Interview: Kutcha Edwards’s ancestral calling

Kutcha Edwards

Kutcha Edwards, a proud Mutti Mutti man and much loved singer-songwriter, is set to appear at the National Folk Festival in April as part of an outstanding Indigenous program including Gina Williams, Guy Ghouse, Col Hardy, John Bennett and The Djaadjawan Dancers. As a survivor of the Stolen Generations, music has been Kutcha’s way of communicating his own experiences in a way that many can understand and share in. Accolades have included the NAIDOC Indigenous Person of the Year 2001-2002, Male Artist of the Year at the 2001 Deadly Awards and his three solo albums to date have attracted producers and musicians like Paul Kelly, Renee Geyer, Paul Hester, Jeff Lang and more. With an exciting new album in the works and the National Folk Festival fast approaching, Kutcha spoke to Les Thomas about his early life in Melbourne, the importance of community to his work and his ancestral calling to music.

Your most recent album, Blak and Blu, makes a very powerful and emotional statement. Can you tell us a bit about how those songs came together?

In Blak and Blu I wanted to go back to the genesis of my songwriting and the start of it all.  The single “Get Back Up Again” refers to when I worked with an amazing man back in the ‘80s. It was my first job in Melbourne after coming from Gippsland. Jock Austin was a visionary in Fitzroy, running the Fitzroy Stars Youth Club Gymnasium were I was a Youth Worker and Sports Coordinator for Aboriginal kids. It was run out of the Aboriginal Health Service, mainly preventative health. Jock saw what was happening in Fitzroy and he created this sanctuary.

I hadn’t met my dad until I was 17. When I met Jock at 18, he took me under his wing and I remember he educated me as to what it was like to be an Aboriginal man in Fitzroy. He always had statements that he’d pass by you and make you think about. One of them was “Kutcha, it doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down. It matters that you get back up.”

It’s helped me since to get back on the horse and do what I love doing: performing and singing.  So that’s where “Get Back Up Again” came from and a lot of the other songs flow on from that.

You’ve been doing your own thing since the Black Arm Band, which you were a founding member of. Can you give us some background on that?

You walk your own path and you have your own belief system. I see things a bit differently and I believe in protocols before professionalism. I just felt that things weren’t the way they should have been. We’d go in a perform at somewhere like Sydney Opera House at the Concert Hall, fly in and fly out, and that’s not me. I’m a person who believes if we’re getting the opportunity to perform in come of the biggest concert halls in the world, we have to inspire our kids to do the same. So I’d want to go into Redfern and maybe do a songwriting session with kids. And cultural business that needed to be adhered to wasn’t happening, so I loved the ride while I was on it, but my ancestors were tapping me on the shoulder and wanting me to do the right thing. In a sense I feel like the thoughts that I have aren’t just mine and I’m being divined in that sense. So I have to follow that or I’m denying my connection to myself and my ancestry.

Has it been liberating to be able to do things in your way?

It’s been amazing. I lived in Melbourne a long time. Firstly because I was removed to live there, but I lived with my mum from 13 to 18 in Traralgon, Gippsland. I came back in 85 and lived there since, but I’ve never felt at home in Melbourne. I’ve always felt as if I was trespassing, but as of two years ago I’ve lived on Phillip Island. It’s my great-grandmothers country [Bunurong Country]. I sense that they’re here, my Nannas Polly Briggs and Louisa Briggs. I feel I know that I’m at home here on the island. I walk on the beach at Ventnor and I wonder if Nanna ever walked that beach.

Music is not just this audible presentation. It’s about connecting beyond yourself to your ancestry and I might be getting to perform in places around the world, and the MCG, but for me it’s about singing my family and my clan and my tribe’s songline. I sing in English because that’s the dominant language of this land now. it’s not that I don’t want to sing in my languages.

Can you remember when you first felt that music was your way of sharing these stories?

I remember being in choirs in primary school. I loved being in plays and I remember being in a drum band, so i always had this rhythm in my soul, do you know what I mean. I remember the very first live concert that I went to. It was 1989 and I went to see Robert Cray at Festival Hall on his Strong Persuader Tour and I was just immersed. I wrote my very first song that evening, which is on Blak and Blue called “Roll With the Rhythm”.

I can remember my very first poem. I was in Traralgon Tech and the teacher was Noel McMahon; “Noddy” McMahon we called him. He was a lovely guy, really gentle. A lot of teachers that I’ve come across are very forceful in their demeanour. Instead of English, it was called humanities back then, and in his very first class he says “OK students, I want you to write a poem that explains you” and it’s like ‘Wow, what do I do here?’

I ended up writing a poem at age 13, and it’s very prophetic, because I don’t understand the policies and the reasons why i was taken away from my mum and dad. So the poem was called “My Favourite Drop” and it goes

Trickling down the waterfall
Freely one by one
Forming into clouds of spray
Glistening in the sun

Crashing to disaster
My water drop is done
Left a short life of loneliness
And gathered back as one

I look back now, and I turn 50 this year, and I think being a singer-songwriter must have been my destiny. That’s why I believe in being divined by these old people up stairs, you know?

You must get powerful reactions when sharing these stories. Can you tell us how your songs connected with people?

I write what I write in the hope that people can confide in my songs and I’ve been influenced by great people in my musical journey. Cooinda, my first album, was produced by Paul Kelly and influenced amazingly by a dear brother of mine Paul Hester and people like David Bridie. Then I journeyed on to the Hope album and recorded with Renee Geyer and Judith Durham and connected with so many people. But there’s a method to my madness. The genesis of my song might come from the death of my brother Wally, ‘Photographs’ for instance, on the Hope album. I don’t even mention my brother’s name, because if I don’t mention anyone in particular, but it’s about a passing in your family, then people live through that lyric. So they’re confiding in that song to get them through the pain and loss of a family member. That song is played at a lot of funerals in Melbourne, family members of mine.

‘Scars’, your song about Sorry Day, really grabbed me, too, with the message of truth being necessary for healing.

There was a woman called Lorraine Peters, an amazing old aunty and she sits on the board of the Healing Foundation. She was in the chamber during Kevin Rudd’s apology. I was asked to go in there and I said to the MP “With all due respect, i thank you for asking me to be there, but I can’t go in unless all of my brothers and sisters go in.”

So I stayed outside with them, but Kevin Rudd ended up calling me five years on. My older sister and two of my nieces were there and I put the phone on speaker. Kevin Rudd asked my sister “How do you feel five years on?” And my sister, she said “How do you think we feel? We’re still in pain. Our family’s still dying.” She got really emotional.

Nothing will heal the scars on this country until we get justice and that’s what the song’s referencing. There’s a scar on this country that can never be mended. I’ve travelled around this country and I’ve seen devastation, but I’ve seen amazing resilience too.

Isn’t it a curious situation when Tony Abbott has made himself Minister for Indigenous Affiars, promoting the Recognise campaign while gutting Indigenous Services to the tune of $560 million in the last budget?

Yes. To be honest, I don’t agree with the Recognise campaign one iota. It’s a constitution that doesn’t derive from my people and if we agree to the terms of reference, not to be disrespectful, we become them. We’re sovereign people. I am a Mutti Mutti man. I was born before the 1967 Referendum, so I was born not a citizen of this country. When people say to me “That’s so Un-Australian”, I can say “I was born Un-Australian”. My people have never denied me the right to be a Mutti Mutti man, ever.

For me music is the key to expressing things like this. I was told a long time ago it’s easier to slap somebody over the head with a feather than a baseball bat. Music lets me get my foot in the door.

You’ll be performing with Dan Fox and Tom Lynch at this year’s National Folk Festival in April. Is this your first visit to the National?

I was there in 2009 with my full band. This time it will be with the trio, but I’ve been working a new recording project which I’ll be able to share more on in the coming year.

*The National Folk Festival runs over 2-6 April 2015 at Exhibition Park, Canberra. Visit the website for full program details and tickets.

About Les Thomas 26 Articles
Melbourne singer-songwriter and Unpaved editor Follow @les_thomas on Twitter