We were lucky enough to have Dave Sparks from Tracks Magazine with us at a recent workshop.
Please see full story and photos below.
Paipos and Jarjums
Gungarrimaa Aboriginal Corporation is passionate about early childhood development, family and culture. They organize gatherings run by the group Jarjums On Country, who create workshops and activities on the Northern Rivers designed to reconnect Aboriginal kids (jarjums) with their traditional culture, land and waters, paying due respect to elders and ancestors, past and present. In association with Andy Ceglinski of Wooden Anchor and the Slabb brothers from Fingal, a Paulownia Paipo (bellyboard) building workshop was held at Fingal over the weekend in early June. The idea was for the kids to build their boards, with the help of a parent and under Andy's supervision, on Saturday, then surf them on Sunday. Along the way, the Slabb boys would share some of their intimate local knowledge of the indigenous Bundjalung culture and traditional ways in Booningbah (place of the echidna), the local name for Fingal Head.
This story has a few threads and many weavers, and like a lot of surf stories, one of the first stitches was sewn via a comment from George Greenough. After Dave Rastovich's epic Transparensea journey a few years back, George had said to Rasta that maybe he should explore a more traditional line of ocean craft. Dave figured a dugout canoe might be an interesting idea, and together with Tom Wegener, they designed a craft and tentatively began to attack a huge paulownia log. At this point, Andy Ceglinski, a South Golden Beach local and accomplished craftsman of all things timber, but specifically a devotee of paulownia, entered the picture. He brought his extensive carpentry skills and an impressive array of tools - including some wild looking draw knives, adzes and curved hand planes - into play and took the bull by the horns. (As an example of his timber working chops, Andy recently carved a replica of the board Duke Kahanamoku rode in 1915 at Freshwater Beach. In keeping with the technology of that era, Andy used the traditional adze method to shape the board, using paulownia instead of the original sugar pine. The occasion had been the 100th Anniversary of Australian Surfing, held at Freshwater in January this year.)
Andy eventually completed the chunky but beautifully sleek looking dugout canoe, complete with Polynesian style outrigger, and with a healthy beard of froth took it into the ocean for a test run. It performed incredibly well.
Enter the indigenous Slabb brothers from Fingal, great watermen and surfers, and friends of Andy's who had helped crew the boat for some of those early test voyages. Now it happens that the brothers Slabb - Kyle, Joel, Josh, Aaron and Caleb – work for a group called "Banaam", essentially working as a bridge or liaison between white and black culture.
"Traditionally, banaam is part of our cultural system," Josh Slabb explains.
"Banaam is the younger brother, although banaam actually means, literally, ‘the strong brother’. His role is to support elders and leadership in their role. Basically we have a strong belief in fostering a cultural education for everyone in this nation, black and white. In the context of activities like this weekend workshop, we aim to give indigenous kids a strong grounding in who they are and where they came from."
Around this time Roxanne Smith, from Gungarrimaa Aboriginal Corporation, got wind of the canoe and suggested to Andy that it might be a good thing to do some sort of workshop with the north coast indigenous kids. Andy brainstormed it with the Slabb boys and together they came up with the concept of a paipo building workshop. (Paipos are traditional Hawaiian belly boards.) Andy elaborates:
"Paipos seemed the ideal sort of craft to work with, since they are fairly small, simple designs and more importantly, you don't have to be Kelly Slater to ride the things, unlike boards such as alaias which are extremely difficult to handle. Some of these kids are quite young and have never really surfed, so it made sense to give them a project they could see through from design all the way to actually paddling out and surfing their own creations."
On a stormy but mostly sunny Saturday the families descended on Fingal Primary School, where Andy had set up a dozen little work stations complete with sparkling new tools and little virgin slabs of paulownia, that beautifully light but strong timber that has emerged in recent years as the ideal species for building ocean craft of all kinds. It is unique in being impervious to saltwater, which means the boards don't require elaborate finishes. After a traditional welcome dance by Josh Slabb and some of the local kids, Kyle Slabb spoke eloquently of the need for indigenous kids to listen to and respect their elders, to reconnect with their land and ocean, and to cherish the skills they would learn over the weekend. After that it was on.
Under Andy's watchful eye, sons and fathers and mothers and daughters ripped into it, and the diminutive paipo shapes rapidly took form. They were tight little family units, learning on the fly and applying their newly acquired skills with gusto. Rarely have I seen young kids (from around 7 or 8 up to about 15 years old) concentrate their attention on anything for such sustained periods of time. It was as if they never had a chance to lose interest, since the boards took shape quickly enough to keep their engines continually revved. After all, surfing is all about visualisation, picturing yourself on any wave you see and wondering: can I make that section? Combine that with the idea of visualising yourself on that section whilst riding a finished board that you have created… and it’s irresistible. A surfboard is the ultimate union of function and aesthetics, and what is more beautiful than useable art?
