Professor Frank Millward talks to Will Kepa, producer, engineer and director of the Yil Lull Indigenous Recording Studio at the ANU School of Music
FM: Will could you speak to us about your experience of growing up in North Queensland.
Will: I was born and grew up in Cairns. I spent a lot of time in the Islands going back and forth with my mum, going to either TI (Thursday Island) or my mum’s island which is Yam Island. I eventually visited my dad’s island, Darnley Island, when I went there as an adult, on a recording project. My parents were among the generation of people who moved from the Islands to the mainland for work. They weren’t really accustomed to the Western life back then, when we were growing up.
FM: Canberra is a long way from the Torres Strait Islands and a very different environment, how did you cope with the move?
Will: I was thirty-four when we moved to Canberra. I had never left Cairns, I hadn’t lived anywhere else, so the move was a big thing, but also it was about time to move. I come from a big extended family. There would always be things going on, you know every couple of weeks you would be working for your family because there was some big feasting coming up, a wedding, tombstone unveiling, there would always be cultural things to do.
That might even involve going out hunting or fishing for food for the feasting, regular sessions of Island dance practice and rehearsals for the upcoming event. Collecting things for the Kap Mauri, such as Banana leaves, rocks from the river, wood cuttings and preparing the site, preparing the food and so on. It can go on for weeks before the actual day.
As you grow up you come to be given the responsibility to take over the management of those things from the elders. It is handed on to you to organise the young fellas in doing those chores. Being involved in the family lifestyle goes on alongside your work and professional life, so, moving down to Canberra, being removed from that family involvement and cultural life, does have an impact, with a certain sense of isolation. But that has a good side to it as well, because when you’re in that community you automatically get placed in that comfort zone, in that bubble, if you ever need anything, every department of our functioning society is there and can be called upon. So yeah, the move was difficult combined with being a new dad and a new city.
The biggest thing though, was learning how to learn again as a mature student. When I came to the ANU School of Music, I didn’t feel there were any barriers. I felt that everyone was welcoming. There were people here who were doing the things I was doing, writing music and recording mainly. That little bit of familiarity made things easier.
FM: What professional experience did you have before coming to Canberra?
Will: All my life I’ve been involved in recording studios, doing live sound, doing gigs, cover bands and bands that I played for and toured with, mainly to festivals, where I love playing. When I first came to Canberra I had a job with a high-profile Audio-visual company, where I was a full-time technician. It was good for me to network and get to know the music venue scene in the ACT.
FM: How did you find studying music at a university after an extensive experience in the professional world of being a musician and recording engineer?
Will: Being out of school for a long time I think the whole idea of studying, researching, reading, taking notes, and so on, just learning how to do that again was the biggest thing. On the admin side of life, I had been scattered for many years, but the experience of engaging with the process of learning has put me in a better place. My working method was always about the practical. I had never documented things like I do now, and I’ve gotten a lot better at it, so that is a significant change. It’s something you have to teach yourself. It was a build up over a period.
I did study music at TAFE for a couple of years. When I was studying music at TAFE my dad quit work for a couple of years and did a diploma in art. He was a craftsman. He made artifacts such as log drums and apparatus used in dance such as feathered head dresses and anything used in traditional dance.
FM: Was dance a big part of your upbringing?
Will: Song and dance, that is how I learned to perform. That is a big part of the lifestyle in the Island culture.
FM: Tell me about Seaman Dan
Will: Yeah, I played on all his albums, except for the first one. His producer Dr Karl Neuenfeldt, was probably my greatest motivator and a mentor. Nigel Pegrum, who owns Pegasus Studios, who was a drummer by trade, played in a touring band in the nineteen seventies called Steel I Span. Between Nigel and Dr Karl they taught me to be a producer, and over the years Karl kept suggesting that I go to university, because he worked at CQU (Central Queensland University). They were both very influential in my development and in supporting me to the position I now have here at ANU. All together we did about twenty community albums throughout the Torres Strait and Cape York. I was lucky to have that opportunity and was able to use my “on the ground connections” to involve communities in projects and build networks around those projects.
FM: A couple of things: the first is about opportunity and the second is about motivation. Could you talk a little about these two things and your work.
Will: I come from a place where we do things because it has reason and importance, and it means something. Not only to be seen to be doing it but also to connect spiritually, with that spiritual realm we know exists. This project (Yil Lull Studio) has a greater benefit, that serves our country and our region.
Guess I feel privileged in that my fathers and uncles fought hard for us to have the same rights in this country as everybody else, and we have many of those rights now. We still don’t have access to many things but we’re getting there, we have access to a lot more than we did fifty years ago, as Indigenous people.
I also believe in hard work and know that you need to work hard to get to where you want to get to. There is a lot more on offer if we just go out there and grab it. We need to inspire our own younger generation, to say “you can go and get that if you want.” Until I left Cairns, I didn’t understand how important it was to experience the world outside, to find out for yourself. It’s the only advice I give to younger people these days, “branch out, experience the world”. That applies to everyone, but see, we were never told that and leaving was difficult. Having the security and love of your community, it’s hard to climb out of that, it’s hard to see beyond if you haven’t been anywhere else.
FM: How do visiting artists come to Yil Lull Studio?
Will: So far, it’s been through personal connections, as well as connections through ANU. The project we had here a couple of weeks ago was through the Australia Council for the Arts. That included, Getano, my uncle, and good friend Troy Brady, who I’ve known for twenty years.
FM: Did you do a lot of recording with those visitors?
Will: Yes and no, everyone was different, everyone was at different stages, some were starting out wanting to do an EP, some were working on a theatre production, some were doing their own material and they came here to utilise studio spaces and develop their work further.
FM: How do you work with people?
Will: Client by client all in different ways. I’d worked with some before or spoken on the phone. For example, Troy is working with another producer in Brisbane, he wanted me to work with him on his lead vocals and play drums on a couple of tracks. My uncle wanted me to lay down some guide tracks for him, so we did six tracks that he will now probably go on to finish somewhere else.
There’s also a couple of people I am working with locally who I sometimes play with when they do live shows. There are also people I have come to know from the community in the ACT, many of which are album projects. It’s slow because I was only working a couple of days a week up until July, but now funding has changed and I will be working four days a week, so I expect to get a lot more done now.
Things have been a bit pressured as there is a lot of admin to do. I am also trying to build and equip the studio. At the same time people in the community
FM: What of the future?
Will: There is an understanding that someone who leaves a community, like myself, will return to contribute to the development of the next generation. I continue to return; it may be more difficult for my children, growing up here in Canberra, who are already are speaking English at home, but the connection to place of origin is strong. There are certain things that are passed on that go beyond being in a place where it all started, that works for us to always stay connected.