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Steady steady: the life and music of Seaman Dan.

Steady steady: the life and music of Seaman Dan

Henry 'Seaman' Dan and Karl Neuenfeldt 2013

Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 224pp, ISBN 9781922059208 (pbk)

Steady steady: the life and music of Seaman Dan is, as the title suggests, about the life of Uncle Seaman Dan and his music. It is great to see this book, co-written with Karl Neuenfeldt, because it is important for Torres Strait Islander Elders to share their stories with their families, communities, and the wider Australian and international audience.

The book is essentially divided into two parts. Part I, the life of Henry Seaman Dan, describes his life on the islands and across northern Australia as a pearl shell diver. Part II, the music and recordings of Seaman Dan, marks his musical journey, his compact discs (CDs) and many songs. Part I tells of his early years on Thursday Island and the era in which he was raised. His working life on Cape York comes next, followed by his time in Cairns during the Second World War. The later chapters cover his life as a pearl shell diver and adventures on land and sea.

Part II focuses on his musical career from meeting Neuenfeldt in 1999 and the music they recorded together. Seven of his CDs are covered, from Folloiv the sun released in 1999 to Still on deck, released in 2013.

A CD is included: Still on deck: personal favourites. The CD contains 19 songs and adds a nice touch as a companion to the book. Some good oldies are included, such as Old TI, Are you from TI? and Baba Waiar, a prayer song. Other soon-to-be favourites are TI taxi driver, Little pony, Danville and Red shirt day.

There are quite a few photographs, which add to the value of the source as reference material. The variety of materials includes sketches, an advertisement and a playbill. The old photographs are a rich and valuable source of information. They are evenly placed throughout and contribute to the atmosphere and setting of the book. I even found my family in the Thursday Island hula dance group photographs!

Many Australians may have heard of Henry Seaman Dan, one of Australia's oldest active recording artists and performers. Karl Neuenfeldt is a music producer, researcher and performer. Neuenfeldt worked with Uncle Seaman for more than a decade as co-producer and songwriter. Neuenfeldt co-produced more than 30 CDs of Australian Indigenous music in collaboration with northern Queensland Indigenous communities and artists, has trained academically in cultural studies and anthropology, and has written extensively on music-based topics including the didjeridu and Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal music. This probably explains the emphasis on the music and recording and the focus on the CDs.

The authors' purpose seems to be to tell the life story of Uncle Seaman, which it does, with a small omission, which I will return to later. Another purpose is to provide a background to the development of his CDs, which is also useful to some degree. The production of the book is timely, given Uncle Seaman's advanced age.

The book does offer a unique perspective into the Torres Strait through Uncle Seaman's eyes. There is not much written on the Torres Strait and Torres Strait Islanders, and certainly not by Torres Strait Islanders, so to include his music career and further background to life in the Torres Strait is exciting and contributes to the small but growing field of Torres Strait Islander literature.

The majority of Torres Strait Islanders who live in the Torres Strait and on mainland Australia would know of Uncle Seaman and probably grew up with his music or were exposed to it. Uncle Seaman's music career began relatively late in his life and his music is reflective of tropical sounds, such as the hula with ukulele.

The intended audience is perhaps a limited field of Torres Strait Islanders and Seaman Dan fans, more in the mature age category. However, with good marketing and promotion, the book is useful to a much broader Australian and international audience and possibly a younger one.

From the eye-catching cover, the reader can expect a journey to the Torres Strait. His journey captures the rhythm of life from decades ago:
   I [went] down and I was astounded. I'd never
   seen a shell-bearing area like this ... I knew I
   only had 15 minutes. I just took two seconds
   to admire that [view] and just shake my head,
   and started kneeling down picking up shells.
   I sent three full bags up with 75 shells in each
   bag and I was happy inside, (p.54)


The warmth emanates from the cover of this book to its opening pages. Uncle Seaman's smile invites the reader on a journey at a 'steady, steady' pace. The opening comments and foreword confirm the impact that Uncle Seaman has had on the lives of others and how his life is intertwined with that of the Torres Strait and its peoples.

The only criticism is that the reader may have benefitted from knowing more about Uncle Seaman's family, his wife and children and their interactions--although his mother does feature in Part I.

The photographs are a valuable addition and are mainly contributed from family sources and institutions. The background to the songs is interesting --how they came about from simple ideas such as holidays with friends on Prince of Wales Island (Danville), relationships (Return to me) and friendships (Old men and the sea).

References and further reading are extensive and encourage the reader to explore Torres Strait literature further. Sources are diverse, varying from a 1902 account to 2012 publications.

The book contributes to the field in that it adds to the Torres Strait Islander voice in literature. It describes life in the region in a previous era and shares with the reader the pearl shell industry. The book can be read by a young audience and is diverse and interesting and keeps the reader engrossed.

The book's strengths lie in the places where Uncle Seaman speaks in his own voice, especially with the use of direct quotes to illustrate points. The research material of old photographs and archived material is another strength of the publication.

Weaknesses include that it seems to be two books in one. It leaves out family and could have done more in terms of teasing out the relationship with Uncle Seaman's grandson, Patrick Mau (Mau Power), and supporting the next generation of musicians. A minor comment is that it does seem a bit disjointed in parts, not flowing as smoothly as it could.

Overall, the book is relevant because it covers an area of not well-known Australian history. It adds to other Torres Strait Islander life stories and compares well alongside Eded Mer (Thomas Lowah, Rams Skull Press, Kuranda, Qld, c. 1988) and Somebody now (Ellie Gaffney, ASP, Canberra, 1989) as a contemporary and award-winning musician's life would and should. Steady steady is a great tribute to Uncle Seaman and his musical legacy.

Reviewed by Samantha Faulkner, AIATSIS member <faulduff@iinet.net.au>
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Author:Faulkner, Samantha
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2014
Words:1171
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