Jah lives! In far north Queensland …

MaameJ in her own design (tussah silk), 1985. Got that, it was the 80s!

MaameJ in her own design (tussah silk), 1985. Got that, it was the 80s!

Or he did when I was there in 1985. As I mentioned in a previous post, I was adventuring around Australia that year when I re-discovered African music while waitressing at Fitzroy Island. I lived in the Cairns area – mostly in tourist village Kuranda – for 8 months. I waitressed, bummed around, learned yoga, swam at the Barron River Gorge, tried to sell some weird clothes I’d designed at the Kuranda market, got involved with the campaigns of the local feminist group, travelled to Cape York in a Holden Kingswood. Ah yes, the 80s …

Actually the Kingswood didn’t get us right to the top, it conked out in Weipa and we flew back to Cairns. Another story.

So how did Jah fit into all this? Well FNQ attracted interesting kinds of people in those days. Probably still does, if you exclude the trillions of ravaging tourists from your assessment of the population. So it kind of makes sense that it was in Kuranda that I met the person who introduced me to more African music.

Ibina was a white rastafarian whose parents were building her a house on a rainforest block in Kuranda. I camped in her backyard on my days off from the island, with our mutual friend Breatharian. (I call her that because she was aspiring to live solely on air. Hmm. I think that ambition was stymied by her closet chocolate bar addiction).

Ibina was a retired dancer who had lived in Jamaica and danced in the US before coming back to Oz with her half-Jamaican son, JahLion. (Omigod, he must be nearly 40 by now!!) Ibina had dreds she could almost sit on and started each day with a fat spliff. She’d changed her anglo name to reflect Rasta beliefs and cooked a yummy vegetarian ital stew with sweet potatos and pigeon peas from a tree in her backyard. Here’s another recipe for it. So yes, Jah lived in far north Queensland.

Ibina inspired both Breatharian and I to learn dance. She was classically trained but her passion was Afro-style contemporary. She choreographed a special piece for the three of us to perform at the Kuranda festival that September. We practised on the spacious verandah of her half-finished house – surrounded on 3 sides by thick foliage. We danced to a Peter Tosh song: Rastafari Is.

Ibina on the left, Breatharian on the right, I'm the skinny one in the middle who's lost her balance.

Ibina on the left, Breatharian on the right, I’m the skinny one in the middle who’s lost her balance.

Wow, almost brings tears to my eyes hearing it again. I can remember the first bit by heart. I can even remember the first few steps. The first bit was choreographed and when it moves into a long instrumental, we got to improvise for a while. It’s a long piece of music and about half way through Tosh stops singing and starts preaching, so Ibina very wisely only used about the first five minutes, then Peter Tosh faded out and Thomas Mapfumo faded in.

Thomas Mapfumo is another of those “master” African musicians – in this case a master of the mbira, or thumb piano. He’s not one of my favourites but this is a lovely piece of music. When I first heard it, it was another one of those gobsmacked moments where I’d never before heard anything like it. At the time, I had no idea who it was – it was just a track on some tape and Ibina didn’t know anything about it except that she liked it.

Breatharian and I didn’t get to dance to this, at least not in public. Ibina used it for her solo with a bunch of local toddlers pretending to be a rainstorm. You can hear the rain in the music, that’s the mbira. Breatharian and I reclined and admired her from the back of the stage, if I remember right.

Lulu's premiere public performance at Kuranda festival. Sorry it's so fuzzy.

Lulu’s premiere public performance at Kuranda festival. Sorry it’s so fuzzy.

The Kuranda festival was the climax of my stay in FNQ. A couple of friends from Sydney even came up for it. One of them, Lulu, had recently learned belly dancing and I will never forget seeing her dance for the first time. On Ibina’s rainforest verandah, in a deep blue skirt, the only light a candle. It was magic. Later, at the festival, Lulu met some Aboriginal women who were selling grass skirts and decided on the spot to buy one. She spent the afternoon sewing shells onto a brown singlet, then undulated to an enthusiastic crowd.

After the festival, Breatharian and I lost little time in fulfilling another dream, also inspired by Ibina: we hitch-hiked from Cairns to Adelaide, via Alice Springs and Uluru, to see the Alvin Ailey dance company perform. I’m not sure if Ibina had ever danced with them – her not actually being black, & all – but she certainly knew them, had gone to classes with them, was influenced by their style, and her passion was so infectious we put our crazy lives at risk to go and see them.

I’m embarrassed to admit that when we finally got there, it felt like a bit of an anti-climax, but then, we were exhausted. I’ve never really enjoyed seeing dance in huge theatres – I prefer small & intimate where you can see the sweat. And the facial expressions. Like at the Laura Dance festival. I don’t know what it’s like now, but when Breatharian and I went there a couple of months before Alvin Ailey, it was heart-stoppingly wonderful. I guess those vibrant, gutsy and dusty performances were a hard act for anyone to follow.

After Adelaide we took a train to Melbourne, Breatharian’s home town. From there I went to visit friends in Tassie, then I came back to Sydney to live, and Breatharian went to work in Weipa. I’m terrible at writing letters so I lost contact with both Breatharian and Ibina. I may never know if Breatharian fulfilled her goal of walking to Africa in a white robe, let alone whether she achieved breatharianism. I don’t know if Ibina’s even alive – she must be in her 70s by now if she is. When I went to Kuranda a few years ago I couldn’t even remember exactly where her house was, everything is so overgrown. Ah well. Those were the days.


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