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September 21st 2009 print

Culture catcher: 16

“There’s places on this island we can’t walk through; there’s this horrible feelin’ you get. There’s terrible things been done, and tho’ we don’t know what exactly, nobody will go there.”

Media release from Magabala Books, September 2009: 

Ronnie: Tasmanian Songman 

It is a Tasmanian story that colonial settlers never wanted told. The last of the Aboriginal bloodline was supposed to perish at The Reserve on Cape Barren Island, along with its culture, story and song. 

Our people who had been on this island for 30,000 years or more were shot like kangaroos and poisoned like dogs. They died of European diseases and they were taken from their land…There’s places on this island we can’t walk through; there’s this horrible feelin’ you get. There’s terrible things been done, and tho’ we don’t know what exactly, nobody will go there. 

Ronnie: Tasmanian Songman is the story of musician, storyteller and craftsman. Ronnie Summers recalls the freedom of growing up on Cape Barren Island and how the music passed on by his uncles and the Island’s old fellas has shaped his life. He draws on a childhood working the mutton-bird islands, a ‘kangaroo court’ prison term as a bewildered teenager, and then turning to alcohol after the death of his baby son. 

It wasn’t until later in life that he discovered he was part of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community. At last, guided by the power of his ancestry, he was able to turn his life around. Born an ‘Islander’—not Aboriginal, not white—he had been without race. This story documents his struggle for a place in his own country, and echoes and amplifies that of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community.

Ronnie Summers is a wild island boy who has overcome racism and the bottle to find power in his ancestry. Here is a story of a Tasmanian Aboriginal elder who is full of life and music and bonded to the land of his birth. Deeply committed to motivating a rising generation, Ronnie’s story provides a rich perspective for Australians who are interested in Tasmania’s past, present and future Aboriginal cultural identity, says Senator Bob Brown.

Ronnie Summers has received a Centenary of Federation Award, a National Reconciliation Award, been nominated three times for Tasmanian Aboriginal of the Year, was the first Tasmanian Aboriginal to perform at an AFL game, and is an educator of children on Aboriginal culture and traditions. 

Ronnie: Tasmanian Songman includes a CD featuring the music of Cape Barren Island—a unique blend of Cajun, Blues, Country and Folk now recognised as a rare example of Australian musical folklore. 

Ronnie: Tasmanian Songman is available from 14 October and is published by Magabala Books, a non-profit Aboriginal Corporation that aims to promote, preserve and publish Indigenous Australian Culture.