Friendship, music and cultural cultivation: a yarn with La-Donna Hollingsworth

  • Music, Stories, Songs & Language, Highlights, Behind the Scenes

La-Donna Hollingsworth, Co-Composer of NINNI began her professional studies in music at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM). Here she met peer, friend and collaborator, David Page. In this yarn with La-Donna, she talks about the grounding that guided her towards a career in music, the social issues that compelled her to write, and the synergy between her and David that sparked the sound-world of NINNI.


My name is La-Donna Hollingsworth. I am a Djabugay, Kuuku Y’au woman from far North Queensland. So, Djabugay is around the Cairns area and Kuuku Y’au is Cape York, around the Pascoe River.

I am a musician, singer songwriter as well as a Community Engagement Officer with the local Health Service.

Music was really just an ordinary part of life for me because I came from a musical family. So, my mother is a pianist, she plays the piano. My father plays guitar. They both used to sing ... and my father’s brother, he was a performer as well. He used to sing and he used to dance … like, he was in Sydney back in the day. And he sang on the first Mortein advertisement in Australia on TV and he used to perform with the likes of Little Patty … so, I guess I was surrounded by music.

And my parents are Christians and my father is a Minister so we grew up in the church singing … and there's seven of us children so we’d - me and my other two sisters (older two sisters) - we used to sing as a trio ... so yeah, it was … um yeah, just normal. I started playing guitar when I was about 8 and it just went from there.

Probably round in my early teenage years, going into high school, I started thinking about it then … and by fifteen, I was performing in a band, then … so then, I knew by then, when I finished High School, I was going to go do music … so, I graduated year twelve, then I took off - went to The Centre for Aboriginal Studies of Music, part of the University of Adelaide - and that’s where I met David. That was in 1981 … yeah. And I still remember the day that we met - and how we just hit it off like that, you know.

We were both studying the same thing, yeah ... so we went for a drink after work across the road at the British Hotel … and um, he reckoned to me “where you from, bub?” [laugh] And I told him I was from Cairns and I said “where are you from?”. He said Brisbane, and then us two just went “aaayyyy” and that was it then [laugh].

I think because we hit it off, that was the basis for it … so then we started … obviously we were in classes together and what they used to do was they’d form bands, amongst different students, you know? … so, we had a similar taste in music so we ended up in a band. Bit by bit, we just started working together ... we’d sit down and jam together, or we’d come up with stuff like that, you know, just from muckin’ around really … yeah.

Well, I think we were a little bit before our time; I mean I know funk was around then … um, so … but not a lot of blackfullas were doing funk. You know, it was really Country ‘n’ Western that people were into, or Reggae.

We formed this band called As You Are, which was of course based on the philosophy of accepting people as you are … and um … so it was a funk, jazz, RnB fusion band … and I mean we were pretty good, I gotta say that! Not bragging but … but I think we were before our time.

Had we been around in today’s time, it would have been a totally different story so I don’t know that … people really liked it but I don’t know that people were ready for it because they thought it was really odd that there were these blackfullas up there doing this style of music ... and it was all original music too … so, yeah, that’s how we started at that time.

So we wanted to be a band that had um … a social conscience and we were all about self determination too, which was a big thing at the time, you know. And I guess, there was some influence from America but we were really focused on what was happening for us here in Australia.

So there weren’t too many songs that we did about love ... um … I think we all had a little be more depth than that and wanted to sing about real things and issues things that were happening. I mean, my Grandmother was taken when she was about eight and brought all the way from Cape York to Yarrabah which is just outside of Cairns ... and so I’ve written a song about her and that removal … um … but my mother too … she was put on a mission. I mean, her parents were on a mission too but they lived in the dormitories … and so right throughout my musical life, I’ve always sung about those sorts of things.

I suppose for me and David it was interesting – well for me even, in particular coming from Cairns – we didn’t see people on the streets; to go to somewhere like Adelaide and you see blackfullas on the streets, you know, it was a real eye opener to the realities of the world. Those were some of the issues that we sang about … but also issues like homelessness … that we … because we noticed a lot of that. I mean one of David’s songs, too, was about ‘using’, you know … and ‘cause we seen a lot of that too, as well. It was interesting to go from somewhere like Cairns where it was quite tame at the time … there was ganja everywhere but nothing beyond that … to go to a city and see blackfullas actually into the hard stuff, you know, and their lives just like all over the place because of it … but I think you have these perceptions of what your people are like and then you see that and think whoa, you know, yeah … another reality I guess. I’ve always sung about those sorts of things … and also about being proud of who we are, you know. You often don’t get the positive reinforcements … and so I think, as musicians too, you have an opportunity to share those sorts of stories or sing about them … and share it with other people and music is such a universal way of communicating, you know, so it’s a real opportunity to, to get the stories out there and to share with other people … to raise peoples’ awareness levels and understandings of what really did happen in Australia.