"These young people building surfboards, they're creating an artifact, like a boomerang or a canoe," adds John Fonmosa, a highly respected local elder known as Uncle John and a part of the Jarjums on Country program.
"In essence, what these kids are doing here is practicing another form of their natural culture. It's an art form all right, bra. In our language we say: 'bugul ' - good, very good. "
Andy walked around his little charges, lending a guiding hand here and there, and sporting a grin proportional to the growing quiver of paipos that were appearing like blond apparitions out of clouds of paulownia dust. Asher Pacey, himself of indigenous descent, had come along to lend a hand and hang with the groms, and damned if he wasn't having as much fun as them. It wasn't as if parents were taking over the job either, in the sense of the old man commandeering a kid’s new train set at Christmas. Every paipo had at least 50/50 input but mostly it was the jarjums who did the lion's share of the shaping. And since few pursuits yield a more tangible and beautiful product of hard yakka than making a surfboard, it wasn't surprising to see these kids form immediate attachments to their crafts. One boy ran around with his paipo under his arm for the rest of the day. Perhaps, more than a security blanket, it was a newfound link to his genetic roots, an unconscious memory of ancient elders carving ocean crafts from wood. As Kyle Slabb said:
"One of the things the old people taught us is: 'We need to listen to the land. Everything we need is in the bush and in the sea, you don't need anything else, if you learn to listen to it and understand it …' The Bundjalung clan was one of only a few on this coast that built and used dugouts, so these kids have an ancestral link to building these ocean crafts."
John Fonmosa adds:
"Our old men here were boat builders, they fished on the ocean and all of these reefs. Can you believe they used to sail and row from Brunswick Heads all the way to Binyung Rock off Mermaid Beach? Much later, Barry Paulson and Bob Rotumah, from our community, were the first standup surfers on the northern NSW/ Gold Coast, back in the early '50's. All of this ocean based history has led us here today to this fantastic board building program."
Sunday morning was testing day, and if there has ever been a more frothed out little bunch of groms, I haven't seen it. After a few finishing touches, like burning designs of turtles, rays and other wildlife into the boards in classic indigenous artistic style, the groms hit the beach just over the road from the school. Before they surfed, Kyle and Josh led them on an enlightening walk through the coastal bush, again gently urging the jarjums to listen and learn, to both the bush and to their elders. We tasted half a dozen types of bush tucker from places where all I thought there was to eat was sand and twigs. It was educational and uplifting listening to Kyle, who is a natural orator and storyteller, impart his knowledge.
Then it was time to hit the water. What a wonderful thing it was to see the kids going mad, having a blast on their little vehicles, the tangible manifestations of yesterday's work. Such a far cry from Playstations and TVs, but not so far from the world of their ancestors. I'm amazed no one got a mouthful of ocean, given the endless open-mouthed laughter and wide eyed stoke going down. One kid was struggling a bit, so Asher piggybacked him into a few bombs that boosted his confidence. I reckon that grom will never forget it.
"I grew up spending most of my years in the bush or at the beach, so I love learning about the synchronicity in nature," Asher told me.
"How it's all connected and how we are essentially connected too … the more you learn the more comfortable you become in that environment. Knowledge is power! "
Pondering these kids surfing and having a ball, I can't help but wonder how cusp moments can alter the entire path of a person's life. At these ages, kids are in the most suggestible and malleable stages of their lives. Who's to say that an experience like this weekend couldn't be a light bulb moment, a fork in the road that may alter a grom's future from oblivion, to enlightenment and a life of fulfillment? Seeing the jarjums reaping the fruits of their labour, I'm reminded of something John Fonmosa said the day before:
"One of my biggest concerns is that the government handout system has destroyed our people. Remember when John Howard made that statement: 'Aboriginal people are an industry.’? That made a lot of black fellas angry, but the fact is Howard was right, it's the truth. When you live in an Aboriginal community you see that industry in full swing. I mean, don't get me wrong, but the thing here in Fingal is this: our elders taught us to work! They were cane cutters, they worked on pea farms, bean farms, they'd harvest oysters. But because they worked they had power, they were strong people. What Aboriginal people in this country don't realise is that government handouts are a subtle form of oppression, because they make you dependent; you'll never go anywhere. If you look at the houses here, they’re looked after because the old people built them with blood, sweat and tears. Our old people taught us the importance of education and a strong work ethic. The government money has divided us, but there are still a lot of good people out there helping us and working with us. Programs like this Paipo workshop show us that we are finally starting to go forward."