Spirit & Song
Australian musician Xavier Rudd didn’t plan on becoming a one-man band. Performing music that ranges from mellow acoustic with a Jack Johnson-style vibe to rousing tribal trance, his love for playing different instruments evolved over the years.
A soulful singer-songwriter, surfer and environmental champion, Rudd typically plays around 15 instruments, sitting onstage surrounded by a complicated arrangement, including three didgeridoos, lap steel guitar, acoustic guitars, assorted percussion, a stomp box, bass, harmonica and trumpet.
“I use a lot of instruments, and over time I would blend different instruments to layer sounds and moods in accordance of what a song was wanting,” he explains. “I use a lot of handmade wooden instruments, and it became looked at as a one-man band.”
A mesmerizing artist live, Rudd is especially acclaimed for his didgeridoo playing, the unique Australian instrument known as the yidaki by aboriginal people in the Arnhem Land region of the country’s Northern Territory.
“It’s powerful; it’s different from any other instrument,” Rudd emphasizes. “The yidaki has a great spirit that travels with it. It’s an ancient instrument, and the ones I use are traditional yidaki that I was gifted with about 10 years ago. They’re interesting. They can bring weather; they have such a strong presence. Physically you’re pumping oxygen through your body, so it’s like a deep, energetic meditation. It’s pretty powerful to say the least.”
Traditionally employed as a ceremonial instrument, the didgeridoo had an essential role in a tribe’s oral history.
“It’s been a great message stick for a such an oppressed culture,” Rudd continues. “It was only ever used in a very small part of Australia originally. As it got traded and passed around, the yidaki became a message stick to keep the people united. It became something that was used in every tribe around the country. It’s really important for the survival of our people.”
Championing native rights (he has aboriginal blood on his father’s side) and environmentalism, Rudd opens his latest album, “Spirit Bird,” with the powerful track, “Lioness Eye,” which sounds so primal it almost feels like the earth is speaking through him.
“It’s definitely like that for me,” he says. “When I play those songs, the earth does open up, and I’m just channeling a lot. I’m physically pushing it through, but I’m opening up and letting spirit come. My wawa (aboriginal brother), the guy who adopted me in Arnham Land and gifted me the spirit of the yidaki and taught me the whole story, he died and he was a direct descendant of the man who found it like 60,000 years ago. Whenever I play, particularly a song like ‘Lioness,’ I always feel him come through.”
Incorporating the sounds of a number of Australian birds, the album’s title track was inspired by a journey into a remote region of Australia.
“Kimberly, in northwest Australia, is one of the last great wildernesses on our planet,” he explains. “It’s under threat by mining. The Australian government has been trying to get their hands on it for a long time. It has the biggest humpback whale nursery in the world, a breeding and birthing ground, and it has ancient rock art. It’s a pretty powerful country where the government is trying to take basically every resource that they can, starting with an LNG (liquefied natural gas) processing plant.
“For the last five years, I’ve been part of a Save the Kimberly campaign, which is what took me up there originally to that country. I was up there, and spirit bird came through me very strong. I had an experience with a red-tailed black cockatoo. In aboriginal cultures in Australia, the black cockatoo basically represents the old people, the ancestors. They come through at different times and bring different messages. They’re usually quite flighty, they don’t get close.
“There was a group of them, but one in particular locked eyes with me and began to speak. As she did, I saw all these faces and places running through my mind, which I hadn’t seen before. It was all pretty weird. Later that night I was on a beach, and I wrote the lyrics of ‘Spirit Bird.’ I was really emotional, and it just poured out of me. I wrote it in the sand, and I didn’t really know what it meant.
“And then about two years later, I was in Canada recording the album, and ‘Spirit Bird’ wasn’t even a song yet. I was sitting by a fire at night, and the second half of the song poured out of me. The next morning, I found out that at the exact time the second half of the song poured out of me, the police had moved in on James Price Point, a site we’d been protesting, and were dragging the traditional owners off to claim the land. The country up there became a huge platform for the messages that lie in the record.”
The Kimberly region houses the greatest collections of sophisticated, ancient rock art in the world. Known as the Bradshaw paintings (after the first white naturalist who identified them in the 19th century), they were created somewhere between 46,000 and 70,000 years ago, predating the earliest known cave art in Europe. Mystery surrounds their origin as they represent a culture that existed before the Wandjina (creators of fertility and rain in aboriginal mythology) people of Australia’s northwest. Many believe it is vital to preserve Australia’s oldest, irreplaceable legacy.
“This part of Australia is magical,” he notes. “It’s a gift to the whole world, the biggest rock art gallery in the world, and they want to dig it up. A lot of the piping runs straight through that Bradshaw art. This is art that people don’t even know where it comes from, or who the culture was. It by far predates the Wandjina people of that area who were there when the white people came. They don’t even understand who it is, it’s not their culture. It’s very sacred. It’s an insight into the existence of humans. But the Aussie government doesn’t even see it.”
Rudd addresses the destruction of native lands and disconnection from nature on the “Spirit Bird” track, “Bow Down.” “Don’t forget about the earth,” he sings. “Place your hand on a tree, who’s helping your breath.”
“People forget we are of this earth, we are not on this earth,” he says. “We’re no different than a tree, and that was the understanding of our aboriginal culture in Australia. They lived in harmony with the land, just like in Hawaii, and lots of different cultures around the planet.
“There is a possibility of getting closer to that even in our modern-day society, if people would just open up to that concept. If every human being took a minute every day to remember we are of this earth and to feel their connection to the land, the energetic shift environmentally would be massive.”
Lots of shows are on the horizon. Back on Maui after touring with Jimmy Buffett, reggae musician Mishka plays two shows Friday at Stella Blues Cafe in Kihei. First show for all ages with dinner at 6, music at 7 p.m. Dinner and show for $60, or show only for $30. Second show at 9 p.m. for 21 and older is $10.
Also at Stella Blues, Amy Hanaiali’i performs an early show Saturday evening and Nov. 9, followed by her brother on both nights for late shows, featuring the Eric Gilliom Band with Vince Esquire.
Boz Scaggs brings his “Memphis Tour” to the Maui Arts & Cultural Center on Nov. 14.
John Cruz plays a benefit for St. Anthony Junior-Senior High School’s annual fundraising gala Nov. 15. Punk rock/reggae band Slightly Stoopid teams with Jamaica’s Barrington Levy at the MACC on Nov. 17.
Legendary Latin rockers Los Lobos head to the MACC on Nov. 22. Check out the great funk double bill of WAR and Tower of Power on Dec. 6. Then Jamaican reggae legends Abyssinians perform with Groundation at the MACC on Dec. 13.
And finally, psychedelic country rockers New Riders of the Purple Sage play Charley’s on Dec. 15.