You can hear the outback in Frank Yamma’s music, and that’s not just a figure of speech. The Pitjantjatjara singer-songwriter, who hails from the drylands of Central Australia, sings about the bush, its creatures, and its people, but he also works field recordings of the wild into his sound. In songs such as “Sunday Morning” and “Beginning of Today”, both from his 2014 release Uncle, unfamiliar birdsong, rustling shrubs, and human footfalls contribute to a vivid portrait of a timeless way of life—and on the hard-hitting, half-rapped “Todd Mall”, crowd noise and overheard conversations add similar depths to Yamma’s description of a young Aboriginal boy adrift in the city.
Even when he’s singing in his native tongue, as endangered as any West Coast First Nations language, his message is clear: we Pitjantjatjara are here, we endure, and we will be heard.
Still, it’s not entirely easy to hear Yamma himself when the Georgia Straight reaches him with an early-morning call to wet, wintry Adelaide. He’s asleep when we ring; a friend rather nervously goes to wake him up, and when he makes it to the phone he’s audibly blinking and groggy. Worse yet, a fierce cold has deepened Yamma’s dark-chocolate baritone to a subsonic croak that our recording device, further frustrated by a noisy line, only imperfectly captures.
“It’s early here,” he says, yawning. “But it’s okay.”
More than okay, really: our conversation is punctuated by a lot of laughter and graced by an easy, intuitive understanding—even if much of what he says is lost in static.
Yamma agrees that his songwriting has much in common with the colourful, maplike, and semi-abstract paintings that typify Australian Aboriginal art. “In both, we’re mapping our minds,” he says. “So I’m not a painter, but when I sing a song I put different objects inside, so you can hear the words and listen to a picture at the same time.”
His use of field recordings, he adds, is another way to bring the landscape into his music. Using sounds from the natural world is a way of letting listeners, even in remotest Canada, experience the world he knew when he was growing up, far away from the nearest urban centre.
“I put those things together to picture the people in the past, singing,” he explains. “That’s why I create my songs.”
And there’s an equally well-defined purpose to his use of Pitjantjatjara as well as English. Like many First Nations artists here on the West Coast, he feels an obligation to his ancestors that encompasses using ancient words to describe modern conditions. Languages are also something of a passion for this singer, guitarist, and wordsmith.
“I speak about five different [Aboriginal] languages,” he says. “Our Pitjantjatjara language is really similar to other languages from this region, so if you’re motivated you can learn. And I include it in songs because it’s interesting. I like to keep myself occupied, and the way I do it is with language.”
But there’s another reason why Yamma’s songs are so compelling, and it goes beyond his sturdy folk and classic-rock melodies, which will appeal to anyone who enjoys Neil Young, Pink Floyd, or the Tragically Hip. For this Pitjantjatjara man, words and music are his gift to the world. “The thing about language that’s very interesting is that it’s like a little passport to your heart,” Yamma says. “And sharing that is what it’s all about.”
Frank Yamma plays the WISE Hall on Thursday (August 11).