Better Days in Bourke

Technical Audio Group’s community arts program extends to Bourke.

During the official opening of the music studio at the Social & Emotional Wellbeing Centre (SEWB) on Sturt Street in Bourke, Nakama Arts director Chris Hamer-Smith spoke, stating, “This is our third visit. It’s a great privilege to be here, and a responsibility we don’t take lightly.”

Bourke, a regional town in NSW on the traditional lands of the Ngemba people, has a population of around 2,000 people, including a large First Nations component. Its rich Indigenous history, unique landscape, and more recent reputation as a rural centre, paddle steamer port on the Darling and outback frontier town make it a special place. But life in Bourke is not without its challenges. 

Services have not always been tailored to meet community needs, and schools have struggled to engage kids. In turn, kids have lacked the opportunity to ‘be what they can see’.

When the Centre of Excellence & Wellbeing invited Hamer-Smith to run an Art of Rap music workshop as part of the Mayi Festival in May 2022 he was delighted. But this invitation ignited a vision for a more long-term program to upskill kids over months and even years — rather than just in a one-off session. Importantly, this should be a project that the young people of Bourke could own and lead.

With the enthusiastic support of well-known First Nations rapper Kobie Dee (a performer, recognised locally through previous events), and the talented mentor, teacher, and freestyler P.Smurf (aka Lorenz Prichard), Hamer-Smith took his vision and ran with it.

The trio set off for their first Art of Rap session in late June not really knowing what to expect. They flew to Cobar, the nearest commercial airport, and hired a car for the 200km drive onward to Bourke. Here they set up a permanent recording and production studio that consisted of of Audio-Technica microphones and headphones, an Apple Mac mini, a MIDI keyboard, an Allen & Heath ZEDi 10 mixer, and studio monitors housed in a dedicated music room at the back of the Centre.

Hamer-Smith’s concerns that the kids might not come to that first session were quickly allayed. This was due in no small part to the fact that the word had spread that Kobie Dee, a Gomeroi man and a strong role model, was in town. Over a couple of days the team engaged with forty or more kids in a series of music workshops, and in true ‘if we build it, they will come’ style Hamer-Smith asked around if anyone local was willing to help with ongoing on-line sessions.

Three people came forward: Craig Knight, Stephen Wilson, and Lorraine Dutton. Craig’s hand went up to help with supervision, and Wilson and Dutton — both young singer-songwriters — offered to assist with recording, mentoring, and running workshops with the younger children. The weekly ‘Open Studio Sessions’ began, with Wilson and Dutton in the Bourke studio, Hamer-Smith available via video link, and Knight overseeing.

Hamer-Smith embarked on the Bourke project as part of his role at audio distributor Technical Audio Group (TAG) where he has been tasked with taking the company’s TAG Cares program to the next level. The program was renamed Nakama Arts and formalised with a charter to ‘assist young creatives who might otherwise not have opportunity.’ “My employment brief was basically, ‘Do whatever you want, spend whatever you need, you have our total support,’” recalled Hamer-Smith.

In his time at TAG Hamer-Smith had already clocked up some runs on the board — including working in music programs for kids with disabilities, mental health issues, and disadvantage, and the part he played in the development of Glebe Youth Service’s music studio in Sydney — but the Bourke project has been the most challenging, mainly due to its remote location.

“We visited again in August. Kobie was away touring in Europe, so it was just Lorenz and me. We had a great session with a bunch of the kids,” Hamer-Smith shared. “At the beginning Lorenz had asked them, ‘What do you guys want to rap about?’ They replied with some thoughts focussed on crime and gang-related topics, so Lorenz said, ‘Ok cool, that might be what you’re experiencing in your life but why don’t we focus on what we want more of in our lives, and what we want to see change?’”

Hamer-Smith continued, “Over the next two or so hours they brainstormed ideas, collaborated on lyrics, and recorded a song called Better Days. The song has a repeating bridge, ‘All we need to see is better days. For all of us to cope in better ways,’ and frankly that’s what this is all about — helping kids find pathways to better things, and role models to help them see that these things are possible.”

Over the weekly Open Studio Sessions that followed there was plenty of workshop engagement, but perhaps the biggest story was Wilson and Dutton developing studio recording skills themselves, and then writing, performing, and producing their own songs. Hamer-Smith helped throughout the process then mixed, mastered, and released the songs via Nakama Arts own imprint, NKA Recordings.

“It’s been an amazing experience seeing these two young people develop their very special and quite different musical talents,” said Hamer-Smith. “They’re becoming real leaders in their community, and showing what’s possible if you harness your talent and work at it. We’re so proud of them. In fact, the whole town of Bourke is.”

By the time the Nakama Arts team visited again in November it seemed that every kid in town wanted to talk or hang out with Kobie and Lorenz. The back-to-back Art of Rap sessions were followed by an impromptu performance. The visit began with a Welcome to Country, and the official opening of the music studio, with a gathering of 100 or so — including the CEO of Bourke Aboriginal Health Service, the pastor of the Full Gospel Family Fellowship church and the headmaster of Bourke High School.

“There was quite a buy-in,” reflected Hamer-Smith. “The underlying message was ‘We’ve had too many initiatives, programs, and promises that have come and gone. What we’re seeing from you guys is something the young folk want, and can really relate to. No pressure, but don’t let them down!”

For Nakama Arts that’s a huge compliment — and equally a huge responsibility — but its something the team could only have dream of just six months earlier. As the weekly Open Studio Sessions continue there are discussions in train about how to expand the project to make the studio as useful as possible, for as many as possible. Bourke High School is keen to see studio sessions on the school music curriculum, and the challenge of engaging young people who’ve finished school with evening recording and mentoring sessions is firmly on the agenda. Nakama Arts and TAG are also gauging community interest in areas other than Rap, to potentially grow to live music mixing, video production, and content creation.

“In many ways my role is to facilitate the project and keep it running,” said Hamer-Smith. “The real stars are Kobie and Lorenz, and I can’t speak highly enough of them. Their commitment to this community — and their desire to change lives — is something incredibly special. None of what’s happened this year would have been possible without them. And of course, without Stephen and Lorraine, and the young people of Bourke whose passion and talent shine through.”

For the Nakama Arts team, walking with some of Bourke’s young people on their pathway to ‘Better Days’ is a privilege, but the journey has only just begun.

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