The Spirit of Churaki: An old story for a new audience

A musical collaboration united by the sand and the surf, ‘The Spirit of Churaki’ tells the story of an Aboriginal man heralded as the Gold Coast’s first lifesaver after performing the first documented rescue of a swimmer in 1911, with many subsequent and daring rescues to his name. Featuring an extraordinary lineup of Australian musicians, the production will marry the modern and the traditional in one unforgettable night of music presented by Bleach* Festival and Festival 2018. Collaborator and musical score co-composer Kyle Slabb managed to find a window in his extremely hectic schedule to chat to us ahead of the event.

Kyle barely manages to sandwich our interview in between a morning and a lunch meeting, unsurprising for a man whose list of titles includes Bundjalung-Yugambeh canoe maker, professional speaker, business owner, musician, and cultural collaborator. Just for fun I wonder if there’s anything else I can add onto the list, and Kyle laughs.

“Well, we just keep doing what we’re doing, and it ends up how it ends.”

I guess I can add pragmatist then.

As musical and cultural collaborations go, ‘The Spirit of Churaki’ is a biggie. Not just because it’s commissioned by Bleach* Festival and co-presented by Festival 2018, both of which are happening during the Commonwealth Games, but because it’s a story that until recently has remained within the Aboriginal community.

“Our elders Aunty Joyce and Aunty Jackie and a few others had been talking about the story and how we could share it with the broader public for a while now, and then Bleach* approached us a few years ago,” explains Kyle.

“We talked about it for a while – how will we tell the story? He’s not just a mythical figure, he’s a real person with connection to our country and the community today, so we took a lot of consideration around that and how do we do the story justice, and be respectful?”

With music being such a huge part of the community and Aboriginal identity, it eventually made sense to tell the story through that medium. But in typical Bleach* style, there are layers to the show, with multi-media and other performance aspects coming into play.

“It all came together, kind of like the story,” Kyle says.

“The story happens on the beach headlands where the sea and land meet, and the story is about the intersection of communities and the elements.”

At the turn of the century, when Churaki was performing his rescues, there was certainly less integration between white and Indigenous communities, something which is touched on in the piece, Kyle tells us.

“We do explore other subjects from that time. There’s a little bit about segregation of the community and the government policies of the time and how that impacted on the community and on Churaki.”

I discover during our chat that Churaki’s father Camoi initially asked him to go and sit at Greenmount beach and look out for the swimmers, as a lot of people were getting in difficulty when they started to swim there around the turn of the century. Given the historical social circumstances, it isn’t a stretch to wonder why a young Aboriginal man of the time might feel inclined comply with this request. Kyle’s answer is beautifully simple.

“His father said ‘it’s our country, and we’re responsible for the people in our country’. He just felt that it was his cultural obligation.”

And it’s not just the local community that holds these beliefs.

A lot of Aboriginal communities around the country carry the idea of being on our country and being responsible for our country and the people that come into it. That’s a cultural concept that exists across the continent.

Churaki’s story is a fascinating one, and I can’t help but be curious about the fact that I had never heard it before. Kyle believes the reasons are manifold.

“People’s perception of aboriginality is one of the reasons. When people think of Aboriginal people they think of people out in the red centre and a lot of the time with the coastal communities and the saltwater people, people don’t necessarily associate those regions and those areas with stories of who we are and our identity.

“Also a lot of cultural knowledge and information is actually kept in the community and we’d probably not had the opportunity on the outside to tell our stories in the way we want them to be told.

“A lot of people interpret Aboriginal stories and Aboriginal history from their perspective but it’s only been relatively lately that Aboriginal people have had the opportunity to tell their own stories and for it to be accepted as that.”

As one of the major events during Bleach* Festival and Festival 2018, it’s not just a crowd of locals who will be experiencing ‘The Spirit of Churaki’. In fact, it’s likely that many people in the audience will have had no previous exposure to Indigenous Australian culture. Kyle explains what it means to be able to premiere Churaki’s story on a world stage.

It means a lot to our community. We said when we did it that we wanted to make sure that we maintained the integrity of the story – not just for the community, but also for future generations.

“When we finished writing and creating the music we played it for our community and our elders commented that they could hear our country in the songs so I think we achieved what we set out to do. Commonwealth Games has come to this country, but there’s a story this land has had for a long time before that. For it to be expressed and told to the world is something we’re really appreciative of.”

As for future projects, right now Kyle is too busy dreaming of just one day of peace and quiet to think about starting anything new. But I can’t help but sadly muse on how many other Aboriginal heroes have been lost to a whitewashed history, and whether we might also get to hear about them one day.

“There’s a bunch of stories that come from the land and community here and even from ancient times,” Kyle answers.

“And up to today there are stories about heroes in our community and the feats that they’ve performed, and there’s relatively little known about them right across the country. We talked about it the other day – other Aboriginal people that saved settler’s lives around the same time and earlier, and with Churaki this is why we called it ‘The Spirit’. It’s about the spirit of what are you contributing to your community and how Aboriginal people have done that not only from the turn of the century but from the beginning in this country.”

As for what he hopes people will take away from ‘The Spirit of Churaki’ after they’ve seen it, Kyle’s pragmatism re-surfaces for a second.

“Whether it’s cultural obligation or about the humanitarian kind of perspective or the respect Churaki had for his father, people will take different things depending on their context,” he pauses, briefly.

“But I would like people to understand what they are contributing to the world, their own context, whether it’s their community or family, or nation.”

The Spirit of Churaki is a free event which will enrapture audiences from 7.00pm on Thursday 12 April at the Surfers Paradise Main Stage.

IMAGE: Kyle Slabb (c) Peter Thiedeke in collaboration with Guerilla

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