home     films     writings

  writings of  Peter Tammer  



Acland St. St.Kilda



John, the wee small hours are upon me once again. I have been spoilt once more with a gift from afar... a magical gift, a magic carpet on which I can fly from one land to another while remaining safe and snug in my Denver hideaway.


It's a gift of music of the Levant played by brothers who live here in this wonderful country of ours, having brought with them music from their land of origin. I have deliberately avoided the information on the cover because I do not wish to know if they are of Egyptian, Iraqi, Lebanese or Syrian origin, nor do I need to know whether their culture is Islamic, Christian, Druse or Zoroastrian, because for me it is sufficient that their music is Levantine, bridging the cultures of the east and of the west.


This is music made for reflection and contemplation and at the same time wild with associations. It has taken me back to my childhood at St. Kilda when we used to visit the rellies who lived in Acland Street, St. Kilda... Auntie Adele, Uncle Tom, Uncle Edmond and Uncle Joe, some of whom are still with us, though others have slipped away. Those nights we visited Acland St., our whole family was gathered together for the simple purpose of enjoyment, enjoying each other’s company as families are supposed to do, and it generally meant eating huge quantities of good Lebanese food prepared mainly by my Dad’s sister, Auntie Adele, sometimes assisted by other members of the family. Until their mother and father arrived in Australia in the mid-fifties Adele was ‘the cook’. After that there were three cooks, Adele, my Dad’s other sister, Marie, and his mother whom we called Sittie.


Often at such parties we would be most fortunate to have a visitor called Victor Shahaidie, who played the Oud and sang most beautifully. When other members of our family arrived from Lebanon, and Victor, who may have been Syrian rather than Lebanese, provided the music, we children were treated to a mighty feast of food, music and dancing. When all the brothers were united here for the first time, I was about nine years old, there they were all talking in Arabic, Dad, Zackie, Eddie, Joe, and Emil. Emil was the last of the brothers to arrive in Melbourne with Auntie Marie. They left behind them one other sister Emily, who visited Australia many years later, but I never really got to know Aunt Emily.


The first trip to Essendon airport at night was something really special. That first trip was to collect my uncles, Edmond and Joseph. We were living in Belgrave at that time, because it was 1948, and I was only five. The memories of this event are still deeply engraved in my mind, the huge roar of the engines of the aeroplane, the huge outpouring of emotion between brothers and sisters who had not seen each other for 15 years or so... Dad arrived in Australia when he was only seventeen with Adele and Zackie. In 1948 he’d have been about thirty-seven years of age. So Joseph might not have been born when Dad left Lebanon, and Edmond would have been but a babe in arms.


A few years later we went to meet Uncle Emil and Auntie Marie at Essendon airport. By that time the planes were enormously attractive for me, but they made a hell of a noise, no waiting in a comfortable airport lounge shielded by plate-glass, we were out on the fringe of the air-strip at the fence, ultra-bright night lights, big noise, very exciting.


That evening, after we returned from the airport in Uncle Victor’s Buick and Dad’s early model Holden, the Tammer brothers danced the ‘dubbke’, a Lebanese folk-dance in which the men formed a line, arms draped over each other's shoulders, and in that living-room of a cottage in Acland St., they danced a dance unlike any we had ever seen or even dreamt possible. I can assure you that room seemed large, not small; but as I have since driven past that tiny single-fronted cottage, I estimate its width would not be more than 4 metres, so now in my advanced years, I guess the room was large because I was small, and it was large because it was filled with lovely people who were really enjoying themselves, brothers and sisters who had not embraced for many years, and because Victor Shehaidie’s music was large and embraced them all, and even though he may not have been Lebanese, but Syrian, he was certainly an “honorary” Lebanese.


This place in Acland St., also had a lot of special attractions for my brother and sister and me. St. Kilda beach was just around the corner, Luna Park was also around the corner, and we often stayed there during summer holidays, looked after by Auntie Adele while Mum and Dad were working. So in that house which we thought of as Adele’s place, there were adventures to be had. Everything about it was strange. I didn’t know the meaning of the word “musty” in those days, but I now recognise it had a musty quality. The carpets, the sofas, the bedsheets, the bathroom with its gas hot-water heater and its jet of gas which had to be lit and turned inside the cylinder, all very strange to get your head around. Why do I remember the bed linen? Because it was stiff as a board and had an odour not unlike hospital linen. And so it was all strange and new for a little boy of five or six staying away from home, away from Mum and Dad for the first time really, who probably missed his own bed and his own comfort zone, and who had to share a bedroom with old Uncle Tom, who really was Dad’s Uncle, my great uncle.


But Uncle Tom spoiled us just as much as all the others did. He went to work early in the morning, to a factory somewhere, with his little gladstone bag filled with a lunch prepared by Auntie Adele. And then I got to explore under my bed. Well it wasn’t my bed was it, I was just there for a few days, it was my Uncle Zackie's bed. But guess what was under the bed John? A case with banjo in it! Yep, and can you imagine what a deal of fun that gave me. It was big, for me, and heavy, and had an unmistakably different “smell” to it than anything else, like musty, but different from other mustiness... guitars don’t smell like banjos, I found this out later after I met Pete Seeger and bought a banjo and it smelled just like the one under my Uncle Zackie’s bed. I probably regarded myself as an expert in music at the time, so I had fun with Uncle Zackie’s banjo. Now that I am writing this, it occurs to me to ask, what was a good hard-working young Lebanese Australian man doing with a banjo? I never heard him play it, and I never found out if he could... but it certainly exerted a fascination upon me. These reminiscences are also revealing something I had not known until writing them, that I must have been an acutely “odour” aware child, and I suppose all children are acutely aware of the different odours associated with people, places, and things, but until now I had no idea it was so important a memory.


These Tawadros brothers are playing up a storm, and I’m bloody glad that they didn’t abandon the Oud for the banjo. They remind me of another place, which was Uncle Victor’s palatial residence in Brighton, not far from Brighton beach. Uncle Vic was also not my uncle, but rather dad's uncle, my great uncle, like Tom his brother. He and his wife Malaki and their lovely daughter, my ‘second cousin’ Marina were probably the wealthiest members of the clan, Victor and Tom having been in Australia for many years before Dad, Zackie and Adele arrived. And although Tom worked in a factory, Victor and Malaki owned a factory which made pyjamas and shirts.


Now I suppose I should introduce you to Uncle Victor, Auntie Malaki and Marina because theirs was another house of great musical value, not to mention the feasts which Auntie Malaki put on. Uncle Vic knew people who performed various styles of music, and some evenings he would have them over to sing or play, and Victor Shehaidie was often there with his Oud, as well as people who did more conventional ‘Australian’ music. I say that sarcastically because it was mostly all imported from America, or England and Europe... but it was only what we knew from radio and records. This was the time in my life when I started absorbing ditties, pop songs and advertising jingles, this was the period of “Lavender Blue, Dilly Dilly, Lavender Green”, “I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts”, and this is the time I met Mr. Bing Crosby for the first time. He was very kind to me and my Mum as he used to sing songs like “If you ever go across the sea to Ireland, and Toora Loora Loora, and then my Mum would sing them to us, and we learned them quite well, almost by heart. Mr. Crosby used to live in a cabinet below a record player that played heavy 78rpm records. We were very advanced as we had an electric record player which was quite different from the wind-up one Mr. Johnson had in Belgrave. This was the same Mr. Johnson who introduced me to the wonders of nonsense verse. I have never forgotten driving in his rickety truck. That truck was a wind-up truck too: you had to do a lot of winding to get it started, as he performed in his funny voice,

“Spring is sprung, the grass is riz

          I wonder where them boidies is?”


One night Uncle Vic had invited a gentleman over who was considered to be a fine singer. He may even have been locally famous. He may even have been a performer of musicals. In a rich baritone voice he sang “Some Enchanted Evening” and his style was what might be described as “operatic” or “pompous”. Well, my brother John was about three or four years old. The song, or the singing, seemed to tickle John’s funny-bone, sitting on the floor, going “Haw haw haw!” while the visitor was trying to make a fine job of singing the song. Uncle Victor had a ready answer for John’s contribution: he walked over, picked him up by the scruff of the neck, and in such an ungainly fashion, dangling from my uncle’s big paw, my brother departed the room.


These brothers Tawadros have taken me back to another time, in Coburg, upstairs in the dwelling above the butcher shop which Eddie and Joe managed; I don’t know if they had bought the building, or whether they were merely renting it. My father’s father and mother, Jiddie and Sittie, had recently arrived from Lebanon and were living with Eddie and Joe behind the butcher shop, so we visited quite frequently.


Very often my grandfather “Jiddie” would sit quietly in a living room, a misty old man whose name was my name. Boutrous is the Arabic name for Peter, so I guess I was called after him... as well as being called after the Blessed Peter Julian Eymard who was on his way to becoming a Saint, but not quite there yet. Jiddie would sit with his hand-made cigarettes burning down to his severely tarnished fingers, wistfully listening to some 78’s of Arabic music imported from Lebanon, Syria and Eygpt, and in that hazy room I absorbed another set of musical imprints, similar to Victor Shehaidie, but quite different... musical “stars” of the Levant like Oum Kalthoum, Farid el-Atrache, Wadi’ Safi, Fairuz whose voice was like a bell-bird.... I don’t think I have ever heard another woman’s voice to compare with Fairuz, from the East or from the West, folk, classical or popular... she was in a league of her own, without compare.


So John, your gift of “Visions” is a wonderful magic carpet which carries me across lands, from high and low, and back and forth in time. It is plaintive, and for me, nostalgic; it is reflective and contemplative; it is adventurous, as in improvised, but like Coltrane it is rigorous at the same time. I think this music would appeal greatly to Egberto Gismonti as there is much in it which reminds me of his music.


So young “John of the many gifts”, this is a great find. I will relish this CD over the years. I would like to play it for Eddie and Joe, but I fear they have abandoned their musical heritage... maybe not. We’ll see.




February 2008