Celine Yap, also known as Little Foot, may sing softly, but the words of her songs carry a big message. Already she’s lent her voice to the cause of refugee rights and campaigns against environmentally destructive mining. Unpaved asked Celine about her about folk music as activism, growing up in the Philippines and her upcoming CD launch and Typhoon relief fundraisers.
Photo by Tony Proudfoot
What made you choose folk music as a way of addressing the issues you care about?
I found that folk music in many cases combined words that may be quite harsh or sad to hear against a background of sweet sounding music which makes it easy for an audience to take in and consider. I also felt like folk music, though sometimes sad, gives the listeners a feeling of hope, and a feeling of empowerment to make a change. Folk songs are easily followed, learned and sung by others, due to the repetitiveness of the lyrics and tunes. Some examples of these used widely throughout the ’60s and ’70s are ’500 Miles’, ‘Blowing in the Wind’, ‘A Hard Rain’s a-gonna Fall’ and ‘We Shall Overcome’.
It sounds like your father had a lot to do with getting you started.
My father taught me to play the guitar when I was 16, and we always had Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, and Peter, Paul and Mary playing in the car when we went on long road trips (which in the Philippine’s traffic was a trip to the supermarket). He used to sing us (my two sisters and I) folk songs he had learned growing up camping in Malaysia, and the memory of him playing and singing those songs in a high falsetto voice to make us laugh will remain with me forever.
You survived a very harrowing thirteen year period (between 3 and 16) in a convent back in the Philippines. Can you describe the sorts of things you witnessed and experienced there?
I won’t go into much detail about it, but for the purpose of this interview I can say, it was really hard to be away from my family, especially my dad, for that long. There was a lot of cruelty, mistreatment and abuse going on at that place, and I guess the worst part for us (the kids), was that we saw no end to it. We thought we would grow old and die there, and that would’ve been our life. I and a few others managed to get away, but many of the girls I grew up with (including my little sister) are still there.
How has that experience shaped you as an artist and activist?
In some ways, I assume the experience shaped me for the better. I am proud and almost exultant to be free to roam where I please, and sing to my heart’s content. And to be able to perform music to a listening audience is simply fantastic, more than I ever dreamed I could do. Moreover, to top it all off, to be able to do it to help other people, and share the stories of those who would otherwise have to suffer in silence… it really is an honour to be able to use my freedom for good.
You’ve been very active in singing in support of asylum seekers. Your own life experiences must give you some fairly direct insight.I guess you could say I am more than passionately sympathetic to the plight of asylum seekers. I can remember very clearly the pain of being separated from my family, with no contact, the despair that comes with being walled in and locked up, with no hope for the future, and the monotonous agony of feeling everyday that you are nothing to no one. With these feelings I can identify. But asylum seekers suffering go way beyond this.
Many of them have seen their loved ones murdered in front of them, they have fled from their homes, and been pursued to no end by people who do not want them in their country. And for the Australian government to then lock them up when they finally get to our shores, to try and describe this suffering would be maddening. To then add insult to injury, it is then made out that these people are frauds and undeserving of our hospitality.
This is why I sing about them and about their stories. I desperately do not want people to forget about where these people have come from, the suffering they have gone through, and the suffering they are still being subjected to when they arrive on our shores. We have no reason to be unselfish, and we would not want this to be done to us if we were in their shoes.
You’re organising two big fundraisers for typhoon relief in the Philippines. What have you been hearing from friends in affected areas?
I heard back from a friend last week who I was quite worried about for a while. He had walked several kilometers to get some signal to call. He told me his house had blown away in the storm along with many others, but that his family were all OK. However, living conditions were deteriorating, they were struggling to get food, and there was still no electricity. People had to wait in queues to charge their phones long enough to make a phone call to ask for help.
My parents have been volunteering at the Red Cross everyday since the typhoon made landfall, and they told me that the Filipinos in Manila had all been dedicating their time to helping out. They had young office workers coming in to help pack food after doing long shifts at the call centres. My dad also rushed to the dentist one day after volunteering to get his cracked tooth fixed and the dentist did it for free as a contribution to the relief effort. So, I’m just trying to do my bit over here, and hopefully help out a little where I can. The response I’ve received from musicians has been overwhelming, and I’ve tried to accommodate everyone who has offered to help, the result being we have two events running with about 26 bands and solo acts performing.
You’re also putting out your first ever release. I love that these songs say so much but barely pass the 2 minute mark. Tells us about the recording and launch.
I have a very short attention span, so I try to say a lot in as short a time as possible. I also try to respect my audiences’ intelligence, and imagine they have as short an attention span as I, though this could probably be subject to further debate.
Our EP recording was actually paid for by a good friend of mine, Abe Nouk, who also founded Creative Rebellion Youth (CRY), an organization to encourage and help young people pursue music careers, whether it be folk, hiphop or spoken word. He said it was a place where people could practice and record their music and not be judged harshly. If it wasn’t for Abe (and my lovely band-mate Amanda), we could have never afforded to record our songs properly. Our EP/Album is called Pockets Full of Change and the launch is on November 30 (this Saturday), at Bar 303 in Northcote, with AMAZING support acts-MJ Maguire, Achol the Rebel and James Teague.