Cultural collision is creative lifeblood for Alice Springs band Apakatjah

Jonathan Lindsay-Tjapaltjarri Hermawan remembers the moment that sparked his desire to make music. It was the first time he heard Jimi Hendrix.

"I grew up in four different families with the good, bad and the ugly of the church, so when I was young, I was mostly exposed to gospel songs," Hermawan says. "When I was eight or nine, I heard my first Jimi Hendrix album. He was a black man, playing the guitar the wrong way around and breaking all the rules.

Jonathan Lindsay-Tjapaltjarri Hermawan (left) and Dion Forrester are producing a unique brand of music.

Jonathan Lindsay-Tjapaltjarri Hermawan (left) and Dion Forrester are producing a unique brand of music.

"That got me into electric guitar, then acoustic guitar. Hendrix was an inspiration."

Softly-spoken and with a tendency to mull over his sentences before speaking, Hermawan and Dion Forrester make up Apakatjah (pronounced uppa-cut-ja), a band that blends freewheeling guitar riffs with electrifying vocals, sung in Indigenous languages such as Pintupi and Luritja, which are spoken in Central Australia's Western Desert.

We're talking in the rehearsal space at the Campbelltown Arts Centre, where Hermawan and Forrester, dressed nearly identically in black jeans and hoodies, are on a residency, writing songs for their second album.

They flew in from Alice Springs a few days earlier and although the change of scenery is welcome, time in the city can feel jarring. "We've got such beautiful country back there and when you look at a tree or a mountain, that connection plays a big role in our songwriting," Forrester says. "Here there are too many cars!"

For Hermawan, the effects of the geographic can also be linguistic. "We started writing a song together yesterday called He Said, She Said, but when I'm out bush, I'm thinking in English and speaking in language and out here I'm speaking in English and thinking in language," he says. "Sometimes it just doesn't work."

But, for the pair, whose backgrounds include Pintupi-Luritja, Pitjantjatjara and Pertame Central Arrernte as well as Indonesian, Irish and Dutch, cultural collision is also creative lifeblood.

Their first album, In Between, traverses desert reggae, rock 'n' roll, metal and acoustic folk. Intricate instrumentation and urgent, growling vocals turn that endless push-pull of occupying multiple identities simultaneously into something wonderfully textured and strange.

A few weeks earlier, the duo, backed by their full band, open the Wide Open Space Festival, near the East MacDonnell Ranges. Halfway through their performance, Hermawan smears half his face with ceremonial ochre, proffering the plastic tub to the audience before breaking into their debut single, Waru.

It's a paean to the cleansing power of fire, trumpets punctuating Forrester's drawn-out guitar chords. For a brief moment, everyone stops dancing, spellbound under the desert stars.

"The ochre was from Bunnings because I knew that there would be people in the audience who would be offended," Hermawan says about the cultural insensitivity of using real ochre. "But we back ourselves. For us, it comes from a place that's heartfelt and emotional."

When you've always been asked where you come from, you know that you can't escape it.

The pair met in Alice Springs, home to a tight-knit community of artists and musicians.

"Dion used to rehearse not far from my house and as soon as I heard the guitar lead I knew it was him," Hermawan says. Six years ago, the duo started to experiment around backyard campfires, pairing Forrester's acoustic guitar with Hermawan's lyrics. Their chemistry was instant.

"Our first jam resulted in the song Desert Man," Forrester says. He comes from a family of guitarists and was raised on a diet of Cliff Richards, the Shadows and Slim Dusty. "People loved it, so we started playing more gigs."

They recorded their debut album at Alice Springs' CAAMA Music, the studios of the oldest Aboriginal-owned record label in the country, with input from acclaimed local producer Dave Crowe. At first, they considered simply writing songs, minus the reference to their histories or cultures, but their instincts won out.

"When you've always been asked where you come from, you know that you can't escape it," Hermawan says, adding that the pair are often approached by people from different ethnicities, who connect with this world view, after they play.

"When you're always told 'you're mixed, you're half', you start to feel less-than. For me, sharing that story has been powerful because when your identity is strong, when you realise that you're not half, you're whole, you can draw on the strength of these different worlds."

"Apakatjah is a Luritja kriol​ word for [mixed-race] and for us, it's a reclamation – my parents said it was the perfect name," Forrester says. "Both of them are part of the stolen generation, taken away to boarding school in Melbourne.

"My father was sent to the east coast to do mustering work and they spent 20 years away from Alice, but they still kept their language and culture. I'm still learning from Jon here; we're doing it together to bring our message out."

Not that this process is frictionless. The pair exchange glances before revealing that they had to fight for the image on their album cover – a man wearing a suit, face half-covered in ochre – to reclaim the idea of being mixed race.

"People are quite happy to promote Aboriginality but they push back when it gets too much for them," Hermawan says. "But to let go of power, you have to be uncomfortable."

The duo think of the Campelltown residency as a "brain and soul dump".

"We have so many ideas that it's just a matter of pressing record," Hermawan says, adding that Indigenous language vocals will play a bigger role on Apakatjah's next album and that they hope to tour Mexico next year. They're also experiencing a creative symbiosis.

"Dion never played bush reggae and I didn't play straight rock – but the other day in the studio, he started playing reggae and I started playing a riff. I've cried about my upbringing and he's strengthened me and I've strengthened him in other areas."

In October last year, Apakatjah supported Midnight Oil in Alice Springs and they speak in rapturous tones about playing with ex-INXS vocalist Ciaran Gribbin and alongside Archie Roach.

"At Brisbane's Bigsound, we played a private little event with Uncle Archie and Uncle Jack Charles," Forrester says. "We're just two fellows from the desert and we've played alongside rock stars!

"We don't fit into a genre but together, we're just happy to lay it on the line."

Apaktjah's album In Between is out now on CAAMA Music.

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