After the Tradition - Wongawilli Style
The Wongawilli Band, from the Illawarra region on the south coast of New South Wales, performs traditional and contemporary Australian folk songs, dances and music often also referred to as ?bush music?.
The band was established in 1987 and has performed all over Australia and all major folk festivals.
There have been two basic versions of the band. The first major version included Graeme Murray, Reg Murray, Neil McCann, John Harpley, Tania De Santi (nee Brownlee) and David De Santi. John and Neil left the band in 1998 and allowed the more youthful additions of Jane Brownlee, Jason Roweth and Chloe Roweth. This is the current band.
The band toured China in 2004 and is planning tour to Europe in June 2005.
Members of the band have been actively involved in the Australian folk scene and also involved in the publishing and preservation of Australia?s traditional music and dance. Jane Brownlee and David De Santi were awarded the National Library of Australia Folk Festival Fellowship in 2004.
Members of the band also help in organising events such as the Illawarra Folk Festival, Folk Alliance Australia, the Australian Folk Music and Dance Gathering and various dances and concerts in the Illawarra region.
Trad&Now spoke to David De Santi about the band and what it has achieved.
T&N: How did the band come about?
The band was established with a flexible line-up but included on most occasions David and Tania De Santi, John Harpley, Tom McMahon, Charlie Cugaly, Harry Bronneberg and John Poulton. These members had been playing at the regular Wednesday night bush dance held in the Heinenger Hall in Dapto established by Seamus Mackey in 1985. The dance later moved out to the Wongawilli Community Hall in 1990.
T&N: Where did the band name come from?
The band was part of a larger group of interested musicians and dancers who were forming an incorporated association. The members at the time felt it would be good to identify with an Illawarra Aboriginal location and it turned out that the group was able to access the local hall at Wongawilli. Hence the simple choice of Wongawilli as the name. It is reputed to mean ?windy gully? or ?big wind?.
T&N: What has been the philosophy of the band in the selection of music?
When we started to perform we obviously were enthused by the wonderful Australian music from the bush bands around at the time such as The Bushwackers, The Cobbers, Paradiddle, The Larrikins to name a few. We started performing what we called ?pot boilers?, that is the standard Aussie bush songs such as Ryebuck Shearer, South Australia, Click Go The Shearers, Lazy Harrys, Billy of Tea etc.
We were then fortunate enough to have contact with folklore collectors such as John Meredith, Rob Willis, Alan Scott, Brad Tate, Shirley Andrews and Peter Ellis and realised that there were many more tunes, songs and dance out there to perform and give new life to. These collectors were more than happy to share their findings and to see them performed.
So we embarked on a mission to revive old songs, poems, tunes and to actually get involved in the transcription and dissemination of the music and dances.
It seemed a bit surprising that there weren?t that many other musicians interested in finding new ?old? material to perform apart from organisations such as the Bush Music Club.
Doing this gave us a great opportunity to be musically creative and to be distinctive in our material.
T&N: You not only perform traditional songs but also do songs by contemporary songwriters, why so?
We felt that to continue to be distinctive as a band we also needed to include more recent songs in the traditional style in our repertoire. We didn?t see a great deal of difference between the old songs and songs written about Australia. And they are great songs ? a good melody, lyrics, chorus and evoked an Australian accent.
The writers and composers we?ve covered include Alistair Hulett, Neil Adam, Kavisha Mazzella, Enda Kenny, Ted Egan, Roy Abbott (from Mucky Duck Bush Band), Michael O?Sullivan (from Bandy Bill & Co), Dennis O?Keeffe, Barry Skipsey, Bob Rummery, Hugh McDonald, Martyn Wyndham-Read, Joe Paolacci, Tim O?Brien, Alan Mann, Wendy Joseph, Don Henderson, David Beniuk, Rob Fairbairn, John Manifold, Hugh McDonald, Dave de Hugard, Lyell Sayer to name a few.
Doing these songs we?ve felt has been as important as performing the older traditional material. It shows that our music scene is an evergrowing and evolving tradition.
On last count, there were over 100 songs the band had performed. By the way, we would easily have over 5 00 tunes in our dance music repertoire.
Members of the band have also composed songs and tunes, which we perform. Neil McCann wrote some songs that easily can pass into the tradition ? A Night at Daisy Park, Saturday Night at Marshall Mount and a Coal Miner?s Lament.
We?ve also used poems from Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson and John O?Brien and set them to music.
T&N: What have been some of the band?s highlights?
A highlight has been the chance to know the older collectors such as John Meredith and Alan Scott who were inspirational through their efforts to preserve and promote Australian traditional music. We shouldn?t leave out Rob Willis who has been a tremendous supporter from day one and a fellow crusader for Australian music.
Performance highlights have been appearing at a number of Port Fairy and Woodford Folk Festivals and of course the National Folk Festival (since 1990), which we?ve seen, grow into a terrific event with the making of lots of friends.
The trip to China last year was also a great opportunity to share our music.
A big highlight was also the recognition of the band at the now defunct Australian Bush Music Festival and Bush Band Championships where the band achieved 16 awards over a 5 year period.
It was also nice to have a North American release of our music in the mid 90s by Musica Pangaea.
We also can?t go past the wonderful other musicians we?ve met and shared songs and tunes with.
T&N: What does the future hold?
The band doesn?t play as often as it used to, we?re all getting older, I?m 42 now! However there doesn?t seem to be any lack of enthusiasm to play the songs and tunes. The upcoming tour of Europe should be a great experience as well. One day we might do another recording and the Wongawilli Australian Song Book ?..
After the Tradition, 1992
Tunes of Bert Jamieson, 1993
Australian Selection, 1994
Australian Tradition, 1995
Live at the Local, 1999
Australian Traditional Dance Tunes, Volume 1, 2001
Bush & Folk, Australian Mood Recording