Lloyd Swanton – Ambon (Bugle Records)

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Ambon is a small island about 1,000 kilometres north of Darwin, now part of the Malaku Islands of Indonesia. During the second world war it was a major Dutch military base that was captured by the Japanese, and in late 1941 Australia sent the Gull Force, a battalion of more than 1,200 young and mostly inexperienced soldiers to the island to defend it. Within days they were all captured by the vastly superior Japanese naval forces who invaded the island and incarcerated the Australian prisoners in their own barracks for the rest of the war. It was a futile military exercise which was questioned in newspapers at the time, but went ahead nonetheless, and caused unimaginable suffering to a large number of Australians.

Among the men who didn’t survive was Lloyd Swanton’s uncle Stuart, in whose memory this major work in Australian jazz was composed, performed and recorded. At just under two hours, with a CD booklet of 19 highly moving pages written by Swanton, providing extensively researched background on Stuart Swanton’s life and death, a day before the Japanese surrendered and the Asian Pacific war ended, and numerous anecdotes, diary extracts – Stuart was the only soldier on Ambon known to have kept a diary, in coded shorthand and at great risk of torture or death – and photos, composer’s notes and other details, it is a substantial piece of work which commemorates a dark and little known episode in Australian military history. Ambon was first performed at the newly opened Blue Mountains Theatre in Springwood, NSW, in June 2015, by a 12 piece extended line-up of musicians from Swanton’s group The Catholics, with back projections of images from the biography of Swanton’s uncle, and again at the Wangaratta Festival in October. A double CD (on Swanton’s label Bugle) and mp3 release came shortly after. Incorporating spoken word by Swanton from his uncle’s diary in a particularly moving track entitled ‘Blessed Holy Spirit’, using a brass band rendition of a hymn composed by Stuart Swanton, it is a powerful composition that deserves to be widely heard, if not seen (unfortunately I was overseas at the time of the performances).

Starting with one of the three hymns Stuart Swanton composed, Christ the King, arranged for brass band, with solos by Alex Silver on trombone and Paul Cutland on saxophone and clarinet, it sets a rather solemn tone which becomes just a shade jaunty, emphasising the humour that kept the prisoners going along with Stuart’s strong Christian faith. Swanton discovered that 80 percent of music on Ambon consists of Christian hymns with a strong brass and wind band tradition, so it is an apt opening. It is followed by ‘Ambiont Jungle’, a 14 minute piece evoking the island’s exotic tropical environment, showcasing most of the ensemble, with percussion on Javanese kendang drums by Ron Reeves, a sax solo by Sandy Evans, and other percussion by Fabian Hevia. As Swanton notes, ‘this is a place that is home to butterflies of such electric blue vividness that they look like a tear in the fabric of the universe’. We then go into Island String Band Suite, a Suite within this overall Suite involving a series of Camp Concerts, featuring the viola that Stuart Swanton owned, unheard since the 1930s, played by James Eccles, and sounding surprisingly pristine.

The inner suite is loosely based on the instrumentation of actual camp concerts Stuart took part in, playing a one-string bass made from a meat case and a piece of copper signal wire, along with ukelele by Chuck Morgan and soaring pedal steel by Michael Rose. Again this draws on Ambon music, which Swanton tells us has a considerable amount of Hawai’ian-influenced slide guitars. He describes the result as ‘simple, winsome melodies and chord progressions’, but they are more sophisticated than that. The first part is entitled ‘1,288 Wonderful Ways With Rice’, based on the consistent diet the soldiers were subjected to over the period they spent incarcerated. Stuart died of beriberi, a disease caused by Vitamin B deficiency due to low-grade rice, which has alarming symptoms, including the inability to walk. Disc One concludes movingly with the aforementioned ‘Blessed Holy Spirit’.

Disc Two begins with Camp Concert II, an irreverent 14 minute ‘Top Brass’, dedicated to the military elite who sent Gull Force up to Ambon, an extended raspberry which also acknowledges the prisoners who had to make do with damaged and makeshift instruments, and featuring such oddities as a tenor sax without a mouthpiece, the slide section of a trombone, handclaps, footstomps, a bass clarinet played with a second performer providing chopstick percussions on the bell, and a tenor saxophone with a tuba mouthpiece played while a second performer holds down all the keys. The result is something of a cacophony, beginning with a conch-like sound, and producing a few expected breathing and farting noises, but in all perhaps a bit over-extended, although probably more entertaining seen in concert.

The final camp concert is entitled Darkest Days, with solos from Evans on tenor sax, James Greening on trombone, and some effective pedal steel guitar – again rather hymn-like. Meat Case Bass is Swanton’s double bass solo, paying homage to his uncle’s one-string bass, but on a far more sophisticated instrument. Big Noise from Hawthorn, dedicated to the place of Stuart’s upbringing, features Swanton and drummer Hamish Stuart both on double bass loaded with paper clips – Swanton stopping the strings with his left hand, Stuart playing the strings with his drumsticks. Apparently an old wartime RSL act, the result sounds rather like a balafon. Work Song: The Long Carry, commemorates what Swanton euphemistically refers to as ‘the Imperial Japanese Navy’s increasingly idiosyncratic theories on the interface between caloric intake and physical exertion’, providing music for a gruelling forced march involving ‘near-starving prisoners … haul[ing]240 pound bombs and 90-pound bags of cement up over steep mountain tracks between two villages eight miles apart’. The prisoners were forbidden to sing while they worked, so Swanton composed this rather gruesome sounding, 14 minute funereal march featuring a limping bass, along with solos by Greening on trombone and Jon Pease on guitar, with Rose’s pedal steel chiming in.

Just As I Am is the last of the three hymns composed by Stuart Swanton, again arranged for brass band, as is The Ambon Waltz, dedicated to the Ambon survivors making their way to the wharves to be taken home by the Australian navy. It features another Sandy Evans solo. As Swanton notes, ‘By the end, these men were little better than starving rats in a cage. We might all ask ourselves if we would keep our dignity and decency under such conditions’. The final track, Field Recording: Di Sana Ada Tuhan, incorporates a funeral hymn by an unknown Ambon composer, and evokes the actual Ambon environment. As one of Swanton’s interviewees, a survivor, noted: ‘this island is only six hundred miles due north of Darwin and there’s a cemetery there with over two thousand servicemen in it, mostly Australian’. Ambon stands as a powerful, moving and musically innovative memorial to these men and a little-known event in WW2 history.

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About Author

Tony Mitchell is an honoraray research associate at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has edited a number of books: on global hip hop (Global Noise, 2001), on Australian Popular Music (Sounds of Then, Sounds of Now, 2008), and New Zealand Music (Home Land and Sea, 2011). He is currently co-editing a book about Icelandic music.