Army family taught the kids to read and write. Taxis drove men far and wide for jobs. Doctor Wish made the trip out to immunise the whole family. Born out of solidarity and survival, there was, and still is, no bad blood here between the Aboriginal and non Aboriginal community.
Goonoowigall today is a popular spot for tourists and locals. It backs onto a large and expansive area of dry sclerophyll forest that earned protection back in the early 1900s. There is no nicer place to come for a picnic. People walk the hilly granite tracks. Thunderbolt’s Rock commands an amazing views back to Inverell and Middle Creek, despite the mining, still has a small waterhole and sandy beach. Dotted around the site are signs that have been put together by the Inverell Reconciliation group. Money has been raised, a committee formed: the house site of Elizabeth and Darcy Connors, Eva Porter, Grandpa McDougall’s little cottage; a small chunk of cut out granite known affectionately a the swimming pool; the washing area where fires were lit and tubs would boil. This site was riven with stories before Soundtrails. We’ve simply brought them to life.
21 Feb, 2018
Victoria park on the north east side of Inverell is a parched point of arrival on a drought affected, windy February afternoon. The sky is threatening rain but it’s hard to believe. Having set out from Queensland at 5am, I am tired and in need of a wash. In the distance, on a concrete block, sitting around a newly erected council picnic table, and looking back at the catholic church and the town of Inverell, are a number of people. I reverse park my car, grab my gear and walk towards them. As I draw closer, I recognise Aunty Elizabeth Connors, one of Inverell’s most respect senior elders. She occupies a seat in the middle and is rugged up. Elizabeth was born at Bassendean Station in 1926 by Nurse May, an Aboriginal midwife. Her mother was a no-nonsense missionary who wasn’t afraid to fight and her father was an Indian hawker who worked on stations. She and her husband Darcy Connors came to Goonoowigall with a clutch of children on a horse and cart in the fifties. Darcy’s family lived there. It was a safe place.
I first met Elizabeth during a community recording project in Uralla, not far from Inverell. We were profiling the community, recording conversations, based on the US StoryCorps model. One day Elizabeth turned up with her nephew, and the two of them spoke about Elizabeth’s life: her time at Goonoowigall, her husband Darcy, how she raised 25 children; “Some white, some black. I raised em all.” She recounted riots she’d witnessed at Inverell’s South Side and they both she and her nephew came back a second time. On the day of the launch at the old Mill in Uralla, she sat at the back amidst a sea of family, proud as punch.
As I join the group, I put down my bags, and make the rounds, shaking hands. “I know you,” Elizabeth looks at me closely, the whole time maintaining her grip. “Yes. I think I do.” Then lets go of my hand. The only other person I recognise here is Elizabeth’s granddaughter, Tanya Keenan (nee Connors). I met her with her brother Leroy, not long after I was commissioned to build the Goonoowigall Soundtrtail. The day I met them, I played them a story from the Aboriginal Diggers Soundtrail - based just out of Moree - about Percy Suey, a half Chinese, half Aboriginal man who’d spent his war years locked up in Changi prisoner of war camp. Percy’s story on the Soundtrails app kicks up next to his plaque in the Aboriginal section of the Moree cemetery and is told to us by his daughter, Linda Boney: how her dad was unable to settle down upon his return to Moree, to family life, the highly segregated world in the 1950s; how he kept his war medals in a tin, dressed in his army clothes and wanted to speak about the war: ‘It was always about the war.’ Rather than come and live inside, he preferred camping on the dry riverbed. Then one night he got into a fight and disappeared. His clothes were found at the local dump and he was never seen again. When the story finished, Leroy said he knew of the family. He went and got his partner. He wanted everyone to hear it.
I offer up some food I have brought with me. Nothing special and in days to come, when I’ve got to know the rest of them, Leroy will refer to it as my ‘vegan food’. I am peeling off the lids and pouring juice, when a woman asks me. “So you wanna tell us what this is all about?” It’s a perfectly reasonable request and all eyes are on me. Much to my relief, I see Leroy coming across the park. He has a big smile on a big face and he shakes my hand. More food is had, drinks are poured. Together we sit at this cold, clean council table, in a council park that has for many years served as a meeting point for Aboriginal people from Goonoowigall, Pindaroi, Moree and Tingha as Leroy stands up. He talks in his usual passionate way about the Goonoowigall Soundtrail. Soon he will invite me to talk and I will stand up, ask them if their grandchildren use their mobile phones to find their way from one place to the other. Pointing to my phone, I will the analogy of songlines, stories on country. Faces will nod and though it’s not a given, it feels like the project is now underway.
