Steady, Steady

Henry ‘Seaman’ Dan and Karl Neuenfeldt
Biography, Books, Ethnomusicology
Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2013. 170pp.Includes CD, Seaman Dan, Still on Deck : Personal Favourites, 2013, Steady, Steady Music
ISBN 9781922059208
Reviewed by , March 2nd, 2014

Canadian-Australian academic Karl Neuenfeldt first met Torres Strait Islander singer Seaman Dan in 1999, the year Dan turned 70. Neuenfeldt, then a researcher at Central Queensland University, was on Thursday Island at the local radio station, 4MW (Meriba Wakai), conducting interviews with Torres Strait Island musicians. He asked Dan to sing a few songs, and as Dan hadn’t brought his guitar along, offered to lend him his. Dan sang a few of his own compositions, including TI Blues, Little Pony and Old TI. Over lunch, Karl suggested that he might like to make a recording, and Dan decided to grasp the opportunity ‘with both hands’.

The result was Follow the Sun, recorded at the now defunct Select Sound in Cairns, engineered and co-produced by Nigel Pegrum, former drummer with British folk-rock band Fairport Convention, Neuenfeldt, and Nelson Conboy, a local musician. The album contained fourteen songs, all composed or arranged from traditional TSI songs by Seaman Dan, including TI Blues, a Dan composition which had been recorded by the legendary Mills Sisters on their 1992 album Frangipani Land, Little Pony, about Dan’s experiences on a cattle muster with Aboriginal Stockmen in the early 1940s, Old TI, which has become an anthem for all inhabitants of the Torres Strait islands, and which Dan had been singing at least since the 1930s with his mother on button accordion and his father on animal bone percussion. Forty Fathoms was about his experiences as a pearl diver, which began off the coast of northern Cape York Peninsula in 1948, while Danville recounted holidays with friends at a beach camp on Prince of Wales Island.

Pegrum was careful not to ‘swamp’ Dan’s voice with too much accompaniment, which was provided by Conboy on dobro, guitar and ukelele, Macquarie University music academic and PNG string band specialist Denis Crowdy on guitar and ukelele, PNG musician Klare Ku-Olga on bass, and various other musicians on piano, percussion, harmonica, accordion, tuba, violin, viola along with backing singers. Musical styles included blues, hula, slow jazz and traditional TI songs.

The album was released in 1999, leased to Hot Records, and in 2000 it won the National Folk Recording Award presented by the National Film and Sound Archives at the National Folk Festival in Canberra. Seaman Dan’s career was about to take off.

Neuenfeldt goes on to describe how in 2002 he recorded his second album, Steady, Steady, also the title of this book. It is a TSI maritime expression, relating to turning a pearling boat upwind against the sea with the motor running slowly, so the diver can follow along behind. It also relates metaphorically to the dynamics of a romantic relationship, and is Seaman Dan’s philosophy of life. The title track of the album was co-written by Dan and Neuenfeldt, and the album secured Australia Council funding, which enabled the same team to have more production scope and recording time. Songs included The Torres Strait Hula, which was dedicated to the Mills Sisters, Are You from TI?, an arrangement of a traditional song based on Are You from Dixie, and songs partially in the TI languages Meriam Mir, Torres Strait Creole and Kala Lagaw Ya. It also included the old hula classic Pearly Shells, which Dan later recorded and performed with Jimmy Little. After the album was released in the UK, one of the songs, Somewhere There’s an Island was used in the Bill Nighy television film Girl in a Café (2005), set at the G8 meeting in Iceland, and also by David Bridie for his 2005 soundtrack to RAN (Remote Area Nurse), in the ABC TV TSI drama program The Straits, as well as in a surfing documentary.

The following year Dan released the World Music ARIA Award-winning Perfect Pearl, becoming the oldest person to ever win an ARIA award at the age of 74. It included the signature song Waiting for the Ice Man, about his time in Darwin in the mid-1950s working delivering ice, and TI Taxi Driver, relating his days as a taxi driver on Thursday Island, also in the 1950s, and The Ukelele Waltz, which was set in the ‘mangrove hotel’, the sandfly-infested place where indigenous people use to congregate on TI before they were allowed into pubs.

Two further albums followed, Island Way (2005), which was nominated for another ARIA Award, and Sailing Home (2009), which again won an ARIA Award, after Dan had suffered a serious bout of pneumonia in 2008. Both were recorded in Nigel Pegrum’s new Pegasus Studios in Cairns with the same production team, as was Sunnyside, a homage to Nat King Cole, and Still On Deck: Personal Favourites, a ‘greatest hits’ selection, some re-recorded, and most from his first three albums, which accompanies this book. In 2009 Seaman Dan won the Jimmy Little Lifetime Achievement Award at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Music, Sport, Entertainment and Community Awards, exactly ten years after his recording career began.

As well as being the subject of a number of television documentaries, Seaman Dan continues to perform, and this book is a detailed, devoted record of his life and recordings which Neuenfeldt has lovingly put together, including outstanding photo research of life in the TSI in the early 20th century, an accurate index, and analyses of every song the ‘old fellow’ has recorded. It is a superb achievement in biography and does both its author and its subject proud.

WATCH: Interview with authors. Includes music.

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