Musical mission to unveil history

Jessie Lloyd will perform at Geelong Arts Centre next Friday. (Chris Frape)

By Luke Voogt

Unheard songs will shed light on an untold chapter of Australian history when Jessie Lloyd brings her Mission Songs Project to Geelong Arts Centre next Friday.

Lloyd joins the centre’s new live-streaming series on the first day of National Reconciliation Week.

“This will be the first time I’ll be live-streaming from a venue,” she said.

“I think there’s going to be four people there, which helps, as opposed to me talking to myself.

“But when the lights are on you can’t see [the audience] anyway so it’s kind of the same – just talking to void.”

The show gives an emotional insight into the stories of Indigenous Australians forced onto Christian Missions or state-run settlements during the White Australia era.

“When they were sent to the missions and the settlements they were restricted from any sort of cultural practices,” Lloyd said.

“During those times, our people were restricted from talking our language.[Mission Songs] is a way to showcase how they transitioned into English through song.”

After singing church hymns, the Aboriginals would take the melodies and use them to create their own music about living off rations, farewells, lugging pearls and tending stock routes.

“I looked for the songs they were singing after church,” Lloyd said.

“The only people who know them are their families.

“This perspective on history is not recorded, it’s generally written by administrators. These tunes that they composed are that [missing] record.

“It’s a rare insight into mission life and it’s a big part of Australia’s history that hasn’t really been known before.”

Lloyd’s journey across Australia began a few years ago after hearing the stories of her grandfather Albie Geia and other relatives who lived on the notorious Palm Island off northern Queensland.

Her grandfather was one of several Aboriginals who led a rebellion for “basic human rights” on the penal settlement, which was “Australia’s Alcatraz”, she said.

“A lot of people were sent there just for being a ‘half-caste’.”

Lloyd interviewed elders across the country to understand their stories and songs, she said.

“I just do this on my own accord. My final goal with this is to at least have one of these songs in the Australian songbook, to take ownership of true Australian history.”

Previously non-indigenous audience members, some who went to school with kids from the missions, approached her after the show, she said.

“They would say, ‘we had no idea where they went after they left school’.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit hard for Lloyd, who had to cancel her upcoming Australian and Canadian tours.

“That was painful,” she said.

“But it sounds like people are starting to get confident for the start of the [next] year because I’ve got some booking inquiries.”

She has performed a few live-streamed gigs from home while looking after her two-year-old daughter but she said the stage element in this show helped separate “professional artists” from people who had become “YouTube” famous in their lounge rooms.

“It’s strange when professional artists need to dabble in that kind of thing,” she said.

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