The Goonoowigall Soundtrail is the thirteenth Soundtrail on our app that is now woven across the New England, North Western slopes of New South Wales and into Queensland. Many, but not all, have an Aboriginal focus. Myall Creek, for instance, the site of one of Australia’s most famous massacre, and now a Soundtrail, is barely thirty minutes from Goonoowigall. When we started out four and a half years back, GPS was flakey, data was expensive, and few people knew their apple usernames and passwords. Launching any one Soundtrail was as much a lesson in mobiles basics as it was a celebration of local stories and innovation. We never knew how it would play out, if we’d survive the onslaught of changes in technology. Volunteers from the visitor information centres were often hesitant about our app ‘thingie’. They’d laugh as us, despite our best intentions to up-skill these front of liners, despite reminding them of the wonderful characters in the line up of stories, the old timers, the original music, the excellent production: they’d pull out their Telstra flip phones or hand us a paper map marked Sites of Interest: from 1-50.
Times are changing, albeit slowly, even out bush. Smartphones are more pervasive, coverage is getting better and everyone knows that the future preservation of these regional stories and voices, is in part, dependent on mobile technology. While I’m no great advocate for mobile technology, I’m not itching for the latest Apple smartphone and screen resolution is no big thing for me, it’s hard to ignore that a new generation are increasingly engaging with world through their devices. For this demographic, mobile phones might not be replacing reality but they are increasingly mediating it.
While there are many elements of the Goonoowigall Soundtrail that are worthy of mention, there are two points in particular I’d like to discuss here. Both of these are in response to an article ‘Stories that walk with you: opportunities in locative audio for feature journalism.’ written by radio journalist Jeanti St Clair, a former producer on the Nimbin Soundtrails, for The Australian Journalism Review. In it St Clair compares Soundtrails to feature journalism and radio feature journalism, drawing on such things as human and documentary sources, incorporating facts and background analysis, providing opinion and deploying scripting, sounds, narrators, music and crafted audio (St Clair 2018, p.21). She likens Soundtrails to a type of slow journalism that lies “outside the daily news cycle”. Here “...proximity is experienced as embodied through the active presence of the audience at the site where the narrative unfolds.”
While I expect that future Soundtrails will step beyond the scope of feature journalism (for example, a theatrical response to a site, or working alongside a festival) St Clair is hitting the mark here. Soundtrails does share many of feature journalisms traits. My background is in audio documentary making. I am passionate about the unrealised power of crafted audio to engage audiences and create an embodied onsite experience. All our Soundtrails are to varying degrees slowed down. Soundtrails operates under the auspice of our not for profit, The Story Project on a commercial basis, has clear outcomes and deadlines to meet. But a work like the Goonoowigall Soundtrail is built on relationships that are negotiated over time through mutual trust and understanding. All our work is done in consultation with the elders/the subjects/the knowledge holders and no story gets across the line without their approval. There are many days of recording involved; many trips onsite with those who speak with authority; many weeks of production shaping these stories into engaging and compelling pieces that could just as easily be played on the BBC as heard onsite.
If Goonoowigall has been a learning experience - for all involved - and produced with backdrop of years of cultural, social and political mistrust, misunderstanding and lingering resentments, this project has made it to fruition and has been a joy to undertake for me. I think the end result is a beautiful and crafted audio testimony to a community’s fortitude, survival, grace and humour. It is also an innovative and highly crafted production that draws out the nature of the place, society, politics and that people. Whether its selling lost golf balls back to the golfers, answering the door to the welfare while justifying why you’re not at school on the day mums asked you to stayed at home to look after your sickly younger sibling: whether its humping water and wood, learning to box as a young man, or simply playing in the forest with your sisters: these are simple stories born out of necessity and hard work and life. There is no media machine or need to be breaking the latest news. Here relevance replaces recentness, depth replaces surface (St Clair 2018, p.21). Those who walk the Goonoowigall Soundtrail are less passive observers and more active participants. And I like to think that in this slowed down space that connect seamlessly with the world, people and place, genuine listening occurs.
The second point I wish to make is the way in which projects like the Goonoowigall Soundtrails are contesting spaces. If markers such as “buildings, statues, memorials, and plaques make claim to narratives about place (St Clair 2018, p 26 citing Farman, 2015)” then the Goonoowigall Soundtrail experience can “override those narratives and make space for alternative perspectives (St Clair 2018, p.26) . The Goonoowigall Soundtrails is built on ordinary lives: the washing and chores, two sibling discussing welfare records on their father: sisters talking teenage crushes on the popstars whose pictures on newspaper peppered the walls of their makeshift humpies. These are unintentional and unscripted recordings: family yarns, shared moments, exchange on site with someone who understands. They are quintessentially Australian reflections. And yet despite the fact that there were hundreds, if not thousands of Aboriginal fringe camps around Australia, many remain invisible or are shrouded in secrecy. Where were these places, and who lived in them? How did they live, how did they survive and what were their concerns? The Goonoowigall Soundtrail is an act of reconciliation and it affords a small, intimate and loving window into one such community. This is not an intellectual pursuit or your average tourist spin. Here we travel with the people who know this site way more than we ever will. Whether Percy Suey story beside the small plaque in the Moree Aboriginal cemetery or Frank and Dinah and that half a water tank where they lived broken hearted when their kids were taken: these are real people, real places.
Read more about Jeanti St Clair’s essay here: