Redfern the Didjeridu and Me

The Yidaki on the Artic Circle 2003

Download: Vision Mission
Didjeridu solo by James Barrett

In 1995 I was living in Sydney, Australia in a suburb which was home to many Aborigines, the indigenous people of Australia. Called Redfern, it was centred on an area known as “The Block”, a crowded jumble of houses and old factories where around 1000 Aboriginal people lived on land that was returned to them by the Australian Government in 1973. Despite having grown up in Australia this was, at the age of 26, my first exposure to large-scale Aboriginal culture. All up I lived in Redfern about 3 years between 1995–99. The atmosphere changed a lot in that time. This is a short account of a cultural sanctuary that existed along side and because of the independent nature of The Block (long may it live…) [Names changed to protect the innocent.]

The Fern (1995–96)
Our house looked like a wooden ship long run aground. The lower decks silted up and stuck fast in the earth. A crew of tattooed white nomads of soul had moved in. Hair every colour of the rainbow, fleshy bits pierced, and always curious to pick through any unattended pile; rubbish or recycle, silo or asylum. We would occasionally awake to find strangers sleeping in the basement cellar spaces. These homeless or traveling folk would usually be given tea and porridge before they jumped back over the fence into the world beyond. Once a wine merchants premises, three huge brick barrels like rooms made up the ground floor, and each opened out onto the tiny backyard which was being composted from day one; vegetables drawn from cement. The middle and main story was four large rooms with a verandah running along three. Sculptures of twisted metal, bone, plastic, feathers, artificial limbs, manikin torsos, crazy flags, and banners hung from the railing and tumbled down into the garden where a two meter dragon with leather wings and a rotating blades for a head presided over a collection of urban jungle and classical forms. In the rooms above lived a various individuals over time, but that was usually the first thing they forgot.

I came to live in Redfern, inner city Sydney, one day, some day; I can’t remember the first day. I remember I was frightened by it long before I ever saw it. That same thing (brainwashing?) you laugh at today when you tell people your suburb, and they go quiet and then ask “Is it dangerous”? Answer: “I like it because the hype keeps the tourists, fashion clowns, and yuppies away”. The thing I really liked about it the most was the feel of community, the spirit of the suburb, which spread an almost equally in distance from the railway station for all directions but west. Opposite the station beat the real heart of Redfern; The Block, for this was Aboriginal land. Australia has existed for only a short time. Before white people named and claimed, tied her up and robbed her, she was a living, breathing entity. The spirit of the Aboriginal people is not dead and life in Redfern was evident of this. This was one step out of Babylon, community where people don’t pretend to be nice, either they are or you know about it fast. Sure, there was a lot of drugs, and a bit of violence, but we lived in a state of psychological siege with the TV telling you what you’ve got to believe. As always the thing that everybody wants is plastic and covered in fingers, and the only way you can be a man is if you buy a house and have a retirement plan. Fuck the Brady Bunch family values.

The top level of our house was a single grand bedroom with cracked plaster ceiling, two arched windows in each opposite facing walls, a fireplace at one end. It was like living in a tower. When I came to the house the tower was occupied by Sev, who began his day much later than most usually in the area of high noon or sunset. Sev’s public life consisted of, among other things, the Erotometre. A device comprising voltammeter and frequency generator, with a needle through the penis of each male (Sev and friend), they became a naked switch in a high pitch electrical storm of tongues and fingers, touching and rubbing. Sev also performed telephone research at The Morgue (Roy Morgan Research) but said it was far below his intelligence (this was true of everyone working there except perhaps administration). Below Sev’s chamber was the velvet cave of Burn, a witch and sorceress of the highest spirit. It was she, Burn-Ya-Debts who found the house along with Kira, and the famous Lebanese/Australian wild poet of the Snowy Mountains, Riesh. When this story began Burn made statues and told stories. She was drawing and painting, a poet and student at the National Art School.

The kitchen was the heart of the house. A large round table, dozens of flowers in dried arrangements hung from the ceiling. Stove was quick to cook with cupboards full of spice and fruit, vegetables, and soy products (god bless the bean). Many chairs, a stereophonic cassette-playing machine, and chai made to order. Famous for it’s wall of obituaries including Andy Warhol, Vincent Price, Sterling Morrison, Brett Whitley, Tracy Pew, Kurt Cobain, Nico, Frank Zappa, Salvador Dali, River Phoenix, Kurt Wolf, and more always to come. From the kitchen a long hall went passed a bathroom with some tales to tell, and many seashells scattered. Then a small painting studio occupied by the occupier of the room at the end of the hall. Kira was in love at this time and shared her room of ancient objects and beautiful cloth with an intense young artist by the name of Dun. Together they danced love for a time, made art in every movement, took to walking in parks, making forward in each other’s eyes. This was that moment you find your whole life out in front of you.

So let me tell you some things of The Fern. Our house was found by Burn whilst looking at a possible squat site across the road. It was a tumbled down triple story plaster and timber terrace with a secret garden in the middle of the city for rent. It was taken immediately as the deficit was growing for low cost accommodation and production space for artists in inner city Sydney. A month before ten years of tradition had ended with the eviction and demolition of 134 Campbell Street, Darlinghurst. This had been a madhouse of creativity and alternative culture with strong links to the National Art School just across Taylor Square. The so-called gentrification of Darlinghurst was ploughing ahead. The way The Glebe and Balmain had gone in the 1970's and early 1980's was happening to Darlinghurst, Newtown, and Chippendale in the 1990's. At this same time Cyberspace Studios in Glebe, home at one stage to 80 artists was going through the eviction process. For a while in 1994 it seemed that everyone who was not prepared to prescribe to the normality of experts in Central Sydney was retreating to Redfern.

In Regent Street was to be found The Golden Ox, once a restaurant, now a venue for everything from Koori bands to trance traveler’s techno parties. It was also home to many, some long, some short term. In the next block Renwick Street provided the public with Airspace Studios, Sylvester Studios, and The Punos Warehouse. A combined living space for as many as 50 artists this was also perhaps the busiest street in Redfern. Airspace contained a large warehouse style gallery with different exhibitions and performances every month. It was managed by one who went by the name of P.C.D-23, a long time resident of Cyberspace Studios in Glebe. Both Airspace and Sylvester Studios were situated in a former meat works factory providing vast combined living and studio space for artists, and both were always full to capacity during their relatively long history. The Punos Warehouse was home to the Punos design team who constructed environments for techno parties, and the interior of their warehouse was testament to their abilities. A huge dragon and a fly at the entrance leading to a space filled with all manner of objects floating and flying. Punos worked a lot with the famous Vibe Tribe sound system in 1993–95, which ended a glorious career in a police provoked riot with a party at the Sydney Park brick kilns on 8th April 1995.

Vibe Tribe party, Sydney Park Brick Kilns 1995.

At the city end of Renwick Street on the intersection of Regent and Cleveland Streets was the Artspace Gallery and performance space. Not to be confused with the recently government conspired Artspace in Wooloomaloo, which was created from the building occupied by The Gunnery, Sydney’s most famous artist run space. Around the corner was 2 George Street, a 6-floor terrace house occupied by many of the Vibe Tribe organizers (situated next door to the Independent Commission Against Corruption and as a result under 24 hour video surveillance). It was at one time the home of 30 adults, several dogs and a few children. Across the park from George Street, following the eviction of Glebe’s Cyberspace, was the 5 floors of The Sydney Sculpture Studios. About 40 people lived in the warehouse building, engaging in activities ranging from music to sculpture, dealing and party planning. Next door to the sculpture studios was one of the few squats in Redfern, occupied by about 10 punks they made use of the facilities at the Studios for water, eating, and toilets.

The girl with the red hair lower center was my love, and I had just been arrested without charge at this Vibe Tribe Party, Sydney Park Brick Kilns 1995

At the other end of the street at 186 George Street were a crowded terrace house and the city base for many techno style travellers, with around 40 of them crowded into the three floors for weeks at a time. Around the corner on Redfern Street could be found 140a Redfern Street, a large warehouse space and home to many over almost 15 years. Heading east down Redfern Street brings one to 120a Redfern Street, my address and a somewhat typical home for about 30 travellers and wise fools from 1994–98. Some of us worked a little bit. In fact at most times the house (3–8 occupants at any one time) was funded by Roy Morgan Market Research (to this day I hate telephones), and the Department of Social Security (bless the memory).

My second home in Redfern. 120A Redfern Street where I lived from 1997–1999. My room was the platform up the ladder

Everyone wanted to spend as much time dreaming as possible, and did not worry too much about money. We were living on the almost dead, kissing the carcass, and taking from the old what we needed to build our own fragile reality. Somehow it suited the time and the place. This rekindled philosophy of the hippy aesthetic given a punk attitude. Often labeled as Ferals it was more than just a fashion for many who embraced this understanding. Lacking the nihilism of the European so called New Age Travellers (“Not in this age, not in any age”, said John Major), much angrier than the hippies ever were, and determined to breed and build a micro-society, unlike the short lived, do or die punk movement. Excess was the enemy and transcendence was the goal of many. However, as always with humans the ideal often falls short in practice, and the pressures against any self-directed autonomous zone are many.

The author on the roof of the collective in Redfern described here 1995

A man in an American overcoat tried to sell me the evening star on the street corner near my home. I laughed and skipped away, knowing I had a piece of my own, shared with friends, reflected in everybody’s eyes. Our smiles encircled the glow as we talked about hammer, having some, and giggled like naughty children. Running down inner-city back streets with a shopping trolley filled with found things. Getting pinned was part of the adventure and sometimes people got stuck there. “Veins are sore today”, early morning in a kitchen filled with bright yellow sunlight, steam from coffee, sweet rice and cinnamon.

In 1995 the National Art School in Sydney, Australia was in threat of “rationalization” by faceless beauracrats unless the staff, students, and friends of the school could influence the decision makers. We in our corner of the urban sprawl decided to assist and at a rally in Martin Place we performed on the back of a Dodge flatbed truck. So was born Senselesss, a floating collection of performers, artists, musicians, poets, and attention seekers. Fuelled by belief in existential coincidence, redundant technology, and cannabis, Senselesss would undertake a variety of acts and demonstrations in numerous settings over an eventful twelve months.

Sound sculpture and the collective subconscious were the seeds of the group consisting of a core of three people and involving many. The large steel sculptures included a 50 strings box harp suspended from the ceiling, the size of a coffee table and weighing about 120 kg. Also three round steel bells a meter in diameter and weighing 100kg each, and a single string upright base that sounded like a compressor pedal from hell. Combined with films, tape loops, poetry, lighting effects, fire, costumes, dance, and a sense of ritual. A variety of reactions were received when we committed an act. Performances were made at the Sydney College of Fine Arts, Sydney College of Art, The Metro Theatre, Airspace Gallery, King George’s Hall in Newtown, and for the art terrorist organization Brainwash. Throughout 1995 there were 12 public performances made and in 1996 the group began to engage in a more private exploration of sound. Following the suicide of one of the major contributors in early 1997 the original group disbanded.

Video of two Senselesss Installation performances; Sydney School of Art, Balmain and at Airspace Redfern in 1995.

By 1997 things in Redfern were beginning to noticeable change as well. A deal had been done between a few powerful government appointed individuals in the Aboriginal community and the South Sydney City Council. The aim seemed to disband and scatter the residents of The Block (Divide and conquer served the British invaders well and is still employed in black-white relations in Australia), and then reclaim the real estate. The heavy police presence in Redfern was also beginning to give the area a feeling of siege or open warfare. The harassment and strong-arm tactics from law enforcement included ten police marching up and down Everleigh Street (the main street of The Block) in full riot gear and then getting back in the van and driving away, daily for about two weeks. Street strip searches were almost a daily occurrence, and despite a police station being set up in the train station, heroin was still being sold openly only meters away. One night in 1997 some person or persons unknown emptied a machine gun into the doorway of a female aboriginal elder’s house (the council of elders opposed the relocation of the residents of The Block). The newspapers (which were already publishing shock stories about the drugs in Redfern) the next day ran a story about right wing extremists terrorizing the Aboriginal population, although nobody was detained over the attack and nobody saw who the attackers actually were.

This image became a symbol for Redfern

The atmosphere in the area was degenerating into violence and resentment. Nothing was being done to improve the living conditions of Block residents and no policy of prevention or harm minimization was attempted in regards to the flow of heroin into the suburb. A needle exchange program consisted of simple handing out hundreds of syringes each day without any support, counseling or care offered or available. The local exchange program was halted after public outcry over a newspaper photograph of a 15-year-old white boy being injected with heroin by an adult in an alleyway in Redfern. After this action a Commonwealth Health Department car would arrive early each morning and simply leave 1000 syringes in the middle of Everleigh Street, not even bothering to pick up the used syringes. The pressures upon the community seemed to be coming from the very top levels of Australian society and Government. It was the final stage in the “gentrification” of the inner city area of Sydney.

Most of the artist run spaces in Redfern had been evicted and demolished by the end of 1997, and the process of “gentrification” was well and truly underway. Throughout 1997–98 Redfern was the subject of several shame articles in the tabloid press, and real life “shock TV” programs. The traders of the Redfern Street clothing factory seconds shops began to notice a drop in trade at this time and many were forced to close by early 1999. Appeals by the local small business organization to begin a plan to revitalize the area, using the vehicle of Aboriginal culture as a means of achieving this were met with brush-offs and silence from local and state politicians. Real estate speculation was not suffering however, and the first million-dollar terrace house in Redfern (Pitt Street) sold at auction in mid-1997. The cafe culture also began to establish itself in Redfern and Regent Street, although they did not yet open at night when the windows were covered with very heavy security grates.

I left Redfern on 21st February 1996 to help nurse my grandmother through the last weeks of her life. Although I would live in Redfern again the necessary lessons had already been learnt.

Senselesss 1995 — from the right: James Barrett, Brett Clarke, Dan Bracegirdle and Paul Raymond

I was fascinated by the stories and struggles of the Aboriginal people and after a short time of living in Redfern I wanted to learn to play their long flute-like instrument from the far north of Australia. Most people call it a Didjeridu, but that is a European interpretation of the name based on the sound the instrument makes. The Aboriginal people call it by several names, some being Yiraka or Yidaki ( trachea), Artawirr (hollow log), and Ngaribi (bamboo). My first Didjeridu was a copper pipe, played a bit like a trumpet, but with a small enough aperture to make it easier to circular breath, as is needed to play Didjeridu. Shortly after this a friend of mine who lived in an isolated Aboriginal community in the far north of Australia sent me a Didjeridu. This instrument I played for a year, until I had the opportunity to leave Australia and travel as a near destitute backpacker. When I arrived in England in 1997 an English friend gave me his Didjeridu as he was about to go to Australia and could not carry the heavy instrument with him. So I was now broke and in Europe with a Didjeridu. I began playing on the streets as a busker, earning enough money to survive and stayed in Europe for 18 months, meeting up again (we first met in India in 1996) with the girl who I would eventually marry and set up a home with.

The squat I lived in for a year, playing didgeridoo on the streets of Amsterdam for up to 5 hours a day in 1998.

I lived as a street musician in Amsterdam for most of 1998, and have played at cafes and festivals in Spain, Holland, Germany, Sweden and Belgium. In Amsterdam I spent 3 days in the company of Alan Dargin who was one of the two best Didge player I have ever seen (the other is Charlie McMahon). My most recent achievement was playing at the 397th and 399th Saami Winter Market in Jokkmokk in the far North of Sweden, in February 2002 and 2004 where I was part of a group of Saami, Inuit, Swedish, American, Japanese and British musicians whose first performance (2002) was recorded by Finnish radio. The second perfromance was the highlight of a multimedia web project undertaken by Umeå University.

Playing the Didjeridu has given me many opportunities to meet people. There is much interest in the instrument and the ancient culture it represents. The Didjeridu is more than just an instrument for me, as it has a presence that is difficult to describe without using spiritual terminology. The breathing technique and the hypnotic tones it produces have a highly meditative effect on myself and often on those who listen. The Didjeridu has become identified with what is labelled The New Age. I think of myself as coming from a culture which is described in the book “The Didjeridu: From Arnhem Land to Internet” , as alternative lifestylers’ whose “model society is based on four essential elements; firstly holism of experience, secondly community with it’s qualities of interrelatedness and co-operation, thirdly ecology, with its sustainable ethos and fourthly, a creative spiritual milieu.” (Neuenfeldt p140). It goes on to say that it is the rejection of materialism by alternative lifestylers’ which separates us from the New Age movement, which “has become in many cases a highly commercialised and profit making industry” (ibid.).

Me on local news in Umeå Sweden 2001 — fresh off the Freak Trail from India

Neuenfeldt Karl (Ed.) The Didjeridu: From Arnhem Land to Internet John Libbey Publishers. Sydney. 1997

Originally published at on October 22, 2014.