Healing cultural loss through music at Ethno Australia

I first learned about Ethno at age thirty, via a trad musician from Ireland I was learning tunes from. Looking it up was disappointing—the age limit was thirty. For another three years I wrote it off and a missed opportunity. It was only after a young Australian musician encouraged me that I decided to apply anyway.

If you haven’t heard of Ethno, it varies considerably from country to country, but the basic idea is gathering musicians in a camp for a week and come up with music together. Each musician shares music from their culture, then music gets arranged and in some cases performed.

My first Australian Ethno was in 2017 and the process was way easier than I expected. I sent them a few video links of my playing, and bought the (moderately pricey) ticket. That was the process in Australia, and since I’ve only done Ethno in Australia, I can’t do any comparative analysis.

For both I brought my gaitas and offered a few tunes. In both, after playing both Galega and Sanabresa, everyone loved the sound of Sanabresa, so I ended up doing music with those pipes both times. In a lot of ways bringing such a controversial instrument to Ethno is interesting in itself. By presenting different gaitas to people from all over the world that had never heard them, they had no cultural bias whatsoever, and picked the Bb gaita Sanabresa sound (my chanter is actually from Torres Vedras, and is a contemporary instrument).

My experience in 2017 was mixed. I was there with a partner and we spent a lot of time together, which subtracted from time with other people. There were a lot of musicians from the Pacific (Rotuma / Solomon Islands) along with a few first nations Australian people. Among the foreigners there were Swedes, myself, and a few Israeli. The general workflow was early breakfast, rehearse and share tunes all day, then have dinner and camp. There is a big emphasis on first nations culture and it was a great experience for me to learn about local peoples, and learn a bit of language. We did a lot of original songs (more on that later) and very few tunes. This was mainly because we had a lot more percussion, guitars and singers than we had melody players. In my case, I offered a few different tunes from both Portugal and Spain, and everyone decided to work on ‘Fandango Asturiano’. Again, ironically, not a Portuguese tune, and on a contemporary chanter.

After rehearsing for one whole week, we went on to perform at Mullum Festival. Performing was great fun, and we played for packed audiences and got amazing feedback. One of the shows, one old man an his daughter came over to ask about my instrument—turns out he was basque. Small world. I think my first ethno was a big shock in a lot of ways. In learning about other cultures directly, by spending time together making music. It also came at a time I was feeling insecure about my musical progress. By then I’d been playing gaita in Australia mostly by myself. Being in a supportive environment where people enjoyed what I play and wanted to do something with it was great for me. It also helped me understand the processes and tools of songwriting and arranging a lot better, which was a blind spot in most of my music training.

I came back with a lot more energy and motivation, and started pushing harder towards having successful musical projects. I started The Last Aurochs, and joined Celtic Tones. Considering both projects have grown considerably in two years, I’d say Ethno 2017 was one of the catalysts for taking music a bit more seriously in my life.

Fast forward to this year, and I joined Ethno again. I applied through the same process, but this time already knew some organisers. I booked Ethno while still with the same partner, but we broke up a month before Ethno started. I was at an emotional low point, but luckily my other partner took good care of me, and being at Ethno by myself was a completely different experience.

The first thing I noticed was that this year’s group was slightly more organised, and full of young and talented song writers. One of the things that has to be understood about doing something like Ethno in Australia, is that Australia has had genocide of its first nations consistently for 200 years, and even the past century cultures were still being decimated. This means some of the young indigenous artists at Ethno have limited knowledge of their own culture because it was wiped out. This means they can’t share songs easily, and often have to write their own while they reconnect and heal their connection to the land, their language, and with the country that oppressed them for generations. The songs I learn from a Kamilaroi singer, a Bundjalung singer, or a Kabi-Kabi singer are contemporary. Reinvented, often original, meant to be heard and shared with the world in traditional language, but for less traditional ears. You might hear reggae, blues, pop, folk. You might hear lyrics about Jesus, about love or about slavery, but always meant for modern ears. This is very unusual for an Ethno event, but also what makes Ethno Australia such a healing event for those involved.

Traditional music is an interesting medium in itself. We are used to playing tunes that are passed on to us for no particular reason other than being part of some kind of tradition. But the idea of tradition is in itself already meaningless, and often completely fabricated along with ideas stolen from Nationalism, Stalinism, Essentialism or even crazy theories around genetics. Take my own music for example, a modern chanter with no historical precedent, made in Torres Vedras, a bagpipe I got from my grandpa that didn’t make any sound, music from a region of Spain I never lived in. Yet we reinvented our piping tradition to keep it alive, and that means completely ignoring its historical context (which effectively killed it), and replacing it with an aspirational version of our past, usually to validate our own identity (aspirational or not). A historical pastiche, optimised to survive in modern environments by appealing to nostalgia and historical fable. Calling bagpipes Celtic has no historical relevance, yet they are absolutely part of Celtic identity. It becomes pretty obvious we aren’t talking about tradition in the sense of a historical lineage that is unbroken and a snapshot of the past. Most tradition happening at Ethno is exactly the same kind of pastiche and nostalgia. It’s identity building via music, and with it, solidifying boundaries between peoples according to where they were born.

There’s no way the past can be revisited. We have to recount it in the present, and having aspirational versions of our own culture allows us to believe we can be better than we were, that better worlds can be built. It’s especially useful if personal challenges exist. Culture is always there to give anyone a set of values and beliefs, and that is incredibly helpful when we feel lost. Even myself, despite spending my life abroad, travelling and mixing with other cultures, will go to the ‘Portuguese culture’ well for water. Language, music, values, ideas. I find myself shaped by them a lot more when I have to define myself in relation to others. Ethno is exactly that, with simultaneously demanding everyone to define themselves geographically and culturally, while also demanding one single, unified music production as the final result. And yet, somehow, it works. One of the reasons might be because approaching others from a place of rooted belonging (‘I am from this place, and I speak this language’) means everyone has to start from geography and approach everyone as a traveller going into a foreign land. When we are in that mindset, curiosity, exploration, respect, they all come naturally. Another reason might be that the idea in itself will only attract specific kinds of world musicians—those that aren’t completely absorbed by their own culture and want to interact and learn from other cultures.

This year my song choice was again not exactly something we’d call ‘Portuguese’. I brought ‘Alvorada Sanabresa’, which, like the name indicates, probably comes from Sanabria, which isn’t in Portugal at all. But again, if after offering many different tunes, that’s the one that resonated with the group, why not. And why not turn it into a mad circus-like arrangement like we did? Tradition is evolution (so said the chanter makers). It’s still worth it to do weird things with forgotten instruments, than it is letting them disappear.

Overall, I found my second ethno incredibly healing because these ideas around identity deepened. I had been trying to find fresh ways to look at my music, and had been playing the same music over and over again. Ethno gave me new genres, new languages and new music to learn, and with it, I came back to my own music with a renewed look.

I also understood that music has a role in healing us from genocide, violence, aggression. Not in that it has cures, but that is has in it the tools for self discovery and acceptance of oneself, by interacting purely within our own emotions and feelings. Somewhere in the boundary between body and spirit, making us move, telling us things we can’t put into words but understand. Things about our own self love, our own identity and relationship to our roots. And, of course, the tremendous fun of being in the moment.