We have our traditional music and we have our traditional stuff which is so important; we can’t lose sight of it … but we live in this modern world and our people also need to know how to survive in this kind of, you know … in the world that we’re in – particularly our young people I think … they um … we only were having this conversation yesterday around how do we maintain culture with our young people where they’re still able to survive in today’s world … and so looking at digital technology in order to do that, you know. Traditional dance is being passed on through a digital method. David and I did a lot of that melding of the two as well … you know, the contemporary music, by putting in elements of the traditional music as well … so I think it’s um, important that we do that because I think we run the risk, otherwise, of losing it - losing our traditional stuff … if we don’t find new tools in order to pass that stuff on … so yeah, I’m a great believer of the importance of both.

I remember back in, I think it was the early 90’s, I can’t remember the exact year but I know I drove over to Sydney and we did a show at Side Show Theatre. I’m pretty sure that was like in 1990. Marrickville was where the theatre was, yeah … so we were a pair of buskers. Our role was to come in between each of the dance acts … I mean we’d pretty much bounce off each other really well … so he’d say “bub, we’ll do this” and I’d say “yeah, yeah ok then let’s do this” - and then we’d just do it.

So that was really good about the creative process between us two because we could just do that … we didn’t have to rehearse it over and over … we just looked at each other and we knew what the other was thinking and just do it … ‘cause back in Adelaide, we used to do duets together so we’d go round and perform but we’d change the songs up - it would only just be us two: me and a keyboard … him? … what was he doing? … he wasn’t doing anything – he was just singing and performing [laugh] … but we’d change up the songs … and then we’d have everyone up dancing … and um … yeah, so it worked, it worked really well … but that was the first time.

Working on NINNI was a really special time ... I think because … it was just him and I in the studio … for days and days and days and days … and we’d go until late, you know ... such a … an intimate time between him and I though … to produce that stuff … just the whole creative process - but just being together like that … I really value that, I really do. That’s probably my most favourite time with him … yeah. To be involved in the company like that … what a great um … experience it was. It was a challenge but - and we talked about this, David and I - how you, as a singer/songwriter or songwriter, you want to create this whole piece of music, you know … but with dance it was different - you could only do these short bits and edit them. It had to be all about the dance, not about the music … and we laughed about this because I think we thought we’d actually over done it … because the music was so good and everybody kept asking us about the music but you know we didn’t want the focus to be on the music – it had to be on the dance … so it’s a completely different way of, ah, writing because you’ve got to listen to what their story is and what they’re trying to portray.

And you often came from your own, from yourself, you know, when your writing um, songs and stuff … so you have to be able to interpret what that chorographer wants … and because it’s dance, even the timing and the cues in the piece … we had to be mindful of all that, you know, so that dancers could pick up things and know when they were going to move, you know differently. Yeah, so it was a challenge but it was really, really exciting, ay, the opportunity to work with such talented people … and because Rachael was doing the acting … so again you had to consider that, because she sang one of the songs that we wrote … and then I met Djakapurra – what can you say? – totally amazing to work with him too … and while I’d done stuff with um … mob from ‘round Indulkana and that … um … he was completely different again … but they bring such wealth of experience and knowledge and … in their own fields … um … it’s great to collaborate across the board with, yeah, with them. It was unreal.

Outside of David and my’s relationship, it’s knowing Stephen … the dancers ... getting to live in Sydney for 3 or 4 months … what an eye opener that was [laugh] … and it made me appreciate home more … um ‘cause I don’t know that I’m a go, go, go person … but um … yeah, look … oh I was the belle of the ball after that. Come home - everyone thought I was really deadly … and I did too, mind you … um … lots of different memories and lots of life changing experiences and um … something I’ll never forget, that’s for sure! It added to my experience and it gave me opportunity to do projects and other things that I would never have been able to do without that … um … so yeah, it’s influenced everything after I did that … yeah, for sure. It was really fulfilling to see that the music that David and I had put together was worth something to other people. Like what an honour that it is! Yeah, it was really ... it was so, so special.

The people … that, you know, that was a real, um, that’s a real valuable memory for me … lifelong friendships, even from that one production - again another um, life changing experience … but just the opportunity, I think, to experience a whole new world.

Transcript Jacqui Toso