Desert Feet bringing the healing power of music to remote Indigenous communities

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A hot wind blows in from the desert. It's early morning but already 35 degrees. This is Wangkatjungka, an isolated Aboriginal community south-west of Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley, Western Australia. It needs some healing.

'Music is some kind of a Panadol to our life.'

A hot wind blows in from the desert. It's early morning but already 35 degrees.

This is Wangkatjungka, an isolated Aboriginal community south-west of Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley, Western Australia.

It needs some healing.

                                                          Music as therapy

Allwyn Bieundurry has lost close friends to suicide, which isn't unusual here.

"I think of them a lot. I pray that they're in a better home," he told 7.30.

"We don't know how to fix it."

The 28-year-old is part of a pilot program that's trying something different.

A music charity called Desert Feet has transported a mobile studio and stage over 2,700 kilometres from Perth for the project.

The charity has been here before, running workshops and recording local bands.

But this visit is different.

It's focussing on mental health, with music therapy workshops and counselling.

The project comes as the WA coroner investigates 13 suicides among young Indigenous people across the region, five of them children.

It's the second inquest into Indigenous suicide in the Kimberley in a decade.

                                                    Blues is the story of heart

Allwyn's grandmother, gospel blues singer Olive Knight, is the driving force behind the experiment.

The 71-year-old is concerned that current programs tackling mental health problems in remote Aboriginal communities aren't working.

"There's been talkfests talking about mental health but what concerns me is the action isn't there," Ms Knight told 7.30.

"There haven't been new, innovative ideas. One-to-one counselling doesn't cut it."

Music has been Olive Knight's saviour. Specifically the blues. It reminds her of the repetitive and rhythmic songs she was brought up with in the Great Sandy Desert.

"Blues is a way of escape in telling your story," she says.

"The story of the heart."

She didn't own a guitar until she was 40. Since then she's released three albums and performed alongside actor Hugh Jackman on Broadway.

She's always believed in music's healing powers. Now she is trying to prove it.

                                       Music - an antidote to isolation

Olive Knight has personal experience of suicide.

She lost her adopted son two years ago.

He was born with foetal alcohol syndrome.

She says he was "a gentleman", but he struggled to be happy.

"He was one of those children who struggled mentally and physically and possibly wanted to fit into the world," Olive said.

"And regardless of how much love we gave him, he just went away and felt alone.

"Took alcohol and drugs and just went.

"Suicide I believe is a loner's issue. Someone who is alone. Someone who is distracted, very much removed from the world.

They feel that no-one loves them. No-one cares, no-one listens to their story.

The Walmajarri elder believes that on its simplest level, music is an antidote to social isolation because it brings people together.

                                  Can music help with physical healing?

Dr Petra Skeffington, a clinical psychologist and researcher from Murdoch University, is evaluating the pilot music program at Wangkatjunga.

She says music can take people out of their troubles.

"For some people, they have experiences from their past that are just unspeakable," she told 7.30.

"They can't bear to sit and speak about it and so the creative arts therapies are very much about using imagery or sounds or some movement, something to embody what it is that is in your experience that can't be spoken."

Dr Skeffington's research even extends to measuring the brain stress of the participants before and after the program.

"Olive talks about the brain changes that occur and how she believes that healing is also happening on a physical level," Dr Skeffington said.

"So we've had people around the community who are volunteering to give me saliva samples in the morning before we've done the music and then again after to see if there is any difference in their baseline levels of cortisol stress."

                                Music just blows everything away

Allwyn Bieundurry is living proof of Olive's theory.

He's got his life back on track after being exposed to substance abuse at an early age.

Now, he and older brother Ephraim are behind one of many bands across the remote communities of the Kimberley and Pilbara creating original music, often in their traditional languages.

Their band Springside Reggae is hoping to record their second album with the Desert Feet crew this year.

"Music is some kind of a Panadol to our life," Allwyn said.

"Music just blows everything away — like a vacuum cleaner," Ephraim added.

Desert Feet's Glenn McDonald says one of the other key roles of the pilot program is to set up peer support networks in the community.

"We don't have to teach these guys how to play guitar and sing," he said.

"They're great at that already.

"But helping them to help others so that when we leave the community, there are leaders who can actually do what we do which is engage young people in music.

"I don't think a lot of people are aware that in every single community in the Kimberley and Pilbara, there's a guitar, there's a drum kit, there's an amp … and people share them, there's a really healthy scene.

"There's an amazing diversity of musical talent right across Western Australia and it's getting bigger and better."

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