Making music with a gum sheet is a unique and valuable part of history.
The heyday of gumleaf play peaked in the 1920s and 1930s, and Lake Wallaga on the south coast of New South Wales was considered the “mecca” of gumleaf play, with a gumleaf group at every mission or reserve of southeastern Australia.
Uncle Ossie Cruse, an elder from the south coast of New South Wales, knew many former leaf musicians from Lake Wallaga and Lake Tyers, and said he missed these uncles dearly, with links to both communities through through his parents.
“Because we grew up in a time of overt discrimination, we were more confident to play the sheet when we visited the missions at La Pérouse, Wreck Bay, Wallaga Lake and Lake Tyers,” Uncle Ossie said.
“I didn’t realize at that time that the gum-sheet game would fade the way it did. There were so many people playing gum-sheets in my youth.”
Beginning to play the gumleaf around the age of seven, Uncle Ossie demonstrated the art to hundreds of non-natives.
“I play because I love music and I want to please my God. I play to support the leaf tradition and ignite the cultural memories of my people in our region and beyond,” he said.
Uncle Herbert Patten worked throughout his life to raise the cultural and symbolic capital of the gum leaf instrument.
Born in Orbost, East Gippsland, Victoria, Uncle Herb grew up in the nearby colony of Newmerella. Herb has performed internationally and led Aboriginal Australia into wider arenas for sheet play.
Uncle Herb earned a Fine Arts degree from RMIT in 2005 and a Masters in Education through RMIT’s Koori Consort in 2007, and composed beautiful poems to gumleaf music during those studies.
After performing “My Island Home” at the 2007 Deadlys at the Sydney Opera House, Uncle Herb believes playing gumleaf is “enhancing his dream” and he aims to be “the best gumleaf player in the world”.
In June 2021, he represented Australia at the online Global Leaf Music Symposium.
My spirit speaks to me through my Gumleaf music, It seems to cure some of my ailments, It helps me to feel that the journey is safe, For today and for the future
Uncle Herb Patten Poetry, 2007
As the only Indigenous Australian to have made a living playing gumleaf, Uncle Herb currently plays in Melbourne at least four days a week, dressing in shades of green to complement the colors of his gumleaf.
He said playing the sheet every day has improved his breathing technique as well as his overall health. Above all, Uncle Herb said that the gumleaf satisfied his “search for consistency”.
Gunai (Gunnai) Elder Uncle Wayne Thorpe resides in the Lake Tyers Aboriginal Community in Krowatungaloong Clan Country, East Gippsland, Victoria and is a revered cultural teacher, songwriter and expert didgeriduist.
Uncle Wayne is known as Watbalimba Jeela, which means “Song and Dance Story Language with Humor”.
He earned a Masters in Education from Monash University and has lectured extensively on the cultural connection to the country.
The eldest said he played the gumleaf in honor of his great-grandfather’s teachings on the legacy left by the ancestors, “to keep it alive”.
“He showed me how to make sounds with a rounded, hedge-like leaf, which folds over and vibrates both edges of the leaf. He also taught me and instilled in me the spirit of our language,” said Uncle Wayne.
“I showed others how to play, told them about foil theory and playing techniques, and left it to them to practice and find their way of playing.”
Festival to celebrate gumleaf players
This weekend’s Giiyong Festival in Eden on the south coast of NSW will feature these great gumleaf players.
Far South South Coast elder Uncle Ossie Cruse has invited four of Australia’s finest gumleaf players to join him for a special performance at the cultural festival to be held at Jigamy Farm near Eden on April 9.
Coincidentally, the performance by the Giiyong Gumleaf Band will mark the centenary of the Wallaga Lake Gumleaf Band, which toured in the 1920s.
As the iconic musical instrument of the Australian continent, the gumleaf has been widely studied and the Giiyong Festival said it was proud to present five performers from Victoria and NSW for a unique historic performance.
Jazz Williams, project manager of the Giiyong festival, said South East Arts had received funding to support Uncle Ossie Cruse’s vision.
“Bringing together these unique musicians is very important, so we hired a documentary film crew to work with the men all week and capture their stories and rehearsals,” Jazz said.
“A set of beautiful music is being developed to uplift Giiyong audiences and introduce many people to this traditional native sound.”
The performers are Uncle Ossie Cruse AM (Eden), Uncle Ossie Stewart (Batemans Bay and Eden), Uncle Herb Patten (Melbourne), Uncle Wayne Thorpe (Lake Tyers, VIC) and Uncle James Goori Dungay (West Kempsey, NSW).
Uncle Wayne said he was “very excited to be invited to play in the Giiyong Gumleaf Band and I can’t wait for this event to be taped to show and get more people interested in keeping the legacy alive!”
Catch the Giiyong Gumleaf Band at the Giiyong Festival on Saturday, April 9 at 2:50 p.m.