Al Mulligan sits with his guitar in his burnt out lounge room. His partner Annie lost three pianos. Both their houses were lost in the fires.
Al Mulligan sits with his guitar in his burnt out lounge room. His partner Annie lost three pianos. Both their houses were lost in the fires.

Songs and stories emerge from the ashes

IT IS well known that music is great therapy. Whether actively playing it or kicking back and listening to it, it has the power to brings people together and lift-spirits when the chips are down. It can also help to tell stories, and for familiar Clarence musical duo Hugh Murray and Grace Hickey, bringing this sentiment to the bushfire-ravaged village of Nymboida has been a beneficial experience all-round.

Mid-north coast based performer Hugh, well-known for his travelling outfit Stompin' Ivories, met Clarence Valley singer/songwriter Grace at a mutual friend's wedding in Maclean three years ago and the creative pair instantly gelled.

Since then they have been travelling across the country on a musical odyssey writing songs, recording, playing festivals, old halls and under the occasional Hills hoist.

In December last year, after the fires hit Nymboida, they received an impromptu invite to roll Hugh's well travelled piano into the village to play at the Rural Fire Service Christmas party which had been opened up to the entire community and from there the kinship was cemented.

"We had already been heading back and forth to Nymboida to drop in and see how our friend Ian Casey was doing after the firestorm. Some of our last album was recorded with Ian at the house he fought to save."

 

Grace and Hugh get a hand with the piano from Nymboida fire captain Paul Johnstone.
Grace and Hugh get a hand with the piano from Nymboida fire captain Paul Johnstone.

As the pair were driving through Nana Glen having played a show at Raleigh Hall, Ian Casey called to ask if they happen to have the piano in tow.

"He said 'we've got two pigs on a spit at the hall … but no live music'. Next thing we know five hefty blokes were lifting our piano up off the hall floor and onto the hall stage, kids were climbing in and out the windows, speeches of thanks were being made, donated food and drinks were being prepared to be served up by volunteers.

"The whole thing turned into a bit of a release for everyone, they said it felt like the first moment of normality they had since the fires hit."

The moving experience immediately began to sow the seeds for Hugh and Grace's other creative penchant, filming true stories and bringing them to life.

"These projects are big part of our musical journey across Australia so that night at the Nymboida Hall we just started filming peoples' stories. We are always looking to do things like this but nothing was planned on this occasion. It was just spontaneous"

Their creative connection with the village has since inspired a yet-to-be named song and plans for a documentary about Nymboida's journey through the fires and its recovery through the eyes of the villagers.

Musicians Grace Hickey and Hugh Murray in Nymboida. The pair have written a song about the village fires and are working on a documentary.
Musicians Grace Hickey and Hugh Murray in Nymboida. The pair have written a song about the village fires and are working on a documentary.

"There are a lot of creative people living up there who lost everything. One guy managed to save his guitar while his partner lost all her instruments. Another lady lost three pianos. We've spent a good part of a month on and off up there recording all these different stories."

Hugh and Grace are also planning on working on another special collaboration with Nymboida at its centre, that calls on the talents of many musicians from the region.

After being invited by South Grafton Bendigo Bank to headline a gala concert at the Christ Church Cathedral to celebrate the bank's 20th year in Grafton, the Clarence Valley Conservatorium were also slated to appear so the idea to join forces to perform the 'Nymboida song' was on the agenda.

 

Flute-maker and instrument repairer Eva Staehelin’s workshop was destroyed along with its contents.
Flute-maker and instrument repairer Eva Staehelin’s workshop was destroyed along with its contents.

"We were going to film and record that and then do a separate performance out at Nymboida. Unfortunately the coronavirus pandemic has now postponed both performances to 2021."

In the meantime Hugh and Grace are heading back to Nymboida periodically to continue filming while working on their original song about the village. It's a bit of hybrid of storytelling through people and music. The beautiful thing about this project is that it's all as it happens. It's all very real."

You can check out all of Grace and Hugh's travels at www.graceandhugh.com or find them on facebook @graceandhughmusic